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The Ghost of John Perry Barlow Lives in His Posthumous Memoir

In the mid-1980s, John Perry Barlow tried to follow his father into the Wyoming state senate, losing the election by one vote. But Barlow—cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and “junior lyricist” for the Grateful Dead—became a statesman anyway, if such a term can be applied to the borderless territory he made his home.

When Barlow died in February at age 70, remembrances came from United States senators and exiled dissidents, hackers and psychedelics enthusiasts, Harvard fellows and members of the Grateful Dead. Founding WIRED executive editor Kevin Kelly called him “the mayor of the internet.” Edward Snowden’s eulogy suggested that Barlow may have provided the seed of his own radicalization.

Mother American Night, a newly published posthumous memoir cowritten with Robert Greenfield, tells of Barlow’s journey from rural, Mormon Wyoming to the virtual domain that he was—in 1990—the first to call cyberspace, after the term from William Gibson’s Neuromancer. As Barlow surely would have noted, the scope of those remembering him demonstrated exactly the sentiment he was trying to express: The emerging internet was—and is—a place.

From this observation materialized Barlow’s career as one of the network’s most eloquent theorizers. If not an architect of the internet in the technical sense, Barlow’s gonzo dispatches—most especially 1996’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”—began to imagine and articulate unfolding new dimensions of politics, economics, privacy, and public commons. Though his lyrics for the Grateful Dead will surely survive as long as there is an internet, his legacy as a cyber theorist is inevitably more complicated, and well worth consideration.

Breezy, connected by ceaselessly mind-blowing anecdotes, and bubbling over with psychedelic wisdom, Mother American Night will become the crucial document for understanding the life and work of the internet pioneer and Dead collaborator. The fun is infectious. He’s introducing Timothy Leary to the Grateful Dead! He’s working in Andy Warhol’s Factory! He’s taking acid with JFK Jr. and Daryl Hannah! He’s roasting Steve Jobs! He’s dating Anita Hill! It would be name-dropping if Barlow himself weren’t so fascinating and his observations so incisive.

“Steve [Jobs] made you care about what he thought of you, and even though you could pretend that you didn’t, you were kidding yourself,” Barlow writes. “It was a quality [Jerry] Garcia had as well,” Barlow muses, perhaps the only person on the planet qualified to draw those comparisons from personal experience. It was a life lived at scale.

Amid all the celebrity hobnobbing, Mother American Night remains resiliently idea-filled. A Wyoming cattle rancher, Barlow recalls his thrill at discovering the internet for the first time. “I had spent 15 years riding around the [ranch] thinking about [Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of a consciousness-created] noosphere, and suddenly after all that time, I had evidence this was not just Teilhard’s pipe dream but was in fact real and growing its own nervous system.”

“Find the others,” Barlow’s one-time guru Timothy Leary had instructed, those untapped minds already part of the same cause, consciously or not. When Barlow set out to do that on the unsettled electronic horizon, he perhaps didn’t realize that he was about to find all the others, give or take those who might stay off the grid altogether (and he might run into them at Dead shows anyway). Even as the internet transformed the analog world that Barlow called meatspace, cyberspace would remain a virtual domain of its own, growing at least as big as the world that spawned it, and definitely stranger.

A lifelong storyteller and self-mythologizer, Barlow was also a natural-born politician. But the specifics of those politics continue to remain singular and often undefinable. Running on charisma as much as policy, but with seemingly equal grasp of both, Barlow was perhaps less an influencer than an instigator. With an instinct for freedom honed as much on the psychedelic planes as the Wyoming frontier, Barlow’s personality rings big and weird throughout Mother American Night, as open-hearted as it was sometimes privileged.

For all his self-importance, though, there really was no one else quite like John Perry Barlow. Just as the Grateful Dead carried the psychedelic revolution with them, Barlow was his own kind of catalyzing agent. Encountering the father of the late internet activist Aaron Swartz, Swartz’s father tells Barlow about the impact the EFF’s cofounder had when he visited the 10-year-old Swartz’s elementary school class. “His life was different after that,” Robert Swartz tells Barlow.

But as accessible and generous as Barlow was in his writing and life—with his phone numbers and messenger handles posted publicly—he still remains elusive, somehow hard to pin down in Mother American Night. Instead of resolving Barlow’s apparent contradictions, the book lays them out in nearly parable-like fashion.

Barlow, seemingly was everywhere and knew everyone. Following his 1969 graduation from Wesleyan, he—like many of his peers—would trek to India. “I was not on a spiritual pilgrimage in India,” he emphasizes, however. “Instead, I was doing what I always do, which was hanging out with intent.” It is the kind of self-congratulatory self-assessment that can sometimes make Barlow sound like a caricature from Silicon Valley, especially when he mentions that, oh yeah, he took the Dalai Lama’s younger sister out on a few dates.

