Ten things I know about John Perry Barlow:
1. John Perry Barlow died this past February at age seventy, but people have been trying to describe him for decades. Among the attempts: “Internet guru,” “the thinking man’s Forrest Gump,” and “an oracle of the unusual” (this last phrase from his dear friend Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia, one of Ken Kesey’s original Merry Pranksters). His New York Times obituary described him as “a former cowpoke, Republican politician and lyricist for the Grateful Dead whose affinity for wide open spaces and free expression transformed him into a leading defender of an unfettered internet.” Barlow himself, on one of his business cards, presented his job title as “Peripheral Visionary,” which was typically waggish of him but too modest. His vision, as he grooved through cyberspace and “meatspace” (which is what he called real life), could be direct, just as it could be X-ray or cosmic.
2. The first time I hung out with my friend Barlow, the year was 2008, and he was cavorting around a party in Manhattan, cackling like a bedlamite as he shot colored lasers from the knuckles of the high-tech black leather gloves he wore. Witnessing this, I thought of the chorus to a song he’d written, a chorus I already knew by heart: “I may be going to hell in a bucket / But at least I’m enjoying the ride.”
3. Barlow, the only child of a devout Mormon state senator, started out on a Wyoming ranch. But then the sixties happened, along with a degree in comparative religion from Wesleyan and a gig writing witty, poetic song lyrics for the Grateful Dead. (The Dead’s guitarist Bob Weir was Barlow’s friend from adolescence.) Adventures ensued, of course—but not just adventures. By the seventies, Barlow’s life goals had become “being a good ancestor”; remembering that “it’s not either/or, it’s both/and”; and practicing “pronoia,” which he defined as “the suspicion the universe is a conspiracy on your behalf.”
When he reached thirty in the late eighties, he wrote out for himself his two dozen principles of adult behavior. Some of these principles are quite practical: “Assign responsibility, not blame.” “Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.” “Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission, and pursue that.” But others are less earthy, more in sync with the man’s Grateful Dead work: “Expand your sense of the possible.” “Laugh at yourself frequently.” “Become less suspicious of joy.”
4. Barlow could pen some seriously flavorful prose. He unleashed it in essays for Wired, diatribes in the New York Times, Facebook posts, and group emails. I often begged Barlow to write an autobiography, and as with so much else, my friend got in right under the wire. As he lay dying, he dictated a memoir to the author Robert Greenfield. Mother American Night was published earlier this month.
5. When Barlow wasn’t raising cattle, raising consciousness, or raising hell, he worked as an activist. And in no sphere were his patriotic efforts more farsighted, bold, and effective than in his advocacy for net neutrality, long before that term even existed. Back when cyberspace was still being born (Barlow had borrowed cyberspace from the novelist William Gibson and assigned it to the online realm), he recognized that “information is power if you can share it, validate it, vet it, and contribute it to that global awareness that we are all in the process here of creating. For the first time in human history, we are on the verge of being able to convey a right to everybody on this planet … the right to know.”
Barlow cofounded the Electronic Frontier Foundation along with two able comrades, John Gilmore and Mitch Kapor. He also started the Freedom of the Press Foundation and set down, in 1996, his seminal “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Written as a reaction to that year’s Communications Decency Act, which Barlow perceived as an affront and threat to the Internet’s free flow of thought, the “Declaration” begins, “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
6. Another of Barlow’s principles was to “live memorably.” As the reader will have gleaned by now, Barlow did. In one email to friends, he boasted that, among his other accomplishments, he’d
discussed automobile mechanics with a holy man on a mountain top in India … made a dead-stick forced landing on a private airstrip … been in weather so cold my eyes froze shut (and, while blind, had to ask a real Wyoming cowboy to lick them open) … been shot at and missed by a Russian poet/gangster while protecting one of the last living Romanovs … played the lover of Lady Ada Lovelace and received thereby a smokin’ kiss from Tilda Swinton … talked Tim Leary out of having his head cut off and frozen … encountered Richard Nixon 3 times when one wouldn’t have expected him … dropped names so heavily that it was more like strafing … made shit up when the truth was more interesting (but far less plausible) … destroyed countless enemies by turning them into friends … and on occasion … bragged even more shamelessly than I am here.
