Mutale Nkonde: Good afternoon everybody. It is my absolute pleasure to be hosting this, what I hope will be a lively and entertaining conversation. My name’s Mutale Nkonde. I am a 2019–2020 fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. I like to call myself part of the COVID cohort. And this afternoon it is my absolute great pleasure to be hosting a conversation on how the manifesto of cyberspace could potentially be applied to these times.
It is my absolute pleasure to be working alongside Annabel Kupke, who will be monitoring our question and answer function. And just throwing it over to Annabel to tell us the rules of engagement for the day.
Annabel Kupke: Hi everyone. My name is Annabel. Thanks Mutale. We do have the chat disabled right now, but you can feel free throughout the webinar to submit questions via the Q&A. And we’ll be marking those as answered towards the very end when we start to engage in the question and answer.
Nkonde: Perfect. So, this is a conversation about John Perry Barlow’s work. So we thought that it would only be fitting to make sure that he too can be part of the discussion, and for those who don’t know really ground us in the themes of the day. So without further ado, let me introduce the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace.
Voiceover: John Perry Barlow is a former songwriter for the Grateful Dead, and the joint founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which lobbies for cyber rights. He shares Eric’s concerns for the future of free speech on the Internet.
John Perry Barlow: What we’re dealing with is the battle between the future and the past. Between the powers that were and the powers that have yet to be.
Voiceover: John believes the Internet will change the world much like the Industrial Revolution did at the end of the 19th century. He has crafted his own declaration of independence for the citizens of cyberspace.
Barlow: Governments of the Industrial World, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome here. You have no sovereignty where we gather. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.
So that’s the declaration, and that’s really what we’re going to be grounding our conversation in over the next forty-five minutes. So without further ado I’d like to introduce the people on our panel. The first is a friend of mine, Jonathan Vincent Pace. He has his PhD from the Annenberg School of Communication and holds degrees from the Center for Media and Culture at New York University.
I’m a fellow at the Center of Digital Civil Society at Stanford where Jonathan is a post-doc. And he is teaching a year-long course on the early history of the Internet. So for Stanford students, that’s something that if you didn’t go you missed out. I thoroughly enjoyed and I hope you’ll take wherever you teach. And you can get hold of him at @jonathanvpace on Twitter.
He’s gonna be in conversation with Professor Charlie Nesson. He’s the William F. Weld Professor at Harvard Law School and the founder of the Berkman Klein Center, and actually the person that admitted John Perry Barlow as the first fellow. So in that vein, I’m one of the descendants of that first class.
And the first thing I’d like to ask you Jonathan initially as our guest is to introduce yourself and your work, and really let the audience know what your relationship is with Barlow.
Jonathan Vincent Pace: Sure. Thank you so much for having me. I write about the role of regulations and institutions on the Internet. And right now I’m taking up this topic in a historical context. And I’m studying Barlow because I’m writing a book about the history of cyberlibertarianism, which I define as the idea that the Internet should never be regulated and should never be the object of state involvement. And the lecture I’m finishing up today is about the events surrounding the Communications Decency Act, and the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace was a really direct response to that piece of legislation.
And I look at the circulation of this way of thinking among hackers, early adopters, computer professionals, industry executives, civil society advocates, and technology lobbyists in the 1990s and the 2000s, kind of a critical phase of this, many of whom had very little in common and end up converging on a very specific libertarian narrative about the Internet and the state, according to which the state was overbearing, intrusive, compromised, uninformed, and therefore a threat to the Internet as a sphere of freedom, individualism, competition, and innovation.
And the Declaration was really just parroting that cyberlibertarian document. And at least on that video, Barlow really mapped the libertarian narrative that I just mentioned onto a kind of theory of history itself so that you had this institutional past versus a technological future, with regulatory attempts actually…moments in which the state or institutions were trying to kind of hold on to the past, hold on to their established authority structures—a kind of backlash against this libertarian future that digital technology was inaugurating.
