Information technologies warp our minds. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ever since the first information technology—the alphabet—came along, our species has experienced psychological, if not physiological, paradigm shifts that have enabled us to grope our way towards the future. Often the new way of relating is awkward. Even the most willing participants in technology may not comprehend the full meaning and scope of a shift as it is occurring.
Take, for example the written word. Once upon a time, text was something that only high-ranking castes would ever encounter. Even then, the technology of writing created some issues. Official writs were clumsy, and included odd proclamations to the people of the future. Coming from a formerly oral tradition, the idea that language could be recorded for posterity was a real mindfuck.
As printing became democratized, things got even goofier. When Don Quixote—widely recognized as one of the first popular printed entertainments—was published, many readers were not yet able to fully comprehend written fiction, to say nothing of satire. Some readers became angry that Cervantes was lying to them—they believed the story was literal because it was written down. You might think that’s strange, but every new means of information exchange seems to wreak havoc on veracity. The Internet is no different. The Birther movement was born from email forwards. “I read it online! It has to be true!”
And then came Alex Jones.
There have been other bumps on the road to a globally networked culture. The inherently promiscuous nature of the Internet freaked out those who had built massive, corporate empires on intellectual property (including the entertainment industries). They aren’t crazy. You see, information has never wanted to be “free.” In either a liberal or totalitarian universe, it wants to be regulated in order to preserve or consolidate power and wealth. These days, it’s not even a fight between “tech and content”—the real battle is about who is in position to profit most from information access and distribution. I recently joked that my professional life is a protracted exercise in figuring out which side I have the least sympathy for. (It’s a tie.)
In a historic context, we see the influence wielded by a priestly caste through a monopoly on written language; in our contemporary times, we begin to discern how massively-scaled Internet companies are situated with governments seeking unfettered access to data for purposes of security.
The gestation of these tensions began in not some fog-shrouded era, but one much closer to our own. (Actually, the 1960s could be described as “fog-shrouded,” but for different reasons.) It was a volatile and uncanny time, especially at the hippie movement’s epicenter in Northern California. Dropouts, freaks, homeless kids, criminals, mystics, hustlers and artists intermingled with intellectuals and radicals from the elite universities. “Freedom,” as a bedrock American ideal, mutated into new expressions—the reverberations of which our society is still experiencing.
Like most Edens, this one came with serpents. One counterculture snake in the garden was the belief that a shortcut to enlightenment could be found through drugs like LSD or the practice of radical individualism. And once this belief took seed in the fertile intellectual soil of the Northern California, an even greater outgrowth emerged. This garden is more commonly known as Silicon Valley.
Its trees have produced remarkable fruit—whether nourishing or toxic depends on one’s own orientation. It’s become a new American pastime to ponder the Silicon Valley mindset. Like many communities, it’s not monolithic—nor do its principals and evangelists espouse a singular ideology. This is in keeping with a culture that lionizes disruptors. But there are some through lines.
One of the more significant thinkers among the SV intellectual elite is John Perry Barlow, who, as a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, has deep roots in the counterculture. Barlow correctly anticipated that the emerging cyberculture (a phrase he helped coin) would test legal and social conventions. He also co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in 1990, and issued the much-ballyhooed Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in 1996.
I’ve long been interested in Barlow. I’m not a fan of Bob Weir (the Dead co-leader for whom he wrote lyrics), and our views on intellectual property are divergent. Still, JPB is a compelling figure—as a young Republican, he helped send Dick Cheney to Congress, and has done more to foment the technolibertarian worldview than any other individual you’d care to name.
In the middle of the last decade, Barlow’s long-held libertarian views evolved. He seemed to intuit that the information structures promising liberation could also be used for greater control. How’s that for a feedback loop? I certainly admire his intellectual flexibility, even as I bristle at many of his notions of intellectual property and digital culture. Still, if a guy can go from Dick Cheney to Democrat, that says something… what exactly, I’m not sure.
Last night, I took some time to read a 2004 interview with Reason magazine. The following are excerpts, with my own commentary in brackets. Barlow’s diagnosis of monopolistic technologies and the then-emerging national security industrial complex is spot on, even if he wasn’t able to perfectly predict today’s players.
We’ve got two distinct strains of libertarianism, and the hippie-mystic strain is not engaging in politics, and the Ayn Rand strain is basically dismantling government in a way that is giving complete open field running to multinational corporatism. [Swap ‘hippie-mystic’ for ‘disruptor-innovator.’]That system [permission computing] is supposed to be designed to help control digital rights management. By its nature it will be great for political rights management, because it’s an enormously penetrative surveillance tool, and it makes it hard to do anything anonymously involving a computer. Here is a monopoly in essence, the Wintel monopoly—Windows/Intel—which has enormous global power and which no government is willing to stand up to, at least effectively, so far. [You know what to swap.]
The multinationals have reached the point where they are essentially replacing the nation-state. I look at a multinational as an organism. It is not a human being and doesn’t have any characteristics of a human being. It is as much unlike a human being as a coral reef is unlike a coral polyp or an anthill unlike an ant.
It is an extremely advanced piece of evolutionary design that is capable of having its way in the world and competing with human beings for the world’s resources. From a multinational’s standpoint, the best thing that can happen is the best thing that can happen right now. They have to deliver maximum shareholder value today, next quarter, which means that they don’t worry about whether there are going to be resources for them to exploit in 10 years.
Barlow didn’t get everything right. As prescient as he is on matters of corporatism and Internet governance, his inability (as well as that of others) to think through the repercussions of the so-called “sharing economy” continue to frustrate discussions about the economics of cultural production online.
Information technology will no doubt keep on warping our minds. My advice? Take six tabs and call me from the future.