Purple Magazine
— S/S 2015 issue 23

John Barlow

JohnBarlow153 portrait by Stephan Crasneanscki

founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation
on digital dissidence

interview and portrait by STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI

 

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.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — What was the reaction to such predictions back then?
JOHN BARLOW — I think people thought that I was talking about some either/or future. But no, I wasn’t. I was talking about a both/and future, and that’s what we have. I mean, we have both 1984 and Brave New World. And that is more or less as I expected. I do not feel silly for having said that the entrance into cyberspace, the harnessing of the Internet, was the most significant technological event in the history of humanity since the capture of fire. A lot of people have made fun of that remark, but I stand by it still because it seems truer all the time. I also felt that since I could see both the malignant and benign aspects of the Internet, I wanted to try to the extent that I had a voice that people were listening to, to angle the shot, to put some English on the ball because, just as my friend Alan Kay once said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” I actually think that one way to invent the future is to predict it. If you predict it in a persuasive enough way, you can get people to believe that its natural valences are the positive ones you want it to manifest, and forestall the forces that would eventually come to see it as the surveillance and control tool that it is.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — You once said to me that you were central in connecting both Timbuktu and the People’s Republic of China to the Internet, what you named The Cyberspace. Twenty years later, being friends and a collaborator with Julian Assange or Ed Snowden also makes you a kind of digital dissident. What kind of surveillance and control are they trying to impose on us? And by the way, who is “they?”
JOHN BARLOW — Who is “they?” [Laughs] Let’s figure out who they are since it’s gotten really obscure as to who the bad guys are and who the good guys are. I mean, I spent yesterday afternoon having a public interview or discussion with Edward Snowden, whom I helped get into his current position of relative safety, and, you know, there is no better human being that I’ve ever met on this planet than Edward Snowden. His mind is like cool spring water, and his heart is as fierce as a crocodile. He’s an amazing human being. And if this is a bad guy, then gosh, you know, I guess I’m one, too. But what has really happened? The real war that is taking place is between the forces of the industrial period and the forces of the information period. The pre-industrial period, going clear back to the beginning of the Abrahamic religions, was all about control of access to information. Part of it was about weapons and torture and coercion, but part of it was about being able to define, pretty accurately, what people could know and what they could not know. Suddenly, we have upon us a development that may make it possible to convey a right that human beings have never had before, which is simply the right to know. The right, as a human being, to know everything that can be known about some subject that is of driving curiosity to you, and to be able to have a direct conversation, if you’re good enough at your mastery of the topic, with the people who are the best in that field and to help advance that field at a greatly accelerated pace. So there is a wonderful thing going on, which has already borne a huge amount of fruit, economically and politically, but it is terribly threatening to the powers that have been. Just take the monotheistic religions, all of which are behaving very badly at the moment toward one another and toward people in general. The reason that they’re behaving so badly is because they know they’re doomed. These terrorist thrashings are horrible demonstrations of the weakest kind of power and are symbolic of how doomed and frustrated they feel. And this is because the Internet makes it very easy to present many more sides of the story than can be contained within their books.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — In Washington, the debate over how much the government should know about our private lives has never been more heated! Should intelligence agencies be able to sweep our e-mail, read our texts, track our phone calls, locate us by GPS?
JOHN BARLOW — There are so many different ways in which institutions try to control the Internet. They also are trying desperately to monitor everything on the Internet, in the telephone networks, whatever is presented in moving media, and we have the capacity to capture all that data. It turns out to be cheaper to capture it all than to discriminate among them. And yet we are further from being able to understand what’s about to happen than we were before. I mean, we knew everything that was going on in the Middle East. We had every phone tapped, and yet ISIS arises, and it’s a total surprise to us. Or Russia invades the Crimea. We’re gobsmacked. We don’t see that coming at all. People are talking about harm that’s been done to the intelligence agencies by Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden. I would like to see some evidence that the intelligence agencies have done any good at any time, since they were founded. I mean, I can’t think of a single thing that the CIA’s gotten right, from the time that the Chinese crossed the Yalu River and surprised us, to the time that the Russians entered the Crimea. They’re not good at this stuff, and having more data doesn’t make them any better at it.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Much of the conversation swirls around the possibility that an agency like the NSA or the FBI will use such information not to serve national security, but to carry out personal and political vendettas. The FBI has said that if it does happen to gather data on innocent people in the course of conducting an investigation, it keeps that information for up to 20 years. What most people don’t realize is, when you carry a cell phone, it is constantly sending signals about where you are. It “pings” nearby cell-phone towers about every seven seconds so it can be ready to make and receive calls. What are we becoming in this ocean of data?
JOHN BARLOW — Well, we’re a cloud. You’re kind of a digital slime trail that you roll out behind you in multiple dimensions every time you make a transaction, every time you walk past a camera, every time you increasingly operate an appliance in your kitchen. I don’t care what you’re doing; you are leaving a trail. And the NSA has acquired the ability to take all of those disparate trails and combine them with times of calls, where you were when you were making the call, whom you called, what you bought at that point … all of that. Well, they seem to hold the strong opinion that they can actually interpret that data and find something out about you. Now, I don’t see much evidence that they’re able to do that, to be honest. You know, they did have one of the two Chechen boys in Boston under surveillance at the suggestion of the Russian Secret Police, and he still went ahead and blew up his little bomb. So, I just think we ought to get back to first cases and find out whether setting up a system that could easily endow the government with turnkey totalitarianism is worth the risk of preserving a system that doesn’t actually work, that doesn’t actually get the job done in the first place.

