Interview of John Perry Barlow

by János Sugár

@ MetaForum II, Budapest, October 95'

This interview took place during the MetaForum II/NO BORDERS/Budapest Networking Conference in October of 1995. John Perry Barlow is a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, retired rancher and a cyber rights activist. Janos Sugar is a media artist, filmmaker, and a founding member of the Media Research Foundation, which organizes the MetaForum conference series in Budapest. The international series is dedicated to the examination of both the theoretical and practical impacts of technology on culture.

JS : What are the goals of Electronic Frontier Foundation(EFF)?

JPB: Well, our principle goal has always been to preserve freedom of expression in cyberspace, but in the process of trying to achieve this we found that it's not enough to assert those rights, we had to create mechanisms capable of ensuring them. Because one of the first things we wanted - being Americans and very narrowly defined in what we thought of as important - was to implement our ideal of the American freedom of speech.

Then I hadn't been at this very long before I got some electronic mail from someone who was in, still nominally, the Soviet Union who said well that's wonderful that you're going to try to protect the first amendment in cyberspace but what about us who don't have a first amendment. From this I recognized that in cyberspace the first amendment was only a local ordinance. That in fact all the rights and regulations of the terrestrial world are local.

Cyberspace is the first genuinely global social space and it deals with efforts to control it as though they were are a malfunction. The internet was derived so that you could have a communications network that couldn't be decapitated by a nuclear attack. If it is capable of surviving such censorious actions as a nuclear strike it's obviously going to survive any government strike. Though there are still all the questions about how one obtains an orderly society in this kind of dimension. For example it is my belief that ethics and culture are more important than laws or jurisdictions. But still most of the planet has become so devoted to legal obtainment of order that trying to make people return to a system where order is obtained through ethics is difficult. I think there's an inverse relationship between legalism and ethical awareness - the more legal a society becomes the less ethical it is. This is because you pass over to the government all those things that should be part of your own conscience and as a consequence many people in the informatized world have a very dim view of ethics.

What EFF is trying to do is to defend the border of cyberspace from intrusions of the terrestrial governments. At the same time we are trying to create an orderly and just society in our own dimension without an imposition of any kind.

JS: Do you think this global ethic - that is perhaps resulting from this network communication etiquette or "netiquette" - at a certain point could step out from the virtual realm and have an impact on the 'real' society.

JPB: I'm very hopeful about this, generally I have a sort of pathological optimism, I already see evidence that the citizens of the net are behaving differently in the political dimension of the terrestrial world than others. I mean that I rather doubt that there were 30 million screaming libertarians in the world 10 years ago and there seem to be now and they manifest there libertarianism in their physical dimension as well as the virtual. This certainly tends to be a great contagion for the natural inherent advantages of an open political architecture. It argues strongly against an assumption that has been successfully sold by the fearful and the paranoid for the last 2000 years - that an open political architecture can't work.

I truly believe we are, in terms of the transformative effect on human consciousness, on the frontier of the biggest thing since the catching of fire and certainly the biggest thing to take place in the sense of ourselves in society since Abraham. The assumption has been that there is an order that is purely vertical - with god on top and the president somewhere down below or the king or whomever he may be and the pope is in there somewhere and so is dad - and essentially what we're doing is going from monotheism to pantheism. Where order is emergent from within the system, which is essentially how nature attains order. Nature is actually quite orderly, in a somewhat bloodthirsty way at times, but nevertheless it attains order through the granular interactions of the edges.

JS: You mentioned pantheism but don't you think that polytheism is a better term for it.?

JPB: Yes, I think any way to avoid the word anarchy. I mean in a positive sense because the word anarchy is just a bad sell. But practical anarchy is what we're talking about in many respects. Polytheism is probably a better way of looking at it - for in fact the world has an image of itself as working to a Prussian model, a hierarchical machine-like system - but inside every society are the real systems that are driving society, the old boy network somewhere in there. We're basically talking about creating a context where the culture is the dominant element. Then the real issue becomes how you can diminish cultural immune responses - especially in a place where you don't have the informing information of body language, dress, architecture and aesthetic symbols and signs.

The other thing we have to deal with is the decline of industrial power. Nation states are young on this planet, they arose with industry and will go down with industry as the primary economic form. Just look at many of them on the planet now, they do not have the support of their people.

People lend their support more on a local basis, I think you'll see the city state have the greatest Renaissance since the Renaissance itself. Places like Budapest - which are nodes of cultural arbitrage, places where there have been large amounts of cultural exchange and symbolic exchange over a long period of time - will become extremely important in this new world.

JS: But how do you explain the phenomenon of nationalistic and chauvinistic activity, especially in the universe of former communist areas?

JPB: Are those really nations or are they cultures? I think they're actually cultures disguised as nations - much of what goes on in the national world is the definition of self versus other. All the time at every concentric layer of selfness - especially in response to the globalism that is taking place - there is a heightened awareness of cultural self. This is because it's under attack, I mean I go around Budapest and I can close my eyes, throw a rock and chances are that I would hit an American fast food outlet. I would be surprised if this culture weren't undergoing a certain amount of caution. This is an uncomfortable habitation of the other and you'd expect a certain amount of response.

