John Perry Barlow: I dis­cov­ered the Internet, or came to find out that it exist­ed, in 1985 I believe it was. No, per­haps 84. I mean I actu­al­ly got online in 85. And this was because I had been writ­ing songs for a band in the United States called the Grateful Dead, and also because I was think­ing about the future of com­mu­ni­ty in America. Because I came from a small agri­cul­tur­al town that…was a real com­mu­ni­ty. I mean when peo­ple even use the word now they don’t know what it means I think in many cas­es. But this was a place where every­body real­ly lit­er­al­ly count­ed on one anoth­er in a life and death kind of way. And I thought well you, know this kind of place is going to go away. Because it’s so heav­i­ly depen­dent on fam­i­ly ranch­ing and farm­ing. And I think that it offers kind of spir­i­tu­al nutri­tion that peo­ple need. So what’s gonna replace this? 

And I was look­ing at the fol­low­ers of the Grateful Dead who had a…a community-like thing. I mean it actu­al­ly resem­bled some of the aspects of life in my lit­tle town the way they count­ed on each oth­er and the way they inter­act­ed ran­dom­ly and knew each oth­er. And I want­ed to study them and see how they real­ly oper­at­ed in a more rig­or­ous­ly anthro­po­log­i­cal way. 

But the prob­lem was that I was kind of a deal as far as they were con­cerned. They had a some­what mis­placed, slight­ly reli­gious view of who we in the band or the cre­ative end of things were. And so I’d come around them try­ing to find out what things were like with them, and imme­di­ate­ly alter the thing that I was look­ing at. And I had a friend who was the founder of the com­put­er music lab at Stanford who said, Well one way you could prob­a­bly study the Deadheads with­out them notic­ing would be to watch them on the Internet.”

And I said, What do you mean watch them on the Internet?”

And she said, Well, there are news­groups on the Internet where they gath­er. And they’re con­tin­u­ous. They’re sort of the vil­lage square that they use for con­tin­u­ous inter­ac­tion. You were won­der­ing where that was, well that’s where it is.”

So, I had a com­put­er which I was using most­ly because I was writ­ing screen­plays and it was a much bet­ter form of white-out. If you rewrite a screen­play you have to retype the entire damn thing all over again. And also I was a run­ning cat­tle ranch and I had some of the ranch account­ing that I was doing on it. And I got myself a 300 baud modem, which had a suc­tion cup that fit on a tele­phone receiv­er. Didn’t have any­thing that could eas­i­ly be called an own­er’s man­u­al, it just had a bunch of Hayes com­mand terms that you were sup­posed to fig­ure out how to enter with your computer. 

So it took me a while to get this thing to con­nect to the TimeNet num­ber that I’d been giv­en to con­nect to the Internet—and she’d giv­en me an Internet account at Stanford. And I got online and you know, strug­gled my way to the Grateful Dead news­group. But in the process…I had this I think gen­uine­ly reli­gious expe­ri­ence of feel­ing, sens­ing, see­ing, that what I was look­ing at, thin as it was…just reduced to these lit­tle glow­ing char­ac­ters on a screen, was this infinitely-expansive social space that every human being on the plan­et would be in at some point. We would all be there togeth­er, simultaneously. 

And it res­onat­ed with me for anoth­er rea­son because I’d been a big fan in col­lege of the works of a French the­olo­gian named Teilhard de Chardin who had writ­ten in the 30s I believe…it was­n’t pub­lished until the 50s, a set of the­or— He was an evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­rist and a pale­on­tol­o­gist and a Jesuit priest and a num­ber of things. And he’d writ­ten this notion that evo­lu­tion had this tele­o­log­i­cal thrust, where things were get­ting more and more advanced, and com­plex, and sophis­ti­cat­ed. Which you know, seems some­what evi­dent if you com­pare us to single-cell organ­isms. But his idea was that very short­ly the evo­lu­tion­ary process would take leave of phys­i­cal mat­ter and become a thing that was evolv­ing out of thought itself. And we would have the next lay­er of evo­lu­tion be some­thing he called the noos­phere (N O O). And that would be made out of thought and consciousness. 

