John Perry Barlow

Re-Experimentalizing Information

I do not like broadcast media, and I have no interest in becoming a broadcast medium. So what I would like to do here is to have a conversation with you. I will start out by defining the area(s) in which we might converse, and then I hope that we can go back and forth. I have no interest in standing up here and engaging in some one-way flow of information; if I were going to do that, it would be easier for me to stay in the United States and write and have you stay here and read it.

Originally, when I was asked what I wanted to talk about, given the nature of this exhibition, I thought that what I wanted to talk about is a favorite subject of mine, which is the difference between information and experience. Because I think that, certainly in the United States, this is not a well-known difference. Most of the cognitive activity in the United States is not stimulated by experience, such as the phenomenal input that you are having right at this moment, but is stimulated by information which comes through some medium or another. Their map of the world is largely the result of that information, and as such, is denatured and increasingly hallucinatory. But having been here for the last few days and listening to the foregoing, I think this is perilously close to postmodernism, and you do not need anymore of that today. So I am going to talk about something else altogether, which is closer to the theme of this conference.

One of the reasons I decided that I wanted to speak here was because I am a member of a small, self-generative little religion that has a number of forming precepts, some of which have to do with chaos theory. I run across these folks, the other members of my religion all over the planet, my phrase for them, every time I encounter one, is that: here is another person who went up in the same flying saucer I did. Because I have no other explanation for why they would all feel and believe so many of the same odd little things that I believe in.

One of the things that we all tend to believe is that practically everything that happens in the world is a natural system, and that natural systems are highly dependant on their initial conditions, and that the flapping of a butterfly wing over Tokyo can cause a thunderstorm over the United States two days later. And I think about this primarily with regard to culture, which is a life form and a natural system. What we are engaged in as a species at the moment is one of those great discontinuities where all the creatures of culture are about to shift very dynamically, and there is going to be one of those explosions of new life forms, such as we had at the beginning of the Cambrian period. These would not be carbon-based life forms; they would be informational life forms. And they would be cultural. And they are already beginning to be formed, and they are beginning to be formed in places like Budapest, which is a particularly good ecosystem for forming such creatures, given the fact that it is on the edge of a lot of different energy fields and ecologies. This is a place which has been engaging in cultural arbitrage for a long time and knows a lot about both cultural immune response and cultural symbiosis, and how to take those things that happen between cultures at the edges and turn them into energy which is artistic, philosophical and most of all, economic.

I should say that another odd precept of this religion of mine is the belief that much of the energy that comes into the world and forms the basis of economy is not the result of decaying chemicals. And not an artifact of entropy, but is what we would call "extropy," i.e., the energy that comes out of transaction itself, the energy that is gained in the transaction, and not the energy that is lost.

For example, if you are dealing purely in information, any time a piece of information passes from one point to another point, both points continue to have it, and the information becomes more valuable in the space between those two points by virtue of the fact that both points continue to have it. This is how much of economy actually works, and it is also how much of the economy of mind actually works, and it is also how much of the ecology actually works. If you take a look at either a rainforest or a coral reef, you will see that many of the inputs and outputs from the outside are minimal, but the energy that is in the system is being generated by the density of the transactional flow, the amount of time that the energy is being exchanged back and forth.

Budapest is one of those places where that kind of energy flow is going to get increasingly dense as we continue to do what I think we are doing, which is hard-wiring the planetary nervous system. The Internet is not an information-superhighway; and in fact, if you hear somebody use that phrase now, you can be well assured that either they do not know what they are talking about, or they are employed by some large doomed organization, whether it is a company or a government, which is under the impression that it can go on with business as usual, creating the new artifacts of an extension of the industrial period. The industrial period is over, and most of its institutions will die with it. Among those are the nation-state and the multi-national corporation. (I would go short on all of those kinds of institutions at the moment.) Where things are headed is back toward the city-state, and there are going to be a number of great city-states on this planet, and this is going to be one of them.