7. Like Barlow, I’m an only child, and in one of our best talks together, we discussed this condition. I realized that he trumped me, though, when he mentioned he’d had a sibling: a twin who’d died at birth. I thought of this at his memorial, which was held on April 8 in San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. At this so-called “graduation from meatspace,” friends and family told stories about the man while Edward Snowden (broadcast live from Russia) spoke of Barlow’s political importance and the house band (which featured Bob Weir, Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads, Sean Lennon, Harper Simon, and Lukas Nelson) played Barlow’s greatest hits. In one room stood an altar devoted to Barlow, and displayed on it were those laser-shooting black gloves he’d worn the first night I met him.
His friend “Mountain Girl” Garcia jokingly recalled how Barlow’s three A.M. need-to-spiel phone calls were delightful but “caused trouble” in her marriage. She attributed Barlow’s thousands of friendships to his “deep need” to make essential human connections. This need, she suggested, originated with his solitary childhood in the rural West: “He told me that on that remote ranch there really wasn’t anybody for him to play with.” Recalling that twin he’d known in the womb yet lost forever, I thought about how that deep need for human connections might’ve started even earlier than childhood.
8. Barlow was an alpha-male rogue, and he pissed me off once or twice. I’ve heard he pissed off other people too. When he got irascible or too self-focused, he could definitely leave wreckage in his wake. But given how charming he was, nearly everyone forgave him for it. (Note the “nearly.”) I certainly did.
9. Even in his illness-wracked last years, Barlow stayed positive, telling one of his daughters, “I feel terrible—but I’m doing great.” He stayed active, too, working ardently on an innovative clean-energy project that he’d developed with a chemist. The final time I saw him was when a mutual friend and I visited him in a San Francisco hospital. Halfway through uttering one of his characteristically labyrinthine sentences, Barlow fell asleep. “Maybe we should leave?” I said to our friend. “Not yet,” she told me, knowing him better than I did. “He’ll wake up soon.” Sure enough, he did—and resumed speaking from exactly the point in the sentence where he’d left off.
10. Now that the FCC has rolled back the Obama-era net neutrality rules, the Internet’s openness and fairness—those very qualities that Barlow prized—are threatened as never before. Like so many of us, Barlow would no doubt be disgusted at our currently configured FCC—and the integrity-starved executive branch to which that FCC belongs. But I don’t believe Barlow would feel hopeless. After all, he once said that “groundless hope, like unconditional love, is the only kind worth having.” And in his memoir, he tells this piquant story: While driving around Utah one night in the eighties, he picked up a hitchhiker, a troubled homeless man, with whom Barlow, characteristically, launched into a theological discussion. “I said, ‘So you have a very personal God?’ And he said,‘’Yup.’ And I said, ‘If you’ll pardon me, the personal God you’re serving … seems to be treating you like shit. Whereas I’m doing okay and I don’t have one.’ And he said, ‘You know, every soul comes into the world to take a curriculum. Some of us are taking Basket Weaving 101 and some of us are taking Astrophysics 406, and I’m pleased to be taking the harder courses.’ ”
Nationally speaking—hell, globally speaking—we now find ourselves faced with one maddeningly difficult “curriculum.” Perhaps the best way forward is the John Perry Barlow way: to learn as many lessons as possible while remembering that although we may indeed be going to hell in a bucket, it’s still possible—and sanity restoring—to try to enjoy the ride.
Gary Lippman is a lapsed lawyer and former Fodor’s travel writer. His play Paradox Lust appeared Off-Broadway, his fiction has appeared in Open City, and his heart is in the Highlands.
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