And part of the story here is the role of thought leaders in articulating this narrative, both within the technology community and to the public, especially the press. And Barlow is such a key player here because not only was he a wonderfully charismatic spokesperson for the Internet on the national stage with these kind of endless interviews—everyone was very charmed by him, but he was also this incredible social polyglot, where he could speak the language of hackers, and hate on Microsoft. And he was a founder and active member of the EFF and could talk in civil liberties terms. He spoke to industry; he gave speeches at Apple and professional associations. He was briefly cozy with Al Gore, part of his kind of technology brain trust.
And so he moved with such grace between all of these different groups and really helped provide this master language that could connect them all despite their differences.
Nkonde: So kind of on that, knowing him in his death, I really would like to hear from you, Charlie, the same question. Obviously I don’t want you to…you know, introduce yourself completely to the Harvard community because we do you know know. But what I’m really interested in is your connection to Barlow in his life, and the development of the EFF and the manifesto in which we’re really grounding this conversation today. Can you provide us with more context?
Charles Nesson: Well, the time is 1998. That’s when I asked Barlow to be a fellow. He is just as you say say: seeing the enemy as the state, the surveillance state that tried to break into the young hackers who were doing telephone hacking and so forth. And it’s out of that that his tremendous spirit grows, expressed in the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
But, what also happens in 1998—and understand, 1998 is a year—it’s before we have Google. We’re pre-Google, alright. We’re in an environment where we are pre-commerce. The advent of commerce comes with eBay, 1998. So Barlow is speaking to the powers at Davos on behalf of a university community and saying to the state, “Keep your hands off us!”
Alright. And along comes the corporations. Now Barlow initially sees corporations as startups. It’s where all of Silicon Valley is. But the thing that Barlow was missing in his imagination at that time was the overwhelming force of the corporate world and money-making, and the establishment of data as almost like a currency.
Alright so, now back up then to what Mutale quotes from the Declaration. Barlow is speaking of a mind space. He’s saying this is not a place built of matter. This is a place of mind. This is freedom. We have freedom. And he’s saying to the state, “Keep your hands of it.” Alright. Now, if you move fast forward to a time when we all feel incredibly constrained on the net by the force of its openness, the force of the fact that it’s now populated with major corporations that’re trying to get something out of us that we have, and do it as subtly and all that kind of stuff, it’s like hostile space. It’s like surveillance space.
Nkonde: So that actually brings me quite nicely to my next question.
And my question really—and I’ll go back to Jonathan first again as our guest but certainly I love the way that you’re bouncing off each other. My question is around, given the modern Internet, the day that we’re in now and how Charlie is referencing surveillance—
—the question I’m posing is can there be governance structures or protocols that maintain this freedom that then kind of protect us from forces of surveillance or other potentially “darker” ways of making money on the net.
Pace: Sure. And I think this hooks nicely with what Charlie just said. Because the way I see it is that part of what happened in the 90s was there was this kind of mantra that the state shouldn’t regulate, the Internet shouldn’t be regulated. And so by the time you get into the 2000s, there was this ignorance of the power that industry would soon have in the Internet space. And at the same time that kind of enemy was being ignored, the state had been told over and over again that it shouldn’t regulate.
And so as the power of industry is growing, that which would presumably regulate the industry, the state, had kind of been handicapped by this way of thinking about the Internet and state. And so the kind of takeaway from a lot of this is that by insisting that the Internet shouldn’t be regulated, the adherents of cyberlibertarianism kind of stalled the development of a nuanced regulatory conversation precisely at the moment that all of these industry players were skyrocketing. And so the gap between the size and complexity of these digital systems—especially the commercial systems—and the sophistication of the regulatory conversation was so enormous… I mean, it’s there for any technology but in this case you had this concerted group of people who were relatively powerful in industry and civil society and the government really holding this regulatory conversation back.
And so, by the time we get to where we are today, there’s a kind of like twenty, thirty-year gap between the technology and the regulatory conversation that’s meant to address it. And so I think part of what’s going on now, especially in Internet studies, is this kind of scramble to you know, catch up to do decades of work of regulatory thinking in you know, a month’s time. After Zuckerberg testified in Congress a while back, I remember there was a Wired article, and the headline just captured it all for me. It said, what would regulating Facebook look like? And I just thought to myself you know, here’s this mammoth machine, and we’re still at the baseline level of the conversation where we’re not even really sure okay, is it industry regulation, is it company regulation, is the state doing it, is civil society doing it? So you know, the work we have to do now is so immense in kind of catching up with where the situation is now. So that’s kind of…it’s kind of in response to what you were saying and in response to what Charlie was saying. I want to give him a chance to talk.