And I had been very intrigued by that notion, it felt right to me. And when I saw the Internet at I thought ha. Here we are. This is the ner­vous sys­tem of the col­lec­tive organ­ism of mind, already under­way in its devel­op­ment. And I decid­ed almost imme­di­ate­ly that this was some­thing that I want­ed to facil­i­tate in any way that could be open to me, because it just seemed like the great work that human­i­ty was about to embark on, or already had embarked on. 

And at that point I don’t sup­pose there were 200,000 peo­ple in the world with an email address. But it already been going on for a while. I mean the Internet had been in exis­tence since 1969, and this was 85 so you know. It was­n’t like a brand new thing, but it was… I would say it was new enough so that there were—I was the only cat­tle ranch­er on it. [laughs]. Just about every­body on it was com­ing from a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent angle. Which enabled me to per­ceive things about it that I think were lit­tle hard­er for some of the folks that were using it at that point to see. Since a lot of them were still just try­ing to get a pack­et to go from A to B and try­ing to fig­ure out why it would­n’t a lot of the time and deal­ing with the tech­ni­cal issues and not ful­ly per­ceiv­ing just how huge this was. I mean I felt then I con­tin­ue to feel and have tak­en a cer­tain mea­sure of crap for say­ing that this is the most impor­tant tech­no­log­i­cal event in the his­to­ry of human­i­ty since the cap­ture of fire. 

And you could real­ly say that it’s been going on for longer than peo­ple think it has. I mean I would mark the begin­ning of this—whatever we call this—the Internet, to be that point—and I think it was…1837 when Samuel F.B. Morse tapped out What Hath God Wrought?” in Washington, DC and some­one read it simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in Baltimore. As soon as you could com­mu­ni­cate instan­ta­neous­ly at a dis­tance like that, then every­thing changed. And changes more and more all the time. 

But that was what got me inter­est­ed in it to begin with and you know, I did­n’t… For a long time I did­n’t know what it was that I was going to be able to do that would be use­ful out­side of learn every­thing I pos­si­bly could about it—how it worked and what was going on it and that kind of thing. But I did depart the cat­tle busi­ness in 1988 and was look­ing around for what I want­ed to do next, and I thought that the most impor­tant thing that I could do would be to start think­ing and writ­ing about the Internet in terms of the social and polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic and philo­soph­i­cal and even reli­gious aspects of what this might do in the world, because I could eas­i­ly imag­ine it chang­ing every­thing. I mean, I could eas­i­ly imag­ine it caus­ing there to be a fun­da­men­tal rene­go­ti­a­tion of all the exist­ing pow­er rela­tion­ships on the plan­et, in a rel­a­tive­ly short time. And nobody seemed to be writ­ing or talk­ing about that and so you know, I did­n’t have any cre­den­tials to speak of. I thought well, I can prob­a­bly know as much about this as the next guy pret­ty quickly. 

And I got to know the peo­ple who had been work­ing on it. Spent a lot of time around them real­ly real­ly appre­ci­at­ing how blessed we had been with the qual­i­ty of those peo­ple who actu­al­ly were very aware in many cas­es of what it was that they were doing. And maybe they weren’t writ­ing about it nec­es­sar­i­ly, but they were cer­tain­ly think­ing about it. 

And then, in late 89… By that time I’d got­ten onto some­thing called The WELL, which was­n’t con­nect­ed to the Internet, it was a bul­letin board. And it had been start­ed by Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly. Stewart Brand had writ­ten done the Whole Earth Catalog, had Whole Earth Review mag­a­zine, and Kevin Kelly even­tu­al­ly became the edi­tor of Wired. But they’d put togeth­er a com­put­er bul­letin board that was real­ly the dig­i­tal salon of its time. I mean there were a lot of extreme­ly artic­u­late, thought­ful, lit­er­ary peo­ple on the WELL. And there was a con­tin­u­ous set of dis­cus­sions going on there that was very fruit­ful to be part of. 

