John Perry Barlow (by way of Pit Schultz <>) on Thu, 5 Dec 96 21:19 MET

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nettime: The Best of All Possible Worlds


The Best of All Possible Worlds

for Communications of the ACM, 50th Anniversary Issue
by John Perry Barlow

                Prediction is difficult, especially of the future.

                --Niels Bohr

One of the hazards of making yourself a public spectacle is that often the
audience doesn't get it and hangs you as your own effigy. So, since I
sometimes speculate about the potential consequences of technology, I'm
often accused of being a "futurist," even though I think predicting the
future is like predicting weather in the mountains, something we in Wyoming
leave to newcomers and fools.

There are no uncloudy crystal balls. Consider, for example, nearly all of
the science fiction I read as a teenager in the 60's. The transformative
technology was to be rocket science. No question about it. Almost no one
thought that bits would be bigger than boosters.

Or go see 2001: A Space Odyssey, a rare exception to that rule. There we
were shown a world in which computer technology would move even faster than
it actually did - we're a lot more than 5 years away from a HAL 9000
computer, thank God - while society would remain static. In this
projection, space travel becomes commonplace, but the Cold War continues,
as does Pan American Airlines, and the Bell System. Indeed, all the big
institutions of the 60's have only gotten bigger, the authority in their
hierarchies even less open to question.

Given the thrashing those forecasts have been dealt by a mere thirty years
of exposure to reality, it seems the one certain prediction I can make of
the world 50 years from now is that practically anything I say of it now
will seem silly by then.

This is why I generally stick to being a "presentist," a Peripheral
Visionary at best. Predicting the present isn't as useless as it sounds,
given that most everyone else seems so busy predicting the past.

I'm also accused sometimes of being an optimist. It's interesting that
describing someone as optimistic has become a charge rather than an
accolade. It is even more interesting, since this characterization is
usually hurled with the greatest contempt, especially by some post-Marxist
Europeans - still aching over the dashing of their own utopian vision - who
seem convinced that anyone who thinks technology might provide a better
future is immorally misguided, a dupe of the same dark forces that brought
us television and pantyhose.  As though I were a fan of either of these

Of course, I bring this on myself. I can be an excitable boy. My sometime
cyber-sidekick Mitch Kapor claims I need a "hyperbolectomy" and a recent
parody of Wired magazine has a certain "John Barry Barleycorn" saying:
"Cyberspace transcends our very existence. It knows no laws. It is more
important than anything ever."

The terrible truth is that I actually believe something so close to this
that mocking my views represents them far too accurately. Indeed, it was
describing me that someone derived the term "pronoid" which is, as she put
it, "someone who believes that the universe is a conspiracy on his behalf."
I can't help it, and, besides, it's more fun this way.

But I think optimism is a little like Pascal's Wager. In this formulation,
the great French logician declared he might as well believe in God, since
if it turned out there weren't One, he hadn't lost much by his error. I
feel the same about optimism. We can know but little of the future, but if
we assume that it might be a better place than the present, the trip there
will certainly be more enjoyable. And what harm will be done by our failure
to dread it?

So, even while I think that it takes a fool to predict the future and mean
it, I sense little mischief in imagining futures in which the tools we now
possess have actually been put to the effective long-term purpose of
improving society. Besides, beneath the marketing gloss of John Sculley's
assertion that the best way to predict the future is to invent it, there
lies some truth. We become who we think we are - and might be.

For these reasons, and with these admonitions, I'm happy to respond to a
request from the editors of Communications of the ACM that I help celebrate
the 50th anniversary of the Association of Computing Machinery by providing
my giddiest projections of how the world a half century from now might have
benefited from the growing ubiquity of bits and their strange new ecology.
If, that is, were things to go better than they probably will.

So here are some predictions of the future digital technology might help us
build, if only we have the audacity to hope for it:

*       Universal Liberty

Liberty is one of those ideas we think we understand until we start asking
ourselves a few tough questions about it. At that point, it's usually
revealed we are actually talking about that state of increased latitude we
reserve for people like ourselves. Not so many would support John Stuart
Mill's statement that "Liberty lies in the rights of that person whose
views you find most odious."

But Mill was right. Tolerance is a weak virtue until one is ready to extend
it to the intolerable, especially those whose particular intolerability
descends from their unwillingness to tolerate the likes of you. The rest of
the time it's no more than a slightly abstract form of self-interest.

This is why, for most of human history, the odious have been confined to
their lonely street corners, or occasionally, the hard knots of their
fellow odious. The peculiar visions that surfaced on their own internal
ponds floated there, unable to reach the greater sea of Mind, on whose
distant shores others might have been infected by the contents of such
strange bottles as these.