Nkonde: Yeah. Charlie, I would be really interested in your views on how can we close that gap that Jonathan is describing—
Nesson: He’s certainly right that if you’re looking to the question how can the whole thing be regulated, how can one get control of this whole environment, so as to create a world in which those original freedoms that Barlow was talking about are shared by everyone, the answer is you can’t do it. But if you go back to Barlow’s declaration and understand that what he’s trying to preserve into the future is free mind space and you ask well, what are the institutions in our global environment that are dedicated to the preservation of free mind space, the answer isn’t the government. And the answer isn’t corporate, global corporate capitalism. The answer is universities. That’s what we’re about. And so your question to me I reframe “what could universities do to preserve free mind space into the future for our students?” Not what can we do to regulate the whole universe of trolls and Facebook and— [recording freezes].
Alright so, that then directs the question of the university as a political force. And recognizes that if the university were to undertake creating for its students free mind space and protected against surveillance from the outside forces of corporate and state, then we would be on the road to preserving Barlow’s free mind space.
Nkonde: Excellent, excellent. And my next question really goes onto that. So, going back to the Manifesto as our guide for this conversation, one of the things that really stood out to me as somebody who’s really interested in the embodied net is this idea that he says, “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege, prejudice [accorded by] race.” And my question is really grounded in the Internet of 2020 where we do have—we’re all on Zoom, we’re on Zoom right now, because we can’t together physically. But we do have actors on the net who are embodying racism, sexism, homophobia. And I guess the most crystal example of that would be Zoombombing. So my question to you, Jonathan, as you’re going through these archives and as you’re writing this book, could you comment on how Barlow seems to think about identity, if at all on the Web? And if identity isn’t thought about, given this quote, could you speak a little bit more about identitylessness and what you think he’s trying to get to through—
Pace: …and you know, Barlow is on the record early on saying that cyberspace is very white, very male, very straight. And so he’s clearly aware of the demographic bias of the medium at the time. And you know, he’s making these statements in the popular press really when no one else was. Um—
Nkonde: And so Charlie, one of the things that I would be interested in is that you’re… You know, one of the things I know you for the most is Threads, right, which just is unstructured, pseudonymous space that I think really grows out of the quote from Barlow that I just took from the manifesto. So I would be really interested how in 2020, since my thesis is that’s completely impossible, we are all embodied on the net, could you speak a little bit more about Threads and how we can get back to those kind of early days of the 90s when we were dialing up and we literally didn’t know if we were speaking to a dog or a carrot but we were both on the Web and chatting it up in chat rooms.
Nesson: Instead of speaking, let me do it indirectly. Instead of speaking to Threads, let me speak instead to free mind space. And then Threads you’ll see approaches it.
Nesson: For me, free mind space in this COVID moment of ours is the space on my side of the screen. On my side of the screen, I’m free. I can turn sound off. I can turn picture off. I can say anything I want with sound off and picture off. I can be unrecorded. Compare that, contrast that, to what is now through the screen. Through the screen is recorded space. That’s not space in which I have control. That’s space in which what I say is there forever. And who knows who has access to it after this?
If we’re talking about incoming students in September, newbies to Harvard Law School, their first step apparently will be into Zoom space, with an announcement that it’s being recorded. And there they’ll appear as blocks on a screen, with a professor able to ask anyone a question, cold call. And their answer is open, not only to their classmates but who knows where the recording of it goes after that. That’s surveillance space. And when you think about what is different in this space from what was true of residential university before the world of COVID, before the world of COVID we had all sorts of ways of relating to each other as individuals in unrecorded space.
Now, just focus on the word “privacy.” We’re all advocates of privacy. But what is privacy? I believe that at core, privacy is Barlow’s free mind space. And any intrusion on free mind space is in its way an intrusion on the privacy that I have when I can think and speak and soliloquy unrecorded.