And Harper’s Magazine— And you know, to this day I don’t know what inspired those guys to do this, but there were a cou­ple of edi­tors at Harper’s, one of them named Paul Tough and the oth­er one named Jack Hitt— Completely mis­named peo­ple. I mean…not at all vio­lent. But they had this idea that they want­ed to do a Harper’s forum on a bunch of items that were very per­ti­nent par­tic­u­lar­ly at the moment about what is for­bid­den knowl­edge, what is a secret, what is hack­ing, when is it wrong…you know, how do we define bar­ri­ers for infor­ma­tion and dig­i­tal envi­ron­ments. A whole bunch of these kinds of issues. And they asked me and sev­er­al oth­er peo­ple to be a part of this forum on the WELL

And there were these kids. They were phone phreaks, or ear­ly phone sys­tem hack­ers; what they real­ly were doing was break­ing into the tele­phone sys­tem and try­ing to cre­ate their own Internet because they did­n’t have access to the real thing. They were all like 14 years old. And they had these fear­some names like Phiber Optik—P H I B E R, O P T I K, and Acid Phreak, and Scorpion. They had an orga­ni­za­tion called the Legion of Doom. And they spent an awful lot of time strut­ting around like they were pret­ty dangerous. 

And they were irri­tat­ing, espe­cial­ly to an old hip­pie. And at one point I made some slight­ly insult­ing remark about how if some­body took away their modems and gave them skate­boards it would­n’t make a damn bit of dif­fer­ence. And this being true it real­ly irri­tat­ed them. So they down­loaded my entire cred­it record file into the con­fer­ence and said that they could change it at will if they felt like it. Which they could­n’t; they were brag­ging. But the fact remained, it scared me. Because you know, if you don’t have any cred­it in America you might as well be broke. 

So I said, Look. I think we’ve just exceed­ed the band­width of this medi­um. I would appre­ci­ate it if you’d give me a call and I won’t insult your intel­li­gence by giv­ing you my phone num­ber.” Which was list­ed any­way but they did­n’t know that. And imme­di­ate­ly I get this phone call from like six dif­fer­ent kids on dif­fer­ent phone booths in New York. They’ve all para­chut­ed in through the phone sys­tem. And their voic­es haven’t even changed yet. I mean they’re just kids. And I’m think­ing well. Oh I know where these kids are at. I mean they’re like I was when I was that age. They just want to vio­late the for­bid­den. And the for­bid­den they real­ly want to vio­late you know, is the usu­al one that teenage boys want to vio­late, but they haven’t come up with access to that yet so they’re doing stuff to the phone system. 

So I got to know em pret­ty well. I just an affin­i­ty for em. I mean the next thing I knew I was kind of like the scout mas­ter to the Legion of Doom. And then one day, one of em comes home and finds that his 12 year-old sis­ter has been held at gun­point for quite awhile by sev­er­al large men from the Secret Service while they remove every sin­gle elec­tron­ic item from his house. Like his clock radio and his Metallica tapes. I mean they’re just tak­ing it all.

And then I find that sev­er­al of them have had rough­ly the same expe­ri­ence. And I’m think­ing well maybe these kids are much worse than I thought. I mean this sounds like they must be doing some­thing pret­ty…bad or they would­n’t be get­ting such acute gov­ern­ment action all over em.

And it was about that time that I got a phone call from Special Agent Richard Baxter from the Rock Springs, Wyoming field office of the FBI. Who was a fel­la that I knew because he inves­ti­gat­ed live­stock theft and I’d had some cat­tle stolen at one point. He was pret­ty good on that stuff. And he was ner­vous as a cat in a room­ful of rock­ing chairs. He was just anx­ious and I… He said he want­ed to come up and talk to me but he could­n’t tell me what it was about on the phone. 