In other words, they didn't make the cut. When Gutenberg came along with
his great industrial vision-bottler, the weird didn't get to fill many of
them. Books, the manufactured goods of expression, were, after all, a mass
commercial product. With a few notable exceptions, the odious were not
considered a viable market.

Comes now the Net. Suddenly, almost overnight, the odious have their
podium. It is now possible for anybody, anywhere, to express whatever he or
she thinks, and to set that thought loose in a space where it might
eventually encounter (and encourage) all the other weird souls ready to
believe it, wherever they might be.

Given that the Human Cause advances almost entirely on unwelcome ideas, I
can't help but think that this will give us a future of greatly increased
possibilities. And since life is about filling every available niche in the
possibility space, we could be ushering in a Cambrian-class explosion of
new life-forms, only a few of them carbon-based.

Of course, we might lose this splendid opportunity. The usual dominant
species, the authorities, may be able to kill this opportunity as they have
so many others. They are assembling in Congress, in Geneva, in your
father's living room. They are awakening and they are scared.

But for once, I think they won't prevail The combination of encryption
technology and packet-switched architecture may be simply too infectious
for them to control. Their lead-footed force will founder.

And all of us will at last be free to say what we believe. This could
happen. I think it will.

*       The End of Broadcast Media and the Beginning of the Great Conversation

If it is suddenly possible to spread ideas widely without first shoving
them through some centrally operated and intensely capitalized industrial
engine -  whether a complex of book binderies or 50, 000 watt transmitters
- then the whole nature of what is being sold to whom and by whom should
change for the better.

Attention has always the primary currency of an information economy. It
will continue to be. But now Big Media harvest simultaneously the attention
of millions of dimly-lit sofa spuds and sell it to the gigantic mass
producers who alone could afford it. Soon, the attention transaction will
have the opportunity to travel both directions and pass between broadly
distributed individuals.  This fundamentally changes the game.

It can expressed either as money or as increased attention on either side
of the exchange. I believe that the truth, or at least a more universally
defined consensus, will prosper as a result. Suddenly, an individual's
opinion is as valuable as his more obvious currency. A new economy is born.

This is because humans are not traditionally inclined to obtain their sense
of how things are by being carpet-bombed with institutional propaganda. For
most of our tenure as a species on this sphere , we drew our map of reality
atop the landscape of direct experience and our conversation with one
another about mutually and immediately observable phenomena.

 When we're having an experience, our senses ask millions of little
questions per second of the surrounding environment, testing the validity
of the answers we get back against their ability to yield the same result
repeatedly. We continually probe every available surface of the surrounding
perceptual plane.

As we tried to understand the world beyond our own direct experience, we
were stuck with information, which bears as much resemblance to experience
as beef jerky does to one of my former Herefords.

Information is not experience but rather the alienated and eviscerated
perceptions of others about some experience they've had or imagined,
compressed into symbols for easy transport. To convey information, we had
no choice but to rely on institutions big enough to pack large amounts of
these surrogates over distance, and thus arose media.

Lately, what we have been getting through these media is either rendered
hallucinatory with subliminal attention-seeking devices or is too limited
in point of view to tell us much. We've been left with a stuck loop where
the mass media continually re-affirm the delusions of the masses, while
transfixing them on single message pair: watch and buy, buy and watch.

We are far from a condition where electronics will provide us with genuine
experience at a distance, but we no longer have to get our sense of what is
going on in a distant place through either the keyhole of a TV screen or
the limited vision of a few reporters, who, unable to hear our questions,
can't tune their investigations accordingly.

Now we can converse with any number of strangers in remote locations, none
of whom might speak with the authority of the New York Times, but whose
collective story of what's going there won't have been put through an
institutional filter. As the conversation intensifies, it might begin to
simulate the instantaneous multiplicity of questions we can ask inside a
direct experience.

Also, because "content" can now arise as abundantly from the "consumer,"
the traditional media can start to get something from their audiences
besides money. They can harvest the rich store of oddball stories,
insights, and ideas that, save a few letters to the editor and a striking
video tape or two, have been inaudible against their own thunder from

At last, freedom of expression will belong not only to those who buy ink by
the barrel or transmitter power by the kilowatt. No longer will anyone have
to confine their expressions to ideas congenial to the media lords and
their advertisers.  Mass media will either die or become fragmented beyond
any credible authority.

*       Evenly Distributed Global Wealth in an Economy of Abundance

Of course, the first freedom is the freedom to survive. The streets of this
planet are filled with people who can say whatever they like but are too
busy negotiating the lower courses of Maslow's Pyramid of Values to
contribute much to the Human Endeavor. When you're starving, you've only
got one idea. And sharing it doesn't get you very far.

