The Barlowian Internet: The Faults Of The Internet Are Also Its Opportunity, But It's Up To Us To Embrace Them
from the a-remembrance dept
John Perry Barlow is all too frequently held up as the patron saint of a sort of “techno-utopian” internet, in which the internet will save us all and open up all sorts of wonderment and good feels — and all the bad stuff is whisked away on a rainbow cloud of TCP/IP. Critics of Barlow sometimes delight in mocking his flowery language or predictions that didn’t come quite true (though many did). They especially delight in pointing to the current internet hellscape as proof that Barlow’s vision of the internet-for-good was a vision through impossibly rose-colored glasses. As I noted upon his passing, this is a near total misunderstanding of Barlow, who saw both the promise and the peril of the internet, and his writings were designed as a call to action for those developing the future (i.e., all of us), to embrace the good and avoid the bad. His presentments were an attempt to urge us all in the right direction, not a suggestion that that direction was inevitable, or easy, or guaranteed.
That framing is useful context for reading through an amazing collection of essays and reflections on Barlow put together by Duke’s Law & Technology review, in what it has entitled The Past and Future of The Internet: A Symposium for John Perry Barlow. Edited by Jamie Boyle, with some amazing contributions from folks like Cindy Cohn, Cory Doctorow, Yochai Benkler, Pam Samuelson, Jessica Litman, Jonathan Zittrain and more, it’s absolutely worth reading, no matter where you stand on Barlow and his legacy. It is not — as you might think — a hagiography designed solely to praise Barlow. Indeed, it contains quite a few essays that are critical of Barlow — arguing that he was over-optimistic, that he didn’t recognize the downsides of the internet, and that he was misguided in his views of how the internet and (especially) copyright law might change over time.
There is much in this collection of essays that are thought-provoking and challenging (just as Barlow himself often was). Boyle’s own contribution, which I’d argue is incorrectly titled Is The Internet Over?! (Again?), might be seen as a summation of all the papers in the rest of the collection, but I actually think it’s much more important than that. Towards the beginning of his piece, Boyle laments the fact that so many of his law students don’t actually understand how the internet works. And, that’s a much bigger problem than you might think:
I teach at a law school that has world-class faculty and brilliant
students. Their breadth of learning humbles me on a daily basis. But
many of them do not understand the network architecture that is so
central to their lives. Of course, it is not their specialty. Yet they
understand the basic explanation of anthropogenic climate-change, the
idea of externalities in economics, the broad strokes of the history of
civil rights in the United States, the debate about whether minimum
wages are good for poor workers and the issues raised by the use of
drones in armed conflict. They fluently invoke the concept of noir
cinema and make jokes about magical realist fiction when a faculty
meeting turns bizarre. They are, in short, profoundly well-rounded,
educated people, knowledgeable beyond their own specialties. But they
do not really understand the internet or the world wide web. That is a
It is a shame because understanding the most important
communications network of our time, the network for our culture and
news and search and flirting and shopping and politics, is central to
knowing how—or whether—to regulate it. To build on it. To use it. As I
will try to explain, some of the features of the internet that its critics view
as its main problems—anonymity, the fact that anyone can connect to the
internet and say anything, the difficulty of filtering it or managing it, its
decentralized anarchic governance—are also among its transformative
and engaging features. It is a shame for us not to understand all this
because the network that shapes our cognitive world, defines our
markets, and runs our infrastructure is as important as the rest of the
things a “well-rounded person” knows about. But it is also a shame
because Berners-Lee’s idea was beautiful. It was an idea that a scholar
would come up with and that a scholar would love. Now it is central to
our world. Yet somehow it progressed from bizarre novelty to essential
utility without ever passing through the intermediate stage of public
And while he’s actually talking about the work of Tim Berners-Lee here, rather than Barlow, I think much of the same applies to Barlow and his vision of the world, and why so many are perplexed by it or misinterpret it. In the same sense that so many people see only the “techno-utopian” appeals of Barlow, they see only the downsides, negatives, and costs of today’s internet. What they miss is that these two things are, in many ways, connected at the hip. What enables all this good stuff is also what enables the bad. What enables boundless creativity and optimism and innovations… also enables surveillance, centralized dominant platforms, trolls and more.
