On The Burning Shore: John Perry Barlow

My mentor, friend, and confidante George Spehar used to describe himself as a “rancher and a banker,” re-investing his Wall Street compensation into his family ranch in Colorado, doubly reinforcing my first impression of him as a literal salt of the earth man. While handling billions of dollars a day, George was finely attuned to life with technology. When things broke, rather than slathering more technology on the problem, he had us pick up the phone and talk to someone in charge. Those calls to call were almost always punctuated with his “I’m freaking out” mantra, which impressed me as someone a Dead Head would say at the point of sensory overload. People, and the right answer, dominated his thinking and actions.

A few years earlier, long before “podcast” entered the vernacular as a way of connecting narrow audiences to quality content, Tim O’Reilly produced a series of technology interviews on audio cassette. One of them was with John Perry Barlow, with whom I was vaguely aware as a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and through that decided non-digital introduction I learned of his non-standard introduction as a rancher, Grateful Dead lyricist and big thinker about what we now consider our digital identities. Like George, “rancher” had a high placement in the career ladder, and on a much grander and global scale Barlow insisted that we stay attuned to basic human needs even as technology encroached from all sides.

Much of what we consider as digital freedoms, the use of the internet as a level playing field, the removal of social, technological and regulatory barriers that would form impediments to speaking, being heard and creating engagement, stem from Barlow’s guide star manifestos. He showed us how to hold up the technology mirror to our selves, reminding us that sometimes the personal contact equivalent to a phone call was the most critical engagement.

John Perry Barlow died this week, and the EFF’s Cindy Cohn captures his influence on that body beautifully.

The story comes full circle as I began exploring the Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station in more detail. Opening track “Estimated Prophet” was the hook that made me listen to the Dead beyond what was on rock radio, thanks to my roommate Tom. It’s one of 30 songs whose lyrics were penned by Barlow.

Laid down in a very funky, wah-rich 7/4, full of imagery of Moses and Ezekial, its lyrics have ended up in our Passover Haggadah. The wild-eyed prophet – whether he is (as Bob Weird once said) the crazy guy on the rail at a Dead show, raging on in his own bit of sensory overload, or a prophet of smoke and illusion who promises a future, fearful world – that’s the antithesis of Barlow’s work and intents. Re-read his calls for adult behavior, his belief in true digital freedom, and you see that the prophet isn’t a person, but technology itself. As a long-touring Dead Head might admonish, he wanted us to figure out how to be kind, in every way. While I never met him personally, that interview with Tim O’Reilly remains a foundation of my view of the socialization of technology, more than 20 years later, and his influence on people with whom I’ve had the pleasure of interacting is immeasurable.

We are left standing on the burning shore, and now more than ever need to carefully weigh the words of our prophets.

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