John Perry Barlow at LeWeb in London
John Perry Barlow at LeWeb in London

LeWeb : John Perry Barlow's lessons from the original digital hippie

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

What’s the best way to become a hippie? Write songs for the Grateful Dead which is exactly what John Perry Barlow used to do. By definition almost, a hippie is someone impractical, who has gone off to the woods, with moss on one side of his face and unexamined beliefs on the other.

For them it was practical. Very practical. They started off ignoring record company advice – and making no money. They ended up as a band who could fill any stadium in the US. And they did it by sharing their music. It prepared him for understand the virtual world in a way most people struggle with still. With atoms it’s easy to see that they have a value, a relationship based on scarcity. Diamonds aren’t particularly rare – but because one company controls most of the supply, they can create scarcity and value. If he had the world’s biggest diamond in his pocket, he couldn’t share it with us without destroying its value. If he has a song in his head, it is valueless unless he shares it.

There are people trying to take ideas and information into their clutches, and claim it as their property. That holds back the moment – which is coming soon – that anyone on the face of the planet can learn about anything that is known.

The right to know

If there is a right to know, the human race will become a more advanced species more quickly – it is in our nature to seek the truth. When he’s feeling hopeless about this, he goes to a Wikipedia page about something he knows and cares about – and finds to his satisfaction that it has grown since he last checked it, and there’s nothing there he would disagree with.

He wants to write the dot.Communist manifesto. Things have changed since the communist manifesto. We need to move on. We’ll need to kill some things – old, godless institutions, for example. He finds music companies talking about piracy deeply ironic, given what they did to musicians.

He’s spent a good chunk of his life trying to eliminate broadcast media. They’re doing a pretty good job of it by themselves, but he’d like to hustle that along. He doesn’t want to be broadcast – he wants this to be a conversation.


Jacqui Taylor – what should a forum I’m developing with “agile” lawyers deal with first?

Abolish the notion of intellectual property. It was a limited term monopoly on expression of an idea, but it grows and grows. It’s impractical to own this stuff. There are many other relationships of a service nature we can have with our work.

How are people who write a book or write a song going to make a living?

Just because we gave away our music doesn’t mean that we didn’t make money. The Deadheads had access to all our music, but all our studio records went platinum eventually. As long as you have a model that allows ownership of a work be taken away from them, it’s easy not to pay musicians. I want them to be paid.

Fun fact: He was in the middle of a dance and quite drunk at the World Economic Forum when he wrote the declaration of independence of cyberspace.

During questions with Loïc he suggested that today's news – that the Obama adminstration is routinely accessing more records tham anyone expected – shows that the situation is worse than he thought. He doesn’t expect the battle for digital freedom to be won in his lifetime, but he will stay faithful to the fight.

He wants to do his very best to be a good ancestor.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.