Liberation: It’s Here

John Perry Barlow:

I guess we’ve run out of time, but to the extent we haven’t, might I encourage you to address one question? I want to know whether you think that the Internet is a liberating phenomenon.

Is that a trick question? Of course the Internet is a liberating phenomenon—it’s liberating in so many different ways that we suffer almost epistemic confusion when trying to understand them all.

I think Google counts as liberation—from having to keep a big technical library, for starters (I hardly use my nonfiction books any more).

I think blogs count as liberation; they used to say that freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one, and now everybody owns one.

I think plain old email counts as liberation. Distance matters vastly less to our relationships than it did when we were kids. (Cellphones helped too, of course.)

OK, so we didn’t get the exact liberation, on the exact timeframe, that we expected before the fact. Do we ever when the revolution actually comes? Human beings almost always overestimate the impact of near-term technological change and underestimate the long-term impact. So it was with the telegraph, the telephone, and the television; so, I am sure, it will be with the Internet.

The kind of radical libertarian changes you and I and our peers dreamed of aren’t here yet, but I think they’ll come eventually. Of course, we might have to go through the Singularity to get there—but the Internet is helping that along, too.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In our techno-Utopian dreams, the advance of the internet is “a little like a cross between Adam Smith and Albert Einstein; the Invisible Hand accelerating toward the speed of light,” says tech visionary Jaron Lanier in this month’s big-thinking lead essay. Yet, according to Lanier, we chug along saddled by the illusion that the Internet is mainly a technological rather than a cultural phenomenon. Software, Lanier argues, is “brittle” and can continue to function only when backed by what he calls “Antigoras”– “privately owned digital meeting arenas made rich by unpaid or marginally paid labor … tweaking the global system of digital devices so that the bits in the various pieces of software remain functional and meaningful.” Antigoras are indispensable, but “if software stays brittle,” Lanier says, “there will be a huge dampening effect on any hyper-speed takeoff plans of the digital elite.” Takeoff velocity requires a reorientation that acknowledges that the “the Net is precisely the generosity and warmth of humanity connecting with itself.”

Response Essays

  • Open source software guru Eric S. Raymond takes issue with Lanier’s characterization of “lock-in,” his antipathy to the command line, and his discussion of ambiguity. Raymond claims that if Lanier’s point was just that the Internet is “a conduit of expression between people,” then he would stop in agreement. But, he writes, “the actual point seems to be to maintain an opposition between capitalism and (gift) culture that I think is … mistaken.”

  • Glenn Reynolds — taking pieces from both Lanier and Raymond — argues that small proprietary zones within the big open Internet — “semigoras” in Lanier’s terms — might prove “very fertile places for innovation and growth on the Internet” with the potential to empower individuals and small groups to “achieve the worker’s paradise” through technology and markets.

  • Ten years after his “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” John Perry Barlow insists that “the Internet continues to be an anti-sovereign social space, endowing billions with capacities for free expression that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.” A liberating future is still ahead, Barlow argues, but we must be on guard against a deep fact of both biology and markets: “New success inspires creativity. Old success tries to kill it.”