And I though oh God… I mean, I’m writ­ing songs for the Grateful Dead, I don’t want to have a vis­it from the FBI where he won’t tell me what it’s about, right. It just… It makes you uneasy. 

So he comes up and he’s very ner­vous and he has a ter­ri­ble time explain­ing to me what it is that he’s inves­ti­gat­ing. Cause he does­n’t under­stand it very well him­self, but grad­u­al­ly I under­stand that some­body has tak­en some of the source code from the ROM chip on the Macintosh. All that source code that dealt with the ear­ly ver­sion of QuickTime. And has sent var­i­ous bits of it out on flop­py disks to peo­ple in a protest against Apple’s closed archi­tec­ture. And has threat­ened to release the entire body of the source code. And Apple has freaked out and has told the FBI that some­body’s about to go out there giv­ing away the pre­cious Macintosh recipe. And in no time at all they’ll be mak­ing em in Taiwan and that’ll be the end of it. 

All of which is just non­sense, right. But he’s con­vinced that there’s a major eco­nom­ic crime about to take place, being per­pe­trat­ed by some­thing that he keeps call­ing the New Prosthesis League. It’s actu­al name was the New Prometheus League. But I mean that was just part of what he had wrong—he had every­thing wrong. 

And it was a really…disturbing expe­ri­ence. I mean you nev­er like to see real­ly inse­cure, highly-armed peo­ple in author­i­ty wan­der­ing around in places they don’t under­stand. Because trou­ble will come. And I felt you know, that what I was see­ing was the same thing that my friends from the Legion of Doom had been see­ing. And I’d also in the mean­time, I’d heard about some oth­er stuff like this going on. There’d been a role-playing game com­pa­ny in Austin, Texas that had had these Secret Service come in and just take every­thing in their office because they were doing a game called [Cyberpunk] that the Secret Service had decid­ed was a hand­book for com­put­er crime. 

And there was a kid in Indiana—or Illinois I guess it was, who was pub­lish­ing an online mag­a­zine called Phrack where he’d pub­lished a stolen doc­u­ment from the phone com­pa­ny about the 911 sys­tem. I mean you could buy this doc­u­ment from Bell Corp for twelve bucks but this was just sort of a tro­phy that he’d put up as being some­thing that he’d hacked out of the sys­tem. And he was being charged with the theft of $200,000 in property. 

And so…it was like that, you know. And I wrote some­thing about this, which I put on the WELL, called Crime and Puzzlement about the whole expe­ri­ence. And two days lat­er I got a phone call from Mitch Kapor, who had cre­at­ed Lotus 123. At that time it was the dom­i­nant spread­sheet soft­ware and it was kind of…Lotus as a com­pa­ny was kind of like Microsoft. I mean, for micro­com­put­ers it was a very big deal. And he was fly­ing his pri­vate jet over the United States and he had also had a vis­it from the FBI that he had­n’t told any­body about. And he’d read my piece. And so sud­den­ly he had a sup­port net­work, kind of. And he want­ed to just basi­cal­ly drop out of the sky and come talk to me about this, which he did. And we spent the after­noon and I told him every­thing I knew about Steve Jackson Games, and the Legion of Doom, etc. And we decid­ed that what we would do was get some civ­il lib­er­ties firm involved, since he could afford that, and reestab­lish the Constitution in what I had start­ed call­ing cyber­space” in that ini­tial piece. I mean, up to that point it did­n’t have a name, and I just bor­rowed Bill Gibson’s name for it and start­ed refer­ring to it is as that—I think that’s the first time any­body start­ed talk­ing about this as that. 

