The Revolution Will Not Be Computerized

February 21, 1996


Was it the word "revolution," as in "information revolution" that spurred John Perry Barlow to come trotting back down from his Wyoming ranch to lecture us on the evils of government and the glorious coming of new-age consciousness?

I'm afraid it may be so, and now we can't get rid of him. Barlow was a songwriter for the Grateful Dead and one of the confounders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet advocacy group. Good calling cards no doubt, but unfortunatley he's also become the self-appointed spokesperson for cyberspace. It seems like whenever a magazine or newspaper runs a article about the Net, invariably he's quoted, often mouthing a jumble of utopian ideals as if the Net somehow picks up where Woodstock left off.

What I want to know is who elected him king? (To borrow a phrase from Monty Python). And why does he presume to speak for everyone who has ever posted to the rec.arts.quilting newsgroup?

"Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, 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 among us. . . ."

These are the opening lines from his latest manifesto. It kicks off the excellent 24 Hours in Cyberspace Web project. This Web project compiles the work of over 1000 photographers worldwide.

". . .Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. . ."

Model railroadershave created a fair amount of cyberspace over the years as well, but you don't see them declaring independence from the real world to go off and live in toy-train land.

Assuming cyberspace is our new home, then it's hardly Utopia. It allows us the inner-child to come out in all of us. And so do things like indulge in immediate anonymous cybersex, flame one another in temper tantrums, giggle at dirty Web pages, and spout off ill-conceived conspiracy theories. Hmmm, no wonder cyberspace reminds Barlow of the '60s.

". . .We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest and our commonwealth our governance will emerge. . ."

What possible reason does Barlow have for believing that the self-interest of people on the Net would be any better than the self-interest of people anywhere else? Where in the wires and terminals is the enlightenment? My favorite quote of late: "If you give a jerk a Net account, what you tend to get is a jerk with a Net account."

". . .Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. ."

Two months ago, an America Online customer, George Hemenway, 39, had persuaded a chart partner, Jesse Unger, 39, that they should meet out in the real world, as they both lived in the New Jersey area. According to the Associated Press, Hemenway had invited Unger over to his East Windsor home and during the evening had shot him in the head, killing him.

How would Barlow address Hemenway? How would he address on-line stalkers, molesters, child pornographers, and kidnappers?

Revoke their screen names?

". . .We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force or station or birth. . ."

Assuming each individual has $2000 for a computer, a home to put it in, and knowledgable enough to hook it up. Until then, such thinking is isolationist at best, and institutionally racist at worst. Then again, maybe Barlow believes that the meager free Internet access that a few libraries now offer constitutes any more of a consolation prize to the unwired than Newt Gingrich's pie-in-the-sky idea of giving laptops to the homeless.

". . .In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish. . ."

Uh, unless Barlow's own computer is made of twigs and is connected to the Net by magic fairy dust, I think he's in a pretty severe state of denial here too.

". . .We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty. . ."

Further weakening the people's faith in their governments while hyping the interests of large corporations is either very dumb or very corrupt. And if Barlow thinks these businesses won't profit from the increasing use of the Net, then he's twice the fool. Wait until local phone companies start heavily lobbying their Public Service Commissions to allow them to charge by the minute rather than by the call. Then cyberspace will really be on the meter. But, hey we don't have to mind the PSC. After all, they're part of that outdated government we all left behind in our cosmic pursuit of enlightenment, right?

John Perry Barlow does not speak for me. If forced to pick a counter-culture guitar-strumming hero to voice my concerns, my choice would be Pete Townsend. He looked around in 1971 and declared that he wouldn't get fooled again.

Besides, he was a better songwriter.


--Joab Jackson



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