JohnBarlow247 portrait by Stephan Crasneanscki

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Is there any point trying to escape, trying to not leave any trace? Is it even possible today to not leave a trace?
JOHN BARLOW — Well, I think it’s important to know how not to. I don’t bother with it. And partly, I’m a special case because, gosh, clear back in the early ’80s I could see how things were going to go for privacy. I didn’t have a job and had no intention of ever getting a job, and thereby had a lot more opportunity to say what I actually thought. Most people can’t because they’re afraid of pissing off their employer or prospective employer. But I’ve been leading a completely open life. There’s damn little that you can tell me about myself that I will want to keep secret, so you couldn’t use it as extortion. For a lot of people, though, the feeling that they know, that there’s somebody who knows something about them, is very scary. I think it is actually much scarier as long as you don’t know what use is being made of this data about you, and who is making that use, and under what policies and principles they are guided and/or restricted in their behaviors — what moral judgments they may be bringing to bear. As long as we are being governed by people who are tolerant of many different cultures, kinds of society, and ways of looking at things, I don’t care what they know about us. But the second they decide that it’s simply not permissible to, say, have a hate group, or be part of a kiddie-porn cooperative — and I choose those two because they’re the ones that everybody says, “Well yes, we can’t have that” — it’s over. They’re unaccountable. We already know that the president of the United States has asserted for himself the right to kill anybody with a missile from the sky, and we do not know anything about the method of decision-making for that order to be given. Now, that is no way to run a democracy. You do not want to have a large country being run in secret by a set or principles that you can’t find out. That is inevitably very dangerous.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Half a century later, J. Edgar Hoover has become almost universally reviled, but nevertheless here we are, still fighting to tear away the veils of secrecy that surround our institutions.
JOHN BARLOW — I was talking to Ed yesterday, and I posed this as a somewhat rhetorical question. I said, “When you first came out of the NSA, I remember you saying that the worst thing that could happen is that you would be ignored,” and there’s certainly a way of looking at this and the subsequent events that would make one think that it’s possible that that’s exactly what happened. The United States government was revealed to be doing massively unconstitutional things on an absolutely routine basis, and the general reaction was: “I thought that was the way it was all along — this doesn’t surprise me.” You know, I am deeply dismayed by our lack of national outrage because I really don’t think people are understanding the implications of this. It means, for one thing, that some guy just like Edward Snowden, only with a different set of principles and beliefs, is capable of exerting the same kind of blackmail authority that J. Edgar Hoover used to exercise on the presidents because he knew all about their private peccadilloes. Now, literally millions of people inside the intelligence apparatus can know people’s private peccadilloes and blackmail them. So this seems extremely dangerous to me. And I don’t think it’s effective. That’s the other thing. I could maybe put up with it if I thought it was solving a problem rather than making the real solution harder to come by. That’s right. I mean, I’m enough of an optimist to think that at some point people will start to realize that it is simply better government that operates where people can see it. That there are all manner of things that have nothing to do with evil, that have mostly just to do with massive incompetence, which are hiding behind these shrouds of secrecy, and if nothing else, we can save ourselves a hell of a lot of money by not spending a bunch of it on things that don’t do any good.

END

[Table of contents]

S/S 2015 issue 23

Table of contents

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