Barlow says he “came back a different person,” because: of course. Where Barlow’s story veers from many hippie icons, however, is his conclusion that he now “could more plainly see the virtues of being more of a Republican than I had been.” Barlow may have been the only acid-head to hang out on an Indian mountaintop with a Lama, and come back resolving to vote for the party of Richard Nixon. But Barlow wasn’t just any head.

The son of multiple generations of cattle-ranching Wyoming Republican Mormons, Barlow says the chaos he saw in India reinforced his belief that the United States was en route to its own kind of spiritual and political collapse. (It didn’t stop him from bringing back a life-size Buddha head stuffed with hashish.) Taking over the family ranch in Pinedale, Wyoming, when his father fell ill in the early ’70s, Barlow would spend a decade and a half on the physical frontier, becoming an ardent conservationist and chair of the Republican party in Sublette County; in these roles, he would build coalitions with a Wyoming politician named Dick Cheney, eventually becoming a campaign coordinator for the young congressman. (Their relationship ends in the late ’80s with a typically delicious anecdote that confirms that at least one person—Barlow—was able to compare the then-secretary of defense to Dr. Strangelove to his face.)

Throughout Mother American Night Barlow’s exquisite understanding of power—and his tendency to channel it in the spirit of a heroic (white, male) frontiersman—shines through. (It’s not mentioned in the book, but Barlow was friends and neighbors with Darrell Winfield, the actual Marlboro Man of the cigarette ad campaign.) Just as it takes a certain kind of personality (and often privilege) to enter politics, Barlow was predisposed towards big gestures. Naming and co-founding the Electronic Frontier Foundation with Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet developer Mitch Kapor in 1990, the EFF simultaneously became the ACLU for the digital world and gave the pre-web internet one of its more pliant analogies (and certainly more romantic than Al Gore’s “Information Superhighway”).

But in the same way that western settlers came to the real American frontier seeing an empty landscape, Barlow’s metaphor making was presumptuous. If the internet was the “new Home of Mind” (as his “Declaration” would have it) the internet was already the old Home of Military Research, a fact he would realize soon enough. (Its early days were famously funded by Darpa.) Even so, perhaps through sheer force of will, Barlow could more clearly see what the internet would become. He grasped the disruptive nature of bits more than most, a metaphoric nano-technology that would turn the already-humming information age inside out and transform daily life on nearly every continent. He could see the shifts happening, upending bases of economic and political power.

The word “libertarian” never appears in Mother American Night, but, to varying degrees, that’s what Barlow was, and the ideas orbiting that term would shape the EFF’s broader mission. “I found it most effective to be inside the Republican Party acting as a libertarian,” he once said. Calling out the government’s digital surveillance before there was even a World Wide Web, Barlow was just responsible-enough sounding to scan as an adult, but told enough acid stories to read as a rebel. (In his WIRED obituary, Steven Levy suggested that Barlow “wielded [his rock-and-roll bonafides] like an all-access laminate to the concert hall of life.”)

His ideas about political economy could sometimes be conventionally free market, but they were almost always rendered with a Barlowian verve. “Nature is a free market system,” Barlow wrote in 1998. “A rain forest is an unplanned economy, as is a coral reef. The difference between an economy that sorts the information and energy in photons and one that sorts the information and energy in dollars is a slight one in my mind. Economy is ecology.” Perhaps so, but it’s also hard to deny that the Great Barrier Reef might have been better off with some New Deal-style aquatic intervention.

In the end, Barlow’s instincts swayed toward social responsibility too much to be a true libertarian. He was his own brand of hippie crossed with heroic frontiersman. When figures like Edward Snowden began to emerge in the 21st century, Barlow was a natural ally, establishing the Freedom of the Press Foundation with Snowden, journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, actor John Cusack, and others.

But Barlow’s vision was “incomplete,” one-time EFF organizer and WIRED alum April Glaser wrote persuasively in February. His “distaste for regulation … likely helped lay the groundwork for the unhinged growth of the corporate walled gardens we have today,” she argued. If Barlow was willing to stand up to the NSA, his stance on Facebook’s surveillance might be blurrier. In a follow-up story, Glaser called out the present-day EFF (as well as other groups like the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Open Technology Institute) for their lack of campaigns against corporate privacy violations.

Though Barlow engages in plenty of late-life self-reflection in Mother American Night, it is generally of a personal nature, affirming his political thought rather than reassessing it. Perhaps owing to its as-told-to nature, the book often feels like a shorthand for a life as expansive as Barlow’s. The book could easily have been twice the length of its 288 pages, given Barlow’s CV—and it’s a shame it isn’t. (Given his ill health in the last half decade of his life, and Barlow’s checkered record with publishing contracts, it’s a remarkable achievement as is.)