Part of the reason that so many human bellies remain empty is that the most
productive economic matrix we've been able to evolve so far, the industrial
free market system, is still both wasteful and selfish. It is a system that
naturally regulates toward scarcity since the most easily manipulated half
of the value equation is the supply side. Increasing demand is hard.
Reducing supply is too often easy.

Thus we have a world where billions starve while others are paid billions
not to grow food and where diamonds, though plentiful, are expensive since
the DeBeers Company owns most of them.

Physical economy is also a system in which the entire species competes for
what is thought to be a finite economic pie. It is an economy where entropy
rules. Each manufactured good depletes the general store of the energy and
the irreplaceable materials necessary to make it.  In each mercantile
transaction, there is a local gain to the manufacturer while the human race
as a whole is made incrementally poorer of the heat and minerals necessary
to make, say, a toaster.

The economy of ideas is different. In an economy of ideas, the collective
wealth increases. This is because we can sell our ideas and yet keep them
ourselves. Further, an idea becomes more valuable with each new mind it
infects because there is energy in the relationship between the transacted
idea and what it becomes within the context of another mind.

This is the very same principle that lies beneath the economy of life
itself, an economy that continues to add value to the world - increased
complexity, elevated energy, more diverse difference, an expanded
possibility space - even against the grim gravitational haul of entropy.
It is an economy in which the value of the transaction itself is greater
than the photons and atoms necessary to sustain its transactors.

Observe rain forests and coral reefs. Neither of these clouds of dense
transaction derive much from the surrounding environment. They both grow
out of sand and gravel. They live on the greatest "float" there is, the
biological free market.

The Net is an economy that consists of proliferating verbs, not vanishing
nouns. There are already great spewing fountains of wealth in the
informational world that will be increased by opportunities for additive
transaction in a global marketplace. And the marketplace will, I think, be
genuinely global, including those areas of the world that didn't make it
during the Industrial Age.

The warm belly of this planet is covered with human beings whose cultural
sense of what time is and how it works made them unable to partake in a
machine economy. They were poorly adapted to a system, so congenial to
Northern Europeans, that functioned by turning its constituents into
interchangeable parts whose interaction with the whole mechanical structure
depended on their willingness to be ruled by a punch-clock.

The soulful, asynchratic warmbloods of the Tropics and Southern Hemisphere
are people whose crania contain wetware as potentially capable of massive
information processing as we white boys. They are people who will be
grateful to employ that processing power for a hundredth of what we might
consider a living wage.

They are already performing data entry in places like the Philippines and
Sri Lanka. They are part of the explosion of computer programmers working
in Bangalore, India, now able to sell their code in a global market at a
price they consider princely but which would scarcely support a programmer
in Palo Alto.

There is a huge voltage potential between all that unused intelligence and
the human processing needs of a global information economy. All that is
required is the wiring necessary to bridge the gap. And I believe that
where there is voltage, the electrodes will eventually connect.

Furthermore, these new wires will be more efficiently laid than the first
hierarchical communications systems. They will grow in from the edges,
fueled by general desire rather than pointed avarice, and will be based on
the inherently more efficient architecture of packet-switching. Capital
costs will be low and broadly distributed.

Such changes will also lead to a system of resource exploitation that is
far more efficient than our current model, where much is lost to
transmission waste and jealously dedicated channels.

The lever of information becomes both longer and more pointed, able to
insert itself into the infinitely divisible opportunities of efficiency.
This is why the industrial societies are now affording economic production
roughly double to the 1970 levels on an energy expenditure that is only a
quarter larger. It is not the old industrial Economy of the Large but an
economy of more minutely engaged granularities.

Look at agriculture. In the course of a 100 years, America went from a food
production system that required 40 percent of the work force to feed a
population one third our present number, and did so from almost twice as
many acres as we currently devote to crops each year.

Today, fewer than one percent of the work force can wear a feed store cap
without looking phony, and even that number is bloated by folks who do it
for the satisfaction of tangibility and actually make their livings by
means outside the farm. Agriculture has become too productive for its own

This is partly the result of what rural philosopher Wendell Berry calls
"well-head agriculture," referring to farming amplified by petroleum,
whether through tractors or fertilizer.

But the real difference has been in the amplification of information;
creating more and more efficient use of non-renewable resources, exploring
larger and more complex market possibilities, wiring agricultural
information together from the science of agronomy to the "science" of
economics, and thus making a lever so long that everyone still in that
business could lean on it.

I dream of making many and much longer levers - even sharper probes - that
will have the same effect on all our physical economies. I imagine an
intraspecies nervous system, made of glass and microwaves and electricity,
spreading to connect all the minds who wish to be connected to it,
extracting from those minds the extropic value of a new world economy so
subtle in its expenditure of the planetary cupboard that Humanity might