[March 27 2015]
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — John, good to see again. So you’re having a little party tonight.
JOHN BARLOW — Yeah, I’m having a party at The Spotted Pig for the release of the 180 gram virgin vinyl LP recording of myself reading A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — One hundred thousand years ago, human beings inhabited the African desert; 10,000 years ago we began making cities; and now we are living in cyberspace. The point is, what was once considered mere science-fiction is now, quicker than most people realize, becoming a reality. It all started with the Internet, which you consider to be the most significant technological event in the history of humanity, since the capture of fire.
JOHN BARLOW — Well, look, the Internet is a lot of things, and they’re all profoundly powerful. I trace the beginning of the Internet back to that day in 1837 when Samuel F.B. Morse tapped out “What hath God wrought” on a telegraph key in Washington, D.C., and somebody in Baltimore was able to read it just at that moment. We became capable of communicating instantaneously at a distance and, in theory, experiencing simultaneously and instantaneously at a distance. That was unprecedented in human history, and has fundamentally changed what it is to be human. Of course, the changes were relatively modest at first. I think they were thought of at the time as being earth-shattering, profound, but as we now know, they hadn’t seen anything yet. And so the Internet has developed through the telephone networks, the radio broadcast, television broadcast media, all these different forms of primarily one-to-many communication systems or one-to-one communication systems, and it was only, I would say, in the mid-’70s — the Internet was born in September of 1969 — that people started to use it as a place (and I use the word “place” advisedly) where people could gather. And I think that was another significant inflection point.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — And that’s when you started to become involved with it?
JOHN BARLOW — Yes, that was the point when I decided to give it a name and borrowed one from Bill Gibson, a good friend of mine who’d had something kind of like cyberspace in one of his science-fiction books, Neuromancer. It was actually quite different, if you read the book closely, but it was close enough. What I wanted to get across was that there was a space that had formed already, and that it had a name and was called cyberspace. Moreover, the people “in” cyberspace, so to speak, had rights and had certain freedoms of expression that needed to be preserved. But I also knew — and I didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on this — that it was inherent to the architecture of the Internet that it was a superb surveillance tool. That it had the capability at that time of monitoring every single person on it, fairly trivially. And I wrote for communications at the ACM [Association for Computing Machinery], back in ’87, I think, that we were on a very narrow precipice between a future that would liberate the voice of everyone in humanity and a future where everybody could be watched at all times.