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<nettime> Wash Post: Jacob Silverman: the man whose utopian vision conquered, then warped, SV


http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-one-mans-utopian-vision-for-the-internet-conquered-and-then-badly-warped-silicon-valley/2015/03/20/7dbe39f8-cdab-11e4-a2a7-9517a3a70506_story.html


Meet the man whose utopian vision for the Internet conquered, and then
warped, Silicon Valley

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   By Jacob Silverman March 20 at 11:28 AM

        Jacob Silverman is the author of "Terms of Service: Social Media
        and the Price of Constant Connection," from which this article is
        adapted.

   Twenty years ago, the conditions facing the technology industry were
   not unlike those today. A burgeoning consumer market, declining
   manufacturing costs and easy access to venture capital had begun to
   inflate the dot-com bubble. Cryptographers were at war with the
   government over whether encryption tools should have back doors for law
   enforcement. And a new generation of Internet activists both feared and
   welcomed the impact of pending government regulation; in this case, the
   period equivalent of "net neutrality" was the
   Telecommunications Act of 1996 .

   Even as Silicon Valley began to capture the country's imagination, the
   tech elite were souring on their government. They accommodated it where
   they thought they needed to -- telecom firms, for instance, enabled
   surveillance by acquiescing to records requests from the intelligence
   agencies -- and they received tokens such as start-up tax breaks and
   STEM investments in return. But eventually the predominant attitude was
   alienation: The Internet was theirs, not Big Brother's. That feeling
   only deepened over the past two decades and, thanks to the revelations
   of Edward Snowden, tech executives now feel emboldened to challenge
   government surveillance with lawyers and encryption. Meanwhile,
   they routinely compare their corporations to city-states or call
   for the secession of the San Francisco Bay Area.

   To understand where this cyber-libertarian ideology came from, you have
   to understand the influence of "A Declaration of the Independence
   of Cyberspace," one of the strangest artifacts of the '90s, and its
   singular author, John Perry Barlow. Perhaps more than any other,
   it's his philosophy -- which melded countercultural utopianism, a
   rancher's skepticism toward government and a futurist's faith in the
   virtual world -- that shaped the industry.

   The problem is, we've reaped what he sowed.

   Generally the province of fascists, artists or fascist artists,
   manifestos are a dying form. It takes gall to have published one
   anytime after, say, 1938. But "A Declaration of the Independence of
   Cyberspace" was an utterly serious document for a deliriously
   optimistic era that Wired, on one of its many valedictory covers,
   promised was a "long boom": "25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a
   better environment for the whole world." Techno-skeptics need not
   apply.

   Barlow's 846-word text, published online in February 1996, begins with
   a bold rebuke of traditional sovereign powers: "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." He then explains how cyberspace is a
   place of ultimate freedom, where conventional laws don't apply. At the
   end, he exhorts the Internet to "be more humane and fair than the world
   your governments have made before."

   The declaration struck a chord. It wasn't the first viral document, but
   it was one of the period's most pervasive and influential,
   appearing on thousands of Web sites within months of its
   publication. Barlow's ideas were invoked, practically as a form of
   ritual, by many of the industry's influential thinkers -- Web guru Jeff
   Jarvis, Wired founder Kevin Kelly, virtual-reality inventor Jaron
   Lanier. It led to the author's writing (whether journalistic dispatches
   for Wired or essays outlining his political vision) becoming widely
   anthologized; "The Libertarian Reader," published last month by
   Simon & Schuster, includes a Barlow thought experiment on the
   future of government. And like everything from the 1990s, "A
   Declaration" is prone to commoditized nostalgia: A few months back, a
   company called Department of Records released several audio
   renditions on limited-edition vinyl, priced at $50.

   More than that, the language and sensibility suffused Silicon Valley
   thinking. When Eric Schmidt describes the Internet, however
   misguidedly, as "the world's largest ungoverned space" in his book
   "The New Digital Age," he is borrowing Barlow's rhetoric. When tech
   mogul Peter Thiel writes, in "The Education of a Libertarian," that
   he founded PayPal to create a currency free from government control and
   that "by starting a new Internet business, an entrepreneur may create a
   new world," it's impossible not to hear Barlovian echoes. (That
   grandiose attitude is so common now that HBO has a comedy, "Silicon
   Valley," dedicated to mocking it.)

   All this was an unlikely achievement for a man who personified what the
   British theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron called "the
   Californian Ideology." Barlow wrote songs for the Grateful Dead, tended
   to his parents' Wyoming ranch in the waning days of family farms and
   eventually helped co-found the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a
   digital rights advocacy organization. The trajectory of his life is
   embodied in the title of Fred Turner's excellent history of the era,
   "From Counterculture to Cyberculture," about how hippie
   communitarianism found its way into early Web communities like The
   WELL, a popular message board.

   To Barbrook and Cameron, the Californian Ideology reflected a "new
   faith" emerging "from a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of
   San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley." It mixed
   "the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal
   of the yuppies" and drew on the state's history of countercultural
   rebellion, its role as a crucible of the New Left, the global-village
   prophecies of media theorist Marshall McLuhan and "a profound faith in
   the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies."
   Adherents of the California Ideology -- many of them survivors of the
   "Me" decade, weaned on sci-fi novels, self-help and New Age
   spiritualism -- forsook the civil actions of an earlier generation.
   They thought freedom would be found not in the streets but in an
   "electronic agora," an open digital marketplace where individuality
   would be allowed its fullest expression, away from the encumbrances of
   government and even of the physical world.

