Even though I’m at Burning Man, I’ve snuck out an extra scheduled podcast episode (MP3): Barlow’s Legacy is my contribution to the Duke Law and Tech Review’s special edition, THE PAST AND FUTURE OF THE INTERNET: Symposium for John Perry Barlow:
“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”1
And now we are come to the great techlash, long overdue and desperately needed. With the techlash comes the political contest to assemble the narrative of What Just Happened and How We Got Here, because “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”Barlow is a key figure in that narrative, and so defining his legacy is key to the project of seizing the future.
As we contest over that legacy, I will here set out my view on it. It’s an insider’s view: I met Barlow first through his writing, and then as a teenager on The WELL, and then at a dinner in London with Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) attorney Cindy Cohn (now the executive director of EFF), and then I worked with him, on and off, for more than a decade, through my work with EFF. He lectured to my students at USC, and wrote the introduction to one of my essay collections, and hung out with me at Burning Man, and we spoke on so many bills together, and I wrote him into one of my novels as a character, an act that he blessed. I emceed events where he spoke and sat with him in his hospital room as he lay dying. I make no claim to being Barlow’s best or closest friend, but I count myself mightily privileged to have been a friend, a colleague, and a protege of his.
There is a story today about “cyber-utopians”told as a part of the techlash: Once, there were people who believed that the internet would automatically be a force for good. They told us all to connect to one another and fended off anyone who sought to rein in the power of the technology industry, naively ushering in an era of mass surveillance, monopolism, manipulation, even genocide. These people may have been well-intentioned, but they were smart enough that they should have known better, and if they hadn’t been so unforgivably naive (and, possibly, secretly in the pay of the future monopolists) we might not be in such dire shape today.