He's Trying To Build A Community On-Line -- Grateful Dead Lyricist Ventures Into Cyberspace
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
PINEDALE, Wyo. - In this sagebrush ranch town where the elevation is about eight times the population, John Perry Barlow is multitasking between cyberspace, meatspace and parentspace about as well as a mere mortal can do.
A ton of backlogged e-mail and bills beckons on his Macintosh PowerBook. A trade publication wants him to address a computer conference in Brazil, and a female friend in Michigan is after him to visit.
The Barlowettes - his three daughters, 8, 10 and 13 - are gathered in front of his old and despised RCA TV in an attempt to elude their homework, and he's trying to throw together dinner for all of us while explaining federal telephone policy on his cordless digital phone to a People magazine reporter.
Existing in multiple dimensions at once hardly fazes the 48-year-old former Summer of Love hippie, draft protester, cattle rancher, environmentalist, Grateful Dead lyricist and Republican county chairman who has become the Information Revolution's chief agent provocateur. A self-described cognitive dissident, Barlow is as engaging for his contradictory persona and unlikely past as for his gift of gab. Like cyberspace itself, he defies conventional description.
"I don't like artificial divisions," he said. "The way to break them apart is to create your own wall, march back and forth through it, show everybody that the wall is not tangible, that it's simply a matter of belief."
Today his interspatial travels bring him to Seattle for talks hosted by the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank aiming to influence government regulation of cyberspace, and the idiosyncratic 911 Media Arts Center.
Sponsoring Barlow is the only thing the two organizations may ever have in common.
The irony sits fine with him: "There's this grave discomfort about mixing the spiritual and technological and the legal and the social," he said. "Everybody's got these nice smooth tracks that all those things are supposed to fit into and they're not supposed to interrelate. Which is part of what's wrong with the discussion, as far as I can tell."
Barlow's livelihood, in fact, depends on his ability to pass through virtual and physical realms. He represents a new class of pundit who can relate the Internet to both believer and skeptic, to philes who "get it" and phobes who do not. He brings the fragmented identities of Net culture, where a person can have multiple personalities or none at all, to the real world - with a Teflonesque immunity to hypocrisy.
"I don't think of multiple personality disorder as a disease," Barlow says, only half-jokingly. "It's a normal state of mind."
As such, he can cozily interview Newt Gingrich for George, the new magazine launched by John Kennedy, whom Barlow once hired to work on his ranch; he can publish an essay in Utne Reader, the progressive digest of the alternative press, and he can conduct an "intimate conversation" with African-American feminist Bell Hooks for the spiritualist Shambhala Sun magazine.
Just who is Barlow?
Who is John Perry Barlow? What does he actually do? The simplest questions to answer for most people turn decidedly problematic for the bearded, kerchiefed, cowboy-booted cyberprophet.
A comparative-religion major at Wesleyan University in the late '60s, Barlow alternately characterizes himself as a circuit-riding preacher of the electronic frontier and a digital Moses leading the masses to the promised Web site.
For all his electronic evangelism, he remains close to the soil. His ancestors included fur trappers who helped settle the region, Barlow says, calling them the "Internet weenies of their time" because they ventured into an unknown realm and set up a sustaining economy.
"I understand the difference between information and experience," Barlow likes to say, "and vastly prefer the latter."
The former, however, puts more food on the table - especially since the death of Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia, a misfortune that ultimately could cut his annual income in half, Barlow says. Barlow's Dead association - gold and platinum records hang on the wall of his modest three-bedroom faux log cabin here - was performance rather than royalty-based, he said. Among the songs for which Barlow wrote lyrics were "Estimated Prophet," "Cassidy" and "I Need a Miracle."
It is still unclear what will become of the Dead's legacy and its remaining band members, which include Barlow's longtime friend and co-songwriter Bob Weir.
In any case, Barlow makes a more-than-comfortable living off cyberspace. His typical appearance fee is $5,000. Companies like Microsoft and Apple pay him five-figure sums to evaluate their business plans and explain online culture. His annual income is well into six figures.
All of this for, in essence, acting as an ambassador for the Internet. "I quit ranching when I realized there was more money in bullshit than bulls," Barlow jokes. He must be doing something right: Whenever anybody talks about issues on the Net, Barlow's name comes up.
If he had his way, Barlow would adapt the familiar "Hands Off! Washington" bumper sticker to the Internet. He wants to build values and community on the Net that give it a civilization uniquely its own. He wants people to recognize spiritual aspects of online existence. He does not want regulators messing with any aspect of Net interaction.