And so, we brought suit in sev­er­al cas­es. We start­ed to get some pub­lic­i­ty. And there were sud­den­ly a lot of peo­ple that want­ed to get involved. Steve Wozniak came for­ward and gave us a hun­dred grand. John Gilmore who is still very much an inte­gral part of EFF came for­ward. He sent me an email and he… I did­n’t know him very well. He sent me an email and he said like, I don’t have the kind of mon­ey that Mitch has but would $100,000 help?” That was all it said. I said yes. [laughs]

But you know, we had­n’t been at this very long before we start­ed to real­ize that we were… This was not just gonna be a sim­ple mat­ter of clar­i­fy­ing the appli­ca­tion of the First Amendment to bits. Or the Fourth Amendment to com­put­er files. And in fact at one point after we’d made a lit­tle pub­lic­i­ty, I got an email from some kid who had crawled across the bor­der into Finland from what was still the Soviet Union in order to send me an email say­ing, Well that’s all great, but what about us? We don’t even have a First Amendment or a Fourth Amendment.”

And I real­ized that you know, it was anoth­er one of those sort of come-to-Jesus moments where I real­ized that in cyber­space nobody had a First Amendment, real­ly. And nev­er would. Because the thing is, all rights derive nat­u­ral­ly from the abil­i­ty to deny rights. All rights are the flip side of coer­cive. And you know, if you’ve got an envi­ron­ment where it’s very dif­fi­cult to impose your­self on human beings, which it is there…I mean for all of their efforts to make it so…it’s very dif­fi­cult to con­vey the oppo­site of that impo­si­tion as well. 

So we knew that what we could do for a while was to use the law, espe­cial­ly in places like the United States where there was one that we could apply. But ulti­mate­ly the real thing was going to have to be influ­enc­ing the archi­tec­ture of the Internet, as it grew, so that it went on hav­ing those inter­est­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of lead­er­less­ness and prac­ti­cal anar­chy that it had had since it was born. And that would con­vey, to some extent, a lot of those rights. And we also were very aware that the Internet was prob­a­bly going to grow into some­thing that would be like the most sophis­ti­cat­ed tool for sur­veil­lance that human beings had ever derived, and we’re now see­ing just how true that is. 

But we had this faith that if the archi­tec­ture were pre­served in its open state, that it was con­ceiv­able to us that the Internet would even­tu­al­ly be some­thing where anybody anywhere could say what­ev­er they want­ed. And nobody would be in a posi­tion to stop them. And that any­body any­where could learn as much as could then be known about any­thing that peo­ple stud­ied. And that that, from the stand­point of Teilhard de Chardin’s glob­al organ­ism of mind, would be a pret­ty sig­nif­i­cant human development. 

So that’s what EFF has done, what I have done, in the twenty-some-odd years since that, is to be con­tin­u­ous­ly at work on keep­ing choke­points from form­ing around the Internet. Keeping legal con­trols from being imposed. Minding the archi­tec­ture a lot. I mean I’ve spent a huge amount of time… I real­ized in about 1993 that the most like­ly way in which the pow­ers that had been would be able to con­trol infor­ma­tion on the Internet was going to be through intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty law. The claim that one could own speech would be the means by which peo­ple would be able to stop its flow because they would say, No, that’s my speech. That can’t flow.” Or expres­sion of what­ev­er sort it might be. 

So I wrote a piece called The Economy of Ideas for Wired in 93, and that was, you know… I will immod­est­ly say that I think that was one of the most impor­tant things any­body said at that point about the Internet because nobody was think­ing about it in those terms. Nobody real­ized yet that there was…that it— If you had an envi­ron­ment where you could repro­duce any­thing that a human being could cre­ate with this mind, infi­nite­ly at zero cost, and dis­trib­uted infi­nite­ly at zero cost, the whole notion of copy­right was just out the win­dow. And besides, copy­right exist­ed in the first place to pro­tect this man­u­fac­tur­ing process that had to be there in order to spread ideas since you did­n’t have anoth­er way to do it besides embed­ding them in a phys­i­cal object which was man­u­fac­tured and had to be— And that cost mon­ey and you had to ship the thing around, and that cost mon­ey. And so you need­ed some­thing to pro­tect to peo­ple that were mak­ing those objects. 

