Champion Of The Internet And Grateful Dead Lyricist John Perry Barlow Dies At 70

Feb 8, 2018
Originally published on February 8, 2018 7:18 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If many of us think the Internet should be a place where free speech reigns and governments take a light hand, it's probably in part due to a man named John Perry Barlow. He died this week at the age of 70. Rachael Myrow of member station KQED in San Francisco reports.

RACHAEL MYROW, BYLINE: John Perry Barlow came from Wyoming, so maybe that had something to do with his cyber-libertarian streak. Here he is introducing himself for a San Francisco episode of an audio tour produced by a company called Detour.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN PERRY BARLOW: I was a cattle rancher in Wyoming for about 40 years before I ever discovered the Internet. I decided to dedicate my life to its spread and its preservation and its eventual ability to bring us all together and to correct the sins of broadcast media, which had been very separating, in my view.

MYROW: In 1990, Barlow co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit civil liberties advocacy group. Today it's run by Cindy Cohn.

CINDY COHN: He wanted to give liberty a running start because we needed to talk about this new place as a place of freedom if we were going to have any hope of building it that way.

MYROW: Barlow's most famous essay was "A Declaration Of The Independence Of Cyberspace," which he released during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, way back in 1996. Some modern critics have argued his techno utopianism seems dated and naive in an era of mass government surveillance and politically manipulative algorithms. But Cohn says Barlow believed freedom has to be defended by the people who want it.

COHN: That's an important message right now because I think many people are feeling very powerless around some of the effects of technology that they're experiencing and may not recognize their own power to build a better world.

MYROW: Barlow did have a sense of the need for an individual code of conduct. As far back as 1977, he wrote "Principles Of Adult Behavior," a list of 25 rules that has enjoyed a long life on social platforms like Reddit. Here's just a few of those rules read by some of my colleagues at KQED.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Reading) Praise at least as often as you disparage.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Reading) Tolerate ambiguity.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Reading) Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Reading) Foster dignity. Live memorably.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOKS LIKE RAIN")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) The rain's going to come. Oh, it surely look like rain.

MYROW: If Barlow sounds like a bit of a cowboy poet, that's because he was one. Many folks also know him as a lyricist for the Grateful Dead. With founding member Bob Weir, Barlow wrote a number of songs, including "Cassidy," "Mexicali Blues" and "Looks Like Rain." You could say John Perry Barlow managed to follow his own edict. By all accounts, he lived memorably. For NPR News, I'm Rachael Myrow in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOKS LIKE RAIN")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Well, you know... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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