   Part of this belief system's appeal was its ability to combine a host
   of sometimes incompatible ideas: radical individualism and digital
   community; neoliberal, free-market capitalism and an Internet industry
   pioneered by government grants; spiritual truth-seeking and corporate
   conformity. For hackers turned systems engineers or graffiti artists
   turned graphic designers, it held great appeal. It promised that they
   had value and might make the world a better place. Joining Microsoft or
   AOL didn't mean selling out; it just meant recalibrating one's sense of
   how utopia might be achieved.

   Barlow's writings were tailor-made for this period of techie euphoria,
   which seemed to herald a revolution not only in communications and
   commerce, but also in social relations and culture. Barlow, with his
   ranching background, saw the Internet as a vast, borderless electronic
   frontier. Whereas the hippie generation explored Eastern religions and
   hallucinogenic drugs as pathways to enlightenment or psychic renewal,
   Barlow's generation seized on the consciousness-expanding potential of
   the Web. (For some, the adaptation was quite explicit: One software
   company recruited Timothy Leary, the former Harvard professor and
   LSD booster, to appear in its promotional videos.) Barlow's
   declaration, then, fused some of these strands of American idealism.

   Yet there was something quixotic about "A Declaration." Barlow was
   articulating noble principles (free speech; egalitarianism; freedom
   from discrimination, bias and oppression), but his desire for
   "independence" from the world of flesh and bureaucracy was naive. From
   its earliest incarnation as ARPANET, the Internet owed its existence to
   the U.S. government. It was always an infrastructure project with a
   physical presence in the world -- wires, routers, servers, data centers
   and computers to interface with them. It may have helped bits cross
   borders, but that didn't mean that borders or laws no longer mattered.
   With today's debates over mass surveillance, it's clear that
   governments exercise a great deal of power online.

   The text itself has aged poorly, too. Its dateline -- Barlow published
   the document from the World Economic Forum conference in Davos,
   Switzerland -- shows that Internet pioneers were far more wrapped up in
   the traditional power structure than they might acknowledge. (Barlow
   had worked on one of the congressional campaigns of Dick Cheney, a
   fellow Wyoming man.)

   And it's not just governments that have grown more powerful online.
   Companies have used the notion of an independent Internet to justify
   calling themselves its sovereign authorities. Using the vaguely
   humanitarian rhetoric of "connection," they cast themselves as the
   handmaidens to our digital emancipation. But at the same time they have
   become even more adept at bulk data collection than the government.
   Meanwhile, they are the ones that decide how to manage our
   communications and which reforms are instituted. Even a populist
   measure like net neutrality was shepherded to passage by some of
   the industry's biggest players.

   Barlow has watched this Orwellian change with some discomfort. "Anybody
   that made it through the '90s and [aughts] without having their
   libertarianism taking a pretty good hit wasn't paying attention," he
   says in a recent telephone interview. "We deregulated every g--d---
   thing, and it came back at us in this way that we may never recover."

   It's a surprising turnabout for a man once feted by the Cato Institute,
   the preferred think tank of the Koch brothers. But Barlow isn't quite
   ready to classify Palo Alto and Mountain View alongside Washington,
   D.C., as potentially abusive power centers. He speaks well of Google
   and Facebook, which he believes are "acting out of conscience," and he
   worries more about government surveillance than its corporate cousin.

   "We've got big black boxes in Langley and Fort Meade that can
   conceivably know everything about everybody," he says. "We don't know
   what they're going to do with that information, what judgments they're
   going to make, what invisible constraints they might put on us." His
   worry is that they understand us, while we don't understand them. "It's
   the asymmetry that bothers me."

   The asymmetry, though, is everywhere -- and it is especially strong in
   Silicon Valley, which has left people like Barlow behind. Its utopian
   visions long ago lost their countercultural, communitarian impulses.
   Today's ambitions include Randian projects like secession,
   seasteading or private "innovation zones" where government
   regulations wouldn't apply. Even when developers and venture
   capitalists vow that their new apps will "change the world," they are
   generally talking about making life easier for the millennial set. Uber
   is not exactly the "new home of Mind."

   The disappointments accrue from there -- tech companies' slavish
   devotion to advertising, massive inequality and the labor inequities in
   the "sharing economy"; the displacement of San Francisco's working
   class; the emergence of Google as a major lobbyist as calculating
   as any defense contractor (which Google now is, thanks to its
   robotics investments).

   The result is a tech economy in which fantastic profits come by
   monitoring our every click and heartbeat. Massive data breaches have
   become regular events, yet tech companies ask that we continue to fork
   over more data that they might sell to data brokers. Data brokers, in
   turn, form dossiers often based on awful, if not predatory, criteria;
   some have offered to sell lists of rape survivors or of senior
   citizens who have dementia. Our much-mythologized Internet industry has
   helped turn this crude apparatus into a $156 billion business -- one
   that determines the ads we see, the services we rely on and our very
   means of communication. It already shapes the way we live.

   Barlow once wrote that "trusting the government with your privacy
   is like having a Peeping Tom install your window blinds." But the
   Barlovian focus on government overreach leaves its author and other
   libertarians blind to the same encroachments on our autonomy from the
   private sector. The bold and romantic techno-utopian ideals of "A
   Declaration" no longer need to be fought for, because they're already
   gone.

   Twitter:  {AT} silvermanjacob

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