Old rules don't apply
None of the old rules applies in cyberspace, Barlow asserts. Even traditional safeguards built into protecting his profession - intellectual property - are misplaced online. Art, not artifact, is what matters: He would no more want to own his ideas than his relationships, Barlow says.
It is not a particularly popular viewpoint on the Internet, where files can be copied and distributed to millions in a matter of hours. Writers, photographers, artists and others worry that without safeguards, the product of their minds is diluted and devalued.
Barlow's rejoinder: The mind keeps on moving ahead, producing new ideas, and the value is in the ongoing interactivity. Establishing copyright inevitably would involve the government, which Barlow calls "clueless" about cyberspace.
"You get up there (in Washington, D.C.) and start dealing with those people, and it is unbelievable how little their institutions know about anything," he declared. "The more dealings I have with the government, the more convinced I am that we've been running things ourselves all along."
Big Brother, he said, is just a mechanism for a rudderless society to impose a sense of order on itself. "The idea that the government is not inept is one of those things necessary for us to believe in the absence of God," he said. "It's a desire to believe that God's in heaven and all's right with the world, or in the more modern paranoid view the CIA's in Langley (Va.) and all's wrong."
At a recent international copyright and trademark conference in Amsterdam, Barlow grew frustrated with what he called legal experts' attempts to "dance on the head of a pin. It felt like they were on the Titanic and were trying to adjust the rules of the shuffleboard game to match the changing angle of the deck," he said.
"Finally I said, `Well, how many of you guys can actually tell me you've spent more than an hour on the World Wide Web?' A quarter to a third of hands went up. `How many of you know what the Web is?' Maybe half the hands went up.
"The audacity of these people!" Barlow exclaimed, then borrowed from Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man": "They know that something is happening here, but they don't know what it is."
Barlow's vision for the Net emerges in his own use of it. His e-mail signature (email@example.com) gives a World Wide Web page address (http://www.eff.org/barlow) and lists forthcoming appearances in meatspace, Barlow's term for the physical world.
Included is a memoriam to Garcia and Dr. Cynthia Horner, a 29-year-old Canadian psychiatrist whom the divorced Barlow planned to marry before her sudden death from undiagnosed viral cardiomyopathy aboard a jetliner to New York 18 months ago.
His Web page has tributes to his daughter, his 90-year-old mother (who "ought to be declared a national monument"), Horner and others. Barlow's endquote is a Navajo proverb: "You can't awaken somebody who's pretending to be asleep."
"The thing is feeling that you're in there with a lot of other people simultaneously, that it's not just an information medium," Barlow said. "It's a place."
A sense of community originally drew him online in 1988 when, after being forced to sell his family's Cora, Wyo., ranch to pay off more than $500,000 worth of debt, Barlow found a group of Deadheads on the Sausalito, Calif.-based WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) online service.
"I could see the Deadheads had evolved this system of community without physical place, and I knew we were going to have to do something like that as a society because we'd given up on physical places," Barlow said. Then, paraphrasing Gertrude Stein: "There's no there there in suburbia."
After Horner's death, Barlow posted on the WELL the eulogy he said for her Nanaimo, B.C., funeral. Over the next few weeks he received hundreds of sympathetic e-mails from all over the world.
"I was blown away," he said. "There was a massive outpouring of sentiment from people who did not know me, who would probably never meet me, but who cared intensely."
Today Barlow sees the Internet as a living organism with aspects humanity has not yet begun to plumb. "Any place you can't take your body is a spiritual dimension, and that will eventually be obvious to everyone," he says.
It does not sound like the utterance of a Wyoming Republican who keeps an antique combination .22-.44-caliber pistol on his fireplace mantel. Barlow seems intent on defying old stereotypes as well as eluding new ones.
"Partly what I've been doing with all these sort of contradictory maneuvers ever since (his hippie days) is to throw up such a confusing screen to project myself on that nobody can make me buy my own poster," Barlow said. "You can't really become your own caricature so easily if nobody can draw the cartoon."
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A "digital convergence" of cyber gurus hits Seattle this week, including:
John Perry Barlow: Today and tomorrow at an Internet Law Symposium at the Westin Hotel, hosted by Seattle's Discovery Institute.
He speaks on cyberculture Friday at 7 p.m. in the UW's Kane Hall.
Alvin Toffler: The futuristic author of "Future Shock" and "The Third Wave."
He speaks at 2:30 p.m. tomorrow at the national Public Relations Society of America conference running through Thursday in the convention center.
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