There are reasons to think that the entire of Eastern Europe is about to look at a promising future because you can leapfrog by virtue of having never really built much of an industrial infrastructure under the previous system. You can leapfrog the tail-end of the industrial period and go directly into the informational period. And you do not have to spend a lot of time and money on the mistakes that we have made, nor do you have large institutions like, let's say, in our country, AT&T, or what remains of the original Bell Operating Systems, or, as in the rest of Europe, the PTT's, squatting heavily on top of your information future and trying to prevent it as best they can. So I think it is very promising here.

The other thing I managed to get - I was looking to get down into the basement here again after being up in the office, and I wandered into the exhibit which had been closed up and I had not seen yet. And I had one of those Foucault experiences, where you are wandering alone in the museum without any guidance, without knowing what it is all supposed to be about, without going through the tour in the right sequence. It is a beautiful exhibit by the way, I was very impressed with it, a little dazzled and confused by virtue of the way in which I was doing it. I realized that what all of those things were about there: the books and the machines, the screens and the projectors - those were about the idea that there has to be some way of getting thought from one human cranial cavity to another. There has to be some means of conveying that, and almost all the means that we have derived so far have been asymmetrical, whether it was the book or the radio or the television, or video, it was all a one-way flow; it was not conversational. And it was also a medium in every instance; the Internet, I am beginning to think, is not a medium, unless you would say that the ocean is a medium to a fish - the Internet is an environment. It is not a place where thought passes from one cranial cavity to another; it is a place where the distance between the cranial cavities is gradually filled in with other supportive ecologies for thought, besides the human nervous system.

It is not out of the question that every human synapse on this planet will be continuously connected to every other human synapse on this planet sometime in the next five hundred years. And what that will do in terms of who we are, what it is to be human, will be as profound as any act of technology since the capture of fire. We had best prepare ourselves for this because what we do now, and what we think now, will be that butterfly flapping in the beginning. Culture scales.

What the Net is at its outset is what the Net will become. I see plenty of evidence to this; I started to feel this was a possibility clear back in about 1988, when there probably were not more than five hundred thousand people on the Internet. They seemed to have a particular cultural flavor; they had a particular political perspective, and everybody wondered what was going to happen if the Internet would continue to grow at its present rate. After, it was flooded with more and more people who were not computer geeks. Who did not have the cultural flavor of the model railroad club at MIT in 1970, which had been the cultural flavor of the Net in its early days. The amazing thing that happened is that since then, it has gone through many cycles of exponential growth, i.e., doubling every nine months in size, and it still has the same cultural flavor and political perspective that it did when it had five hundred thousand people, in spite of the fact that you have got people from all over the planet there now.

There is reason to believe that what we injected into that system in its early days will be there centuries from now, and we should be very careful and thoughtful about what we put into it, and how we put it in, and we should be very careful and thoughtful about what we let the declining governments of the industrial period put in for us. Because they are threatened by this, it will finish them off, and they are going to try to destroy it in any way they can, and they are going to inject as much fear and control as possible into it. And we should be very careful about stopping any of those efforts, regardless how well-intentioned they may seem. It is difficult to defend certain kinds of information: neo-Nazism, skinheads, depictions of children having sex with animals. But if you are going to have an environment which is completely free, it will be free to every manifestation that the human mind can produce, and thus will be free to the content that you yourself might find most offensive. John Stuart Mill said that liberty resides in the rights of that person whose views you find most odious. And that would be a good thing to remember in the next few years, when your governments will be asking you to allow them to control the Internet on the basis of its containing things that you yourself find odious. Because if you do that, you may be injecting into your future, into the future of (hu)mankind, the kind of fear and control that you do not want to be part of the flavor of the future.

We need to think very carefully about how to be good ancestors because we are at a critical moment in human history. The butterfly wing is flapping now, and we are flapping it. This is important. We should do something holy at this point, now.

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