There's another thing I wanted to say and that is, I divide the human race into two categories, the faithful and the fearful. People are evenly divided in every society around the world between those who feel it's an inherently safe place and those who believe it to be an inherently dangerous place. And we are now entering a time in human history when faith will surly be tested - if you love certainty and you hate ambiguity you are going to have a terrible time in the next 30-40 years and already would of had a terrible time in the last 100.

People are trying desperately to attain certainty and the less easy it is to obtain the more rigorous and brutal their attempts will become to obtain it. This explains a lot of what you're describing as the rise of nationalism and fundamentalism. It's the effort to create a perfect sense of certainty and eliminate ambiguity - and I think we can expect it to get quite a lot worse. Unfortunately the only approach we can take is a sort of Ghandian resistance - because to engage it on its own terms would be to change us into it instantaneously. The real issue is to learn how to tolerate those that will not tolerate you, this is the hardest thing to do as a human being but it's also the most important for those of us who are basically optimistic. I mean the paranoids are after us, believe me ... and learning how to not hate them for it will be a great challenge.

JS: So the medium of the computer can handle very complex information, complex in the sense of contradictions.

JPB: Yes, and there's also a very important thing here, which is we've developed a media form that's perfectly suited to the industrial era - which is broadcast media. But the information that one receives through broadcast media, including this one, is not an experience. There is a big difference between an experience and information and the difference is that when we have an experience, as we are now, and those reading this are not, we are in the position to ask a question in real time using every synapse in our body, exploring the phenomenon and the possibility space around us. Broadcast media does not give us that opportunity, and it's highly agreeable to becoming a reality distortion field of a major sort.

The net in my opinion is a lot more like experience than information - in the sense that on the net I'm in an interactive medium - if I don't understand something I can ask questions, I can explore further, I can map my own point of view onto the point of view of someone else - retaining the knowledge that it's their point of view.

Where in the broadcast medium you may think it's your point of view but it isn't. So that that's one of the reasons I'm hopeful that it can transform society in a positive way.

JS: What do you think about the coming boom of physical experience in this medium? Everyone who uses this so-called new media still has to learn some communication design - what can you do by telephone, by fax, and what is network communication good for. It transforms the language in a very obvious way, but we're still using text in the same way we have used language before. Will the physical experience of being in the same space at the same time have some very exceptional meaning in the future?

JPB: First of all, I think it's important not for people to think that the dawn of cyberspace will mean that everyone will move there and forsake the physical world. Because as someone who has spent a lot of time in and still loves the physical world, I appreciate it even more now for having something to compare it to. The smell and the grit and all the aspects of the physicality has a real appeal to me in a way it didn't before.

I also think that the text based cyberspace is a short based manifestation more or less. I mean the written word, I don't want to diminish it in any way for that's how I make my living, but it's what we call in computer science a very 'lossy' compression scheme. For when I take any experience and compress it down into a word I eviscerate it of most of its content in order to make it portable. When I have something I'm experiencing and compress it down, ship it to you in some sort of medium, you then enter it into your consciousness but every time you decompress it, it is not a form in which it was sent.

We don't pay much attention to this fact even though its a fundamental part of human communications. I think that where we are headed is to a place where we are literally able to experience with our own sensorium what we would previously rely on other peoples words to do. I don't think that it is out of the question that every single human synapse will be continuously connected to every other human synapse on the planet sometime in the next 200-300 years.

JS: Don't you think that we are living in a universe of information particles and our life and history are the context in between the individual particles.

JPB: This will probably sound like hippie mysticism - but since I'm a self-professed hippie mystic, I can freely admit this without feeling embarrassed - I believe that carbon based life is a very thin film that forms on the surface of the real thing. That if you go down to the base of the DNA and think about what it is that weaves the nucleotides into a specific arrangement - it is information. It is living information and information ideas are alive as are the structures the world consist of.

The space between us is filled with creatures formed by our understanding and editing of reality. This grows in the ecology of the mind - I think now we'll make those life forms explicit and visible in a way that we have not before. We're now in a position to see what really lives, not just what we thought had lived, which has only been an artifact of what is really alive.

JS: With computers themselves, but especially with computer based network communication, the different separated societies and nations are forming a kind of global society - what do you think about a global ethics in an age when we see tensions based on religion and religious ideologies?

JPB: That's the interesting question, one of the greatest threats to the internet is that the rest of the planet will wake itself up and feel itself to be defenseless against ideas that are culturally or religiously uncomfortable. This is what is currently going on in the United States, where there is a national obsession with sex and a co-combient obsession with how to keep it zipped.

The hysteria with pornography on the net is just off the charts, in fact there's not really that much pornography on the net, you can walk into any store and have a far greater access to pornography. Nevertheless, each culture has its own way of defining what is toxic to itself, and I don't really know how this will play out - but I do know what my own personal mission is going to be, and that will be to try to be an absolutist about the ability of anyone to express anything.