But sud­den­ly you did­n’t. And the peo­ple who’d been mak­ing those objects thought that what they were real­ly sell­ing was the wine and not the bot­tles. They were real­ly in the bot­tling because, they did­n’t know any­thing about the wine busi­ness. And they were gonna get very aggres­sive about try­ing to main­tain their busi­ness mod­el as it became com­plete­ly irrel­e­vant. Which it has.

And so that’s been a big part of what we’ve done. I mean at the time that I wrote that I think I might’ve been one of four peo­ple on plan­et Earth that thought this was a prob­lem. Now I would say I’ve got entire armies of peo­ple who agree with me on this. 

What else? I mean I at a cer­tain point popped off and wrote a doc­u­ment called the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace which I real­ly did not intend to become some canon­i­cal doc­u­ment. I mean, I’d been to the World Economic Forum and I’d seen all this sort of strut­ting around in the twi­light of the nation-state. And the United States gov­ern­ment had just signed into law some­thing called the Communications Decency Act which made it a felony to say fuck” online. And giv­en the fact that I’d heard many of those words that were now felo­nious to speak in dig­i­tal media in the Senate din­ing room, I knew this was­n’t going to go very well. 

And so I dashed this thing off in the mid­dle of a par­ty, real­ly. And sent it out to my friends, and it became— I don’t know. I think you can prob­a­bly find it on sev­er­al hun­dred thou­sand web sites. 

And peo­ple now pay more atten­tion— And it goes through peri­ods of being laughed at and then tak­en seri­ous­ly. There was a time there where peo­ple real­ly thought well, gov­ern­ments real­ly are going to…you know, they’re gonna win this thing, they’re going to real­ly take over. But I still have no strong rea­son to believe that sov­er­eign­ty in the sense that the nation-state thinks of it is going to ever be suc­cess­ful­ly imposed on cyber­space. And in fact I would say that more and more peo­ple are wak­ing up to the fact that the nation-state does­n’t have a ter­ri­bly good rea­son to go on exist­ing, because the main thing that it does is make war. 

Intertitle: Describe one of the break­through moments or move­ments of the Internet in which you have been a key participant.

Barlow: Well I mean there were… I think there were you know, quite a num­ber of moments. There was the time that EFF was try­ing to deal with the fact that they were try­ing to basi­cal­ly— Well they had suc­ceed­ed essen­tial­ly in out­law­ing strong cryp­tog­ra­phy by mak­ing cryp­to­graph­ic algo­rithms the equiv­a­lent of machine guns as far as the inter­na­tion­al trade in arms was con­cerned. So you could­n’t export the strong cryp­to piece of strong cryp­to soft­ware, or hard­ware that con­tained strong cryp­to. Which essen­tial­ly meant that there was no busi­ness for the peo­ple that would actu­al­ly be cre­at­ing such stuff. 

And we had this real­ly incred­i­bly clever insight that an encryp­tion algo­rithm was a form of speech. And that what they were essen­tial­ly doing was impos­ing pri­or restraint on speech, and that was uncon­sti­tu­tion­al, they could­n’t do that. And we man­aged to get some­thing called the Bernstein Decision and that stopped the con­trol of strong cryp­to, which I think was extreme­ly impor­tant because if it had­n’t been for that you would­n’t have any busi­ness going on on the net. It’d be impos­si­ble to do all the eco­nom­ic stuff that is rou­tine­ly done if you could­n’t have encrypt­ed things, as the NSA and the FBI want­ed it to be. Since they were much more wor­ried about con­trol­ling ter­ror­ism and child pornog­ra­phy than they were about cre­at­ing the future. And that’s…always the case. 