Alright. So, now for me, putting myself in the position of a new student coming in to Harvard. To start bang, right off the bat into surveillance space, exposed to everyone, is the roughest possible start. And the question is is it possible to enter a new digital domain, a new community that is connected with others digitally but not in real-world proximity? Is it possible to build a class in digital space, starting from a true safe starting point for participants, in which a gradual process of extending yourself and showing and sharing the intimacies that comprise your privacy, connecting with others in a group to form bonds of trust.
That’s new territory. And it’s new territory for university. At the moment, we’re all in the process of trying hard to reproduce what we had before, in digital space. We’re not a residential university in September. But let us reproduce what we remember as best we can. That’s a good idea, it’s fine, it’s totally preoccupying. It’s leading faculty to have to do a whole lot of stuff they’ve never done before, so they’re totally engaged with the challenge of it. But none of those things are addressed to how do we use this new space in a way that has new uses.
Nesson: What are the affordances of this space for us to develop in ways that we couldn’t before? And for me, it comes back down to a responsibility on university to provide unrecorded spaces for our students. It runs against the data-gathering research orientation of, “Oh good, everything is now online. We can measure everything.” That’s surveillance space. And I believe that’s fundamental top-down corporate thinking.
Nkonde: Right. So you would argue that that isn’t Barlow-esque. That was not his intention when he was at Davos giving this manifesto. He wasn’t thinking about this monetized…surveillance…kinda you know, panopticon. It was much more of this freethinking—frontier, literally a frontier, this kind of freethinking. That’s interesting. The one thing that you didn’t answer, I will say Charlie, is this idea that it could be without privilege, prejudice, or accordance to race. Do you—
Nesson: …uh, as a teacher, professor, my classes…that’s given to me by the Harvard University admissions process. I believe Harvard does a remarkable job of selecting people to make up our classes. And in it’s way it’s what makes our university tremendously valuable as a community for those who participate in it. One develops a network, and a network that can last you through life, with people you respect. So, for starters, the classroom that we have is not the open nest. And it’s constituted in ways that the admissions committee determines, under all sorts of ethical and legal constraints just as you’re describing. And that is to make the assumptions starting out in a class, “We’re are all here. We’re all equal. We’re a group put together without bias. Whatever bias there is in this group we bring into it.” That’s a starting place for a group, and a starting place for the development of the kind of self-sovereignty within a group that constitutes citizenship.
Nkonde: …yeah, though Barlow in his speech at Davos, “May it be more humane and fair than the governments have made it before.” And I would definitely be very interested… I’m gonna go to you first, Charlie, because we’ve just heard from Jonathan. Around this time, given that you were there literally on site. You hear the speech at Davos. He becomes the first fellow. Ultimately leading to what I call now the COVID cohort, of which I am part. Can you kind of describe…not just the conversations, the mind space, like the intellectual formulation of this idea of fairness and humanity in—
Nesson: Well that’s a wonderful question, Mutale. In my own work, I naturally am attracted to humanity’s thinking about law. And specifically the law of the jury. That is how does one decide what’s true? And the jury for me it is an inspiration in the sense of first of all, it describes the kind of small group environment that John’s referring to. It’s got an intimacy to it. It lends itself to small-group interaction.
Second, it’s premised on the idea of equality. Everyone’s vote is equal. And so, for me to explore the evolution of that form of decisionmaking as a subject matter for a class that’s actually itself exploring the sovereignty of its own space is a very integrated form of approach.
I really do believe that there’s an education to be offered now about cyberspace that is to understand space in terms of the experience we have on this side of the screen, on that side of the screen. To understand the effect on space of being recorded, of being not recorded. Of being in a small group. All of these elements now are leading us to differentiate discourse spaces according to their architecture, their digital architecture. And that itself is a subject of intense interest for people growing up now in this environment. It’s like predicate knowledge about the frame in which we learn, and understanding that the frame in which we learn is one of our most powerful teachers. It’s really the environment in which we come to conclusion
…and very apt to this cope with moment.