Where Mother American Night excels is channeling Barlow’s restless, celebratory spirit, pulsing with a sense of constant movement. “I’m still walking, so I’m sure that I can dance,” he wrote on the Grateful Dead’s “Saint of Circumstance,” released on 1980’s Go to Heaven. And while Barlow often invoked Rob Brezsny’s concept of “pronoia,” the feeling that the universe is conspiring in one’s favor, Barlow’s lyrics for the Dead could also be caustic. “There may come a day when I dance on your grave,” he wrote on “Hell In A Bucket,” “and if unable to dance, I will crawl across it.”

Spotted boogieing at Dead shows (and later, Burning Man), Barlow became an unofficial ambassador between the band and the sprawling world of Deadheads. It was this relationship that, in fact, helped lead Barlow online in the first place, to the burgeoning (and still active) Bay Area online community the WELL—the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link—spawned by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Review. It is Barlow’s relationship with Deadheads, in fact, that may mark one of his most positive impacts.

Unsure what to do about the increasing hoard of fans showing at Dead shows with microphones to record the band’s jams, Barlow became a voice encouraging the group to embrace the free, noncommercial exchange of live recordings by Deadheads. In doing so, an alternative music distribution system was born, a living example of the open internet before it really even existed—a decentralized and still-vital fan-driven alternative to Spotify, and part of the Dead (and Deadheads) own long history as early adopters of technology. As a friend of the Dead’s housemate Neal Cassady, the hero of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Barlow bridged the Beat counterculture and the digital now, connecting the freedom-seeking impulses of the psychedelic era with the surreal possibilities (and potential bad trips) of the internet.

In many ways, Mother American Night is very much of the memoir implied by its subtitle—My Life in Crazy Times—filled with reckless behavior, high times, and rehab. For all his digital tendencies, Barlow’s sexing, drugging, and rock-and-rolling threaten to reduce him to a stereotype—Just Another Baby Boomer Who Changed the World—that hasn’t been receiving the highest ratings of late.

But what redeems Barlow and Mother American Night is the pervading sense of Barlow as a soulful and self-aware human. Libertarian or Republican or acidhead or whatever else he may have been, Barlow had an equally long record of being a sympathetic person capable of defying labels and even bucking the past. He was, as he liked to remind people, “the first historically recorded male from either side of [the] family not to pass his whole career in agriculture.”

Barlow grew up in rural Wyoming and on the rural internet. Unlike Wyoming, though, the internet still seems capable of blasting open new and dangerous frontiers, from botnet swarms to deep state hacks. Though prophetic in many ways, Barlow’s dreams of a borderless free and equal internet seem more impossible with each passing year. Lately, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation has wreaked havoc on the flow of information, suddenly blocking European access to some American publications, and somehow reintroducing a sense of once-conquered distance. As a thinker and writer, if Barlow’s work remains vital, it will be less because his ideas were accurate but because the mind behind them shows up so vividly and warmly when his words are re-read.

Perhaps the book’s most telling incident occurs fairly early on, while Barlow is the student body president at Wesleyan. Ever the mover and shaker, Barlow’s extracurricular activities as an undergrad included spending time taking LSD with Leary at the Millbrook estate (and Mother American Night features some powerful descriptions of Barlow’s early trips), as well as spending the 1967 Summer of Love hanging out at the Grateful Dead’s pad in Haight-Ashbury.

But, “by the time I got back to Wesleyan in the fall, I was pretty crazy,” Barlow writes. “I didn’t chill out in San Francisco or get some vision of peace, love, and flowers. Instead I decided to become a suicide bomber.” The college student concluded that “if I did something really outrageous and horrible… it would cause everybody to take a hard look at where we were headed in terms of consciousness.”

And so it was that the future Dead lyricist decided to follow the Summer of Love with the Autumn of death, synthesizing high-yield DIY explosives, and driving himself from Wesleyan to the far more high-profile Harvard Yard. It would be the kind of “heroic” act that only a twisted turn of logic could conceive, but also the product of the same mind that would unfurl both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the lyrics to the Grateful Dead’s “Cassidy.” Thankfully, he is tracked to Cambridge by school administrators and talked down.

Reading Mother American Night, you’ll learn plenty about John Perry Barlow, but still be unable to predict how he might react to any given piece of information. There are just too many complex filters in his brain. Any visions of, say, feeding this book and Barlow’s many megabytes of text, abandoned manuscripts, and unmade screenplays into a neural net and generating a Barlow AI to reoccupy @jpbarlow are dashed by stories like these. John Perry Barlow was—and is—too real and too unpredictable to be reanimated by algorithm, a spirit in the system too lifelike to be a ghost in the machine.

The self-righteousness would remain intact in Barlow through the decades, a quality that manifests itself throughout Mother American Night with varying degrees of charm. If not quite a total human (as he would’ve been first to admit), Barlow’s “hanging out with intent” worked out; in the end, less a networker than a network unto himself.


Jesse Jarnow (@bourgwick) is the author of Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America.


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Read more: https://www.wired.com/story/the-ghost-of-john-perry-barlow-lives-in-his-posthumous-memoir/

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