You know, I would say… I mean there’ve been some moments late­ly doing… Well set­ting up an orga­ni­za­tion which I recent­ly did with Daniel Ellsberg and John Cusack and sev­er­al oth­ers to see to the fund­ing of WikiLeaks and to work­ing out ways of keep­ing Mr. Snowden out of har­m’s way. Which I think has been— And also encour­ag­ing him and oth­ers like him to come for­ward. I mean, set­ting this thing up as being some­thing that would be pro­tec­tive for peo­ple like that. So when he decid­ed to come for­ward he con­tact­ed two peo­ple from this orga­ni­za­tion that is only sev­en or eight months old, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and got Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras to come and take his state­ment. So I mean that’s a more recent thing that’s sort of tied into the first thing. 

Oh gosh, what else. I mean Dave Farber, who you’re prob­a­bly also talk­ing to, and I were instru­men­tal in get­ting China on the Internet. Which was kind of a big moment. The Chinese Academy of Sciences had us come to Beijing in 93 to talk about the Internet along with Mitch Kapor. And we thought that was inter­est­ing. I mean we did­n’t know that they knew any­thing about it, real­ly. But there were five major research uni­ver­si­ties in China that were using TCP/IP as their inter­net­work­ing pro­to­col. And so we talked about how it was here, and we gave kind of an aca­d­e­m­ic talk. We did­n’t feel like China was like­ly to be very inter­est­ed in get­ting con­nect­ed to it. 

And then there was a din­ner after­wards where was seat­ed with this extra­or­di­nary woman named Madame Hu. ([chuck­les] Who’s on first?) And she was the vice chair of the acad­e­my of sci­ences and the per­son who was in charge of the Chinese com­put­er net­works. And is still the Chinese rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the Internet Society to this day. And we were hav­ing all these toasts and it was get­ting hard­er and hard­er to think. And I said, Before we have anoth­er toast, Madame Hu, I wan­na talk to you about the Internet.”

And she said, That’s good, that’s why you’re here.”

And I said, Well, I’ll just cut to the chase. I want China to be con­nect­ed to the Internet.”

And she said, That’s good, that’s why you’re here.”

And I said, China wants to be con­nect­ed to the Internet?”

She said, Of course we do.”

And I said, Well why aren’t you, then?”

And she said, Because your Department of Energy has the idea that if we get con­nect­ed to the Internet we’ll steal all your nuclear secrets.”

And I said, Well I woul­da thought 10,000 grad stu­dents could do a per­fect­ly fine job of that.”

And she said, Of course they could, and besides you don’t have that many.” 

You know, nuclear weapons are most­ly about hav­ing the indus­tri­al capac­i­ty to make that much weapons-grade ura­ni­um. And I said, Well alright. Surely there are some peo­ple in your gov­ern­ment that—” This was not that long after Tiananmen Square. I said, Surely there are some peo­ple in your gov­ern­ment that would be a lit­tle uncom­fort­able about hav­ing every stu­dent China have a glob­al print­ing press.”

And she said, Of course there are, but they would­n’t know that that was what this is. And I’ve always felt it’s bet­ter to apol­o­gize than ask permission.”

So we went back and talked to the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy and backed them down and got China connected. 

Intertitle: Describe the state of the Internet today with a weath­er anal­o­gy and explain why.

Barlow: Well I would say that it is as it almost always is, with a huge thun­der­head tak­ing up half the sky on one side and a glo­ri­ous blue sky on the oth­er, and dif­fi­cult to fig­ure out which direc­tion the wind’s mov­ing. But you know, the inter­est­ing thing about the Internet, and I’ve been fight­ing these bat­tles all along between the pow­ers of the past and the pow­ers of the future—and this real­ly is the entire indus­tri­al peri­od and even…you know, you can even say the entire peri­od of monothe­ism itself—up against the future. 

But so far it’s been what I would call a stale­mate. You get more and more and more and more peo­ple involved, big­ger and big­ger and big­ger forces engaged. But so far I’d say we’ve been beat­in’ em pret­ty much to a draw. Which will suf­fice, you know. And even­tu­al­ly, I would say that we can take some heart in the idea that most of the peo­ple who feel the way I do about this, are young. And most of the peo­ple who feel the way that they do about this, are old you know. And some day all you guys will be alive when they’re dead. And then I think the future can tru­ly get underway. 