Barlow wasn’t ever saying that we’d get one without the other. He was saying that we need to truly understand the upside to better protect against the downside — and his (reasonable) fear was that in trying to fight back against the very real downsides, people, who did not understand the overall system and how it worked together, would very much destroy the good of the internet in a short-sighted focus on the bad.
That risk remains more true today than ever before.
Indeed, to those who say that Barlow was just a purely techno-utopian dreamer, Doctorow’s piece has the perfect antidote:
When Barlow advocated for a free internet––“free” in all the
usefully overlapping and ambiguous senses of that word––he wasn’t
doing so because he lacked an appreciation of the risks of a monopolized
internet, or an internet that was under the thumb of a repressive state.
Rather, he did so precisely because he feared that a globe-spanning
network of ubiquitous, sensor-studded, actuating devices that were
designed and governed without some kind of ethical commitment,
without the pioneering spirit of the early internet and its yeoman
smallholders who defended it from those who sought to dominate or
pervert it, that we would arrive at a dystopian future where the
entertainment industry’s Huxelyism was the means for realizing the
nightmares of Orwell.
You don’t found an organization like the Electronic Frontier
Foundation because you are sanguine about the future of the internet:
you do so because your hope for an amazing, open future is haunted by
terror of a network suborned for the purposes of spying and control.
But there’s a flip side to all of this, some of which comes out in the essays — though I wish there were more. Barlow’s hope is very much out of favor today, even if many of his claims about the good of the internet did, in fact, come true. Along with it came much of the bad, and the prevailing narrative today seems to dismiss all of the good and focus solely on the bad. The days of merely concerning ourselves with the fights over copyright online have mostly fallen by the wayside, with so much focus now on things like terrorist content, mis- and disinformation, human trafficking, illegal drug abuse, trolls, hate speech, and more.
But the key point is still there. The key, underlying truth behind what Barlow meant to the internet remains. Yes, the open and free internet has enabled all of this. But it has enabled so much more that is good and useful and innovative and powerful. And we should not forget that. Indeed, forgetting it, and focusing solely on the bad stuff is a recipe for destruction of that which is good on the internet. It is exactly what Barlow feared most.
Those of us who fight to keep the internet open and free don’t do it because we’re ignoring or downplaying the bad things that have occurred and do exist on the internet. We’re not blind to the power that a few large companies have taken in shaping the current internet. But we’re fearful of how misguided attempts to stop the bad are almost always being done without an understanding of the flipside. As Boyle notes in his essay, it’s that lack of understanding and recognition that, yes, anonymity can lead to trolling, but it can also lead to amazing communities where the oppressed and isolated can connect with others and work for a better world. Yes, the fact that the internet is open can lead to greedy surveillance or companies trying to observe our every move — but it also enables anyone to create something amazing, whether for fun or for profit, and has created tons of new jobs, new products, new services, and just plain fun. Yes, governments can use the internet for oppression and surveillance, but people can use it to organize and make change as well.
The point Barlow was pushing for was that we need to understand the good opportunities to know how to stop the overreaction in the other direction. Yes, it’s important to think about ways to limit all of the bad stuff described above, but we need to do it in ways that enhance the good, not kill it off. We should encourage privacy through encryption, not deputizing large companies to “protect” us. We should encourage competition through making it easier for new internet services to come about, not through locking in the dominance of Facebook and Google as “utilities.” We should encourage good behavior online by allowing for widespread experimentation in models to figure out what works for each community, rather than mandating a strict course of action that all platforms must follow.
John Perry Barlow saw the good and the bad of the internet, and recognized, inherently, that they were tied together. He promoted the utopian possibilities of the internet not because he was ignorant of the bad side, but because he knew that if people didn’t recognize those possibilities, they’d likely be snuffed out in an overzealous attempt to protect us from the “bad” stuff that came with it. As we’re now in an era where many of Barlow’s worst fears are within the realm of possibility, now is the time to revisit Barlow’s vision and understanding.
We need to understand the possibilities and opportunities of the internet — not because we’re utopians who think it’s coming naturally. But because we know that without understanding what’s possible, we’ll lock it away forever.