Barlow (that’s what most of his friends called him) flaunted his complexity. He advertised himself as a Republican Deadhead, as a cowboy hacker, a spiritual rationalist, a womanizing feminist, a technological hippy. He had a remarkable gift of conforming himself to the contours of whomever he was arguing with, so both sides could violently agree and civilly disagree. His full embrace of his own cognitive dissonance allowed him to craft outrageous statements and manifestos that he truly believed to be true and also knew were wholly fictional.
It may be truer to say the most of what he wrote and said was less an attempt to nail reality as it was to reshape reality. He was an unashamed aspirationalist. In that regard, Barlow had much in common with many prophets, gurus, visionaries, magicians, innovators, charlatans, and politicians in that he placed greater emphasis on what could be rather than what is. And he believed, as those just mentioned do and most journalists and scientists don’t, that you can create reality with your words.
I always thought of Barlow as the Mayor of the Internet. He saw very early that the internet was a political artifact that would require the same kind of idealism, compromise, and civics that prosperous and free societies needed. Nobody elected him, but if we did vote for a Mayor of the Internet, he would have won because everyone – no matter their stripe or color – thought of him as a good friend (and he was a good friend to thousands). I think he would have done a decent job as Mayor, rallying our better natures to make a better internet city on the hill.
If there had been no Barlow, I believe the internet would still be hunting for its own identity, it would have far fewer heroes guarding fragile rights and responsibilities in this new realm, it would lack some of the most poetic descriptions of technology written, and we would not have had the rawhide character of Barlow, the free-spirit no one could domesticate, always ready with a satisfying turn of phrase to illuminate the horror and glories of our new world.
One thing certain you can say about him: He out Barlow’d everyone to become singular and original. There was no one else like him. In the digital calculus of infinite possibilities, that is the highest form of success.
Photo image: Kevin Kelly
I met John Perry Barlow in 1999, and I was awestruck: here was the legend whose Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace had profoundly changed my life, making me realize that the nascent internet that I’d dropped out of university to devote my life to could be more than a communications tool: it could be a revolutionary force for good.