Intertitle: What are your great­est hopes and fears for the future of the Internet?

Barlow: Well they haven’t changed all that much. I mean, my great­est hope, and the thing I’ve been work­ing for most of my life now, is that it will real­ize itself as being some­thing that makes it pos­si­ble for any­body to know any­thing that they’re capa­ble of know­ing. Which I think is a won­der­ful thought. Or that it will make it pos­si­ble for any­body that has some­thing impor­tant that oth­er peo­ple should hear to say it, with­out any fear of being shut up or coerced or that sort of thing. 

And my fear I think is probably…you know, deeply con­nect­ed with all of the things that I hope for in the sense that you know, human beings are flawed crea­tures. And a lot of what we want to say is real­ly kind of awful. And you know, we have eco­nom­ic ambi­tions that are find­ing all kinds of ugly new ways to man­i­fest them­selves and I think that’s a pity. And it cer­tain­ly becomes pos­si­ble to see prac­ti­cal­ly every­thing in peo­ple’s lives when you’re reel­ing out this dig­i­tal slime trail all the time now that can be rolled up, you know, and turned into you. 

And there’s almost no help for that, ulti­mate­ly. Now I don’t mind that but— I mean because I come from a small town where every­body knew every­thing about me any­way. But what’s got­ta hap­pen in order for this to be a safe state is that the insti­tu­tions have to become as trans­par­ent as the indi­vid­u­als. We can’t go on hav­ing greater and greater secre­cy in our insti­tu­tions and less and less pri­va­cy as peo­ple. And so that’s I think the biggest ques­tion of the moment right now. And if we don’t win that one, I can imag­ine a very grim future. I think we will. 

I mean you know, we are down to— Look at what’s going on with Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden. I mean that’s the tip of the ice­berg. There’s gonna be a lot more of that. Because you know, the gov­ern­ments and the great pow­ers of the indus­tri­al peri­od have done a lot of crum­my stuff, that is at min­i­mum embar­rass­ing. And they don’t want peo­ple to know about this. And sud­den­ly it’s gonna be very dif­fi­cult to keep peo­ple from know­ing about this unless they just go out and, you know, tor­ture to death every­body does some­thing about it. So it’s going to be pret­ty rough on the peo­ple that’re try­ing to change it for a while. 

Intertitle: Is there action that should be tak­en to ensure the best pos­si­ble future?

Barlow: What needs to hap­pen now is that every­body who knows any­thing that ought to be known by the rest of human­i­ty should reveal it. As hard as that will be. What needs to hap­pen now is that every­body should real­ize that we have, as a human right, the right to know, about every­thing that is human­ly applic­a­ble in any larg­er sense. About our gov­ern­ment, about sci­ence, about any­thing. That this is some­thing that has nev­er been pro­mul­gat­ed before because it was nev­er before pos­si­ble but it is now pos­si­ble. And it’s a right that we need to devel­op and assert. That’s the most impor­tant thing for us to be doing, I think. 

Intertitle: Is there any­thing else you would like to add?

Barlow: Well you know, I ful­ly expect that it’s gonna go on being basi­cal­ly the same con­test for quite a while. Like you know, it’s been the same con­test as long as I’ve been engaged in it. And it will go on being that con­test. And maybe that’s just the human con­test, is you know, the…control freaks ver­sus the anar­chists. Or the Apollonians ver­sus the Dionysians. It’s peo­ple who love lib­er­ty ver­sus peo­ple who fear it. It may just be actu­al­ly love ver­sus fear, in the final analysis. 

So there will always be that sort of thing. It’s a very pow­er­ful thing, the Internet. It’s cer­tain­ly capa­ble of doing a lot of harm and good at the same time. I mean, I like to say that I’ve been deal­ing with the Internet now long enough so that has actu­al­ly real­ized all of my dreams, and with them my worst nightmares.

Further Reference

John Perry Barlow pro­file, Internet Hall of Fame 2013