Never in the history of humanity have we had such promise to have universal liberty such as this. Whether we as a species are mature enough to handle this is the open question.

JS: Aren't you afraid that the global society we are speaking about is confined by the gap between north and south?

JPB: I'm very concerned that there's not an internet server between Capetown and Cairo and I'm very concerned about South America, but I believe that from an economic standpoint it's possible to entirely skip the industrial period all together and go directly from an agricultural/agrarian or hunting gathering society to an information society. This is possible because we can distribute the work in an information economy more easily - this is already taking place there are a huge number of data processors in the developing world working for northern countries. Places like Sri Lanka and the Philipines, there are now more programmers in India than in North America. They are working for large companies in the USA without actually having to go through all the immigration barriers to bring their bodies to program for you in the States.

So there is that potential, and as far as deploying an information infrastructure, packet switched networks as opposed to the traditional phone lines are incredibly efficient and much easier to deploy from a standing start than a 19th/20th century style hierachial switch network.

I also think that there is something that is naturally conducive about this environment to the culture of some of the developing world - in that it breathes tribalism - where the principle organizing social form is the small group working together to solve problems. Not in the institutional manner, which tries to solve problems as if it were a machine, but it's more of a hunter gathering type society.

I think that they have a natural resonance to the net which may or may not work for them - but I would also tell you that every single power relationship on this planet, before it's all played out, will be questioned deeply if not eliminated, all the stable power relationships are up for grabs. One can do a sort of nerdy and detailed economic analysis to find why this is true - and I can support that statement with a high degree of particularity.

There are also relationships between the sexes that have been maintained for a long time by male dominance, and a lot of people look at the internet and see 90% white guys who can't dance - why would that change anything for the better, but I think it's temporary. For what is cyberspace made of, it's made out of relationships - and it's also a place where you can't use physical threat and there isn't any heavy lifting. Who does that advantage, it doesn't advantage us as men, and as soon as an environment develops where you're not so aware of the plumbing and women don't have to learn so damn much about it, they're going to be in a dominant position. So it's very easy to look at the circumstances that we have now and think that this is the thing we have to worry about in the future. But I have learned from my experience with the Net that the law of unintended consequences operates full throttle there.

JS: What do you think about the problem with the lack of quality information? To find quality information on the net requires filtering a huge amount of useless information. I was speaking with someone who said that a kind of data priesthood would be necessary, responsible for finding relevant information and putting it into a proper context, similar to the editors of a news agency or newsmagazine.

JPB: What is society anyway - society has always done this. Life does this constantly, sorting out the relevant from the irrelevant, the noise from the signal. The problem that we have now with the signal to noise ratio is that we haven't inhabited the environment long enough to differentiate between the two. Still the biggest problem is that we're dealing with this stuff as if it were physical property - we know that with a physical good a toaster remains a toaster remains a toaster - but an idea is different in every mind that contains it, what is meaningful to me is not necessarily meaningful to you. There's a huge amount of stuff without any mechanism except for the natural type, which I believe is already starting to develop. It won't develop in one dimension as it always has, where there are people whose perceptions you think of as having a good edit or take on reality, the critics, the authorities of one sort or another.

There will be those people, and there already are, but there's also going to be a naturally developing engine of attention where we go from one pointer to another. This is how the nervous system in the body operates, the nervous system is the cascading effect of an electrical impulse that gets categorized on the way to the sensorium. I think you can already see that happening with the net as the nervous system or an extension of it.

JS: Cyberspace is the space of easy appropriation and you wrote in one of your articles "that information is something that we can't lose if we give it away," please speak about international property and copyright.

JPB: Well, I think that the term intellectual property is an oxymoron. I would no longer claim to own my ideas as I would claim to own my friends. Information is relationship, a verb not a noun, it is an exchange of meaning that exists as a loop in the space between minds. The reason we have copyright is because we were dealing with the containers that we put information into. Ever since Gutenberg the only way to make information portable was to put it into some sort of physical object which could then be sold. This has the same economic model as a toaster or any other physical object, but now as we take the wine out of the bottle - we don't have an economic model for wine, we're still trying to bottle it somehow.

I'm very worried about this, for it's one way the old order is trying to impose itself on the new order by maintaining an industrial model of economy. There's a real loss there because the interesting thing about an information economy is that it increases in value, it is not based on entropy as the physical economy is with a limited resource base. When you've taken my idea, you have it, I still have it, we both have it. It has actually increased in value for both of us. This is not true if you take my toaster, because I can't make toast anymore and so there is a lot of energy in a purely informational system.

JS: Thank you for the interview, John.

This interview was broadcast in a shortened version on Mediamix, (Hungarian Television, Edited by J. Kopper) and a full version was published in the weekly Magyar Narancs. This is their first English publication, edited by Noel Villers. Copyright 1996, Media Research Foundation, free for non-commercial use with proper source reference.