John Perry Barlow was a close collaborator and dear friend, since the first day I met him, in 2002. He was extremely encouraging, spoke at many of the events I organized, and was there for me generally, as I followed the breadcrumbs of my archival adventures. First as Dr. Timothy Leary’s Digital Librarian, next as the co-founder of Aaron Swartz Day, and most recently, as Chelsea Manning’s Archivist.
Barlow was a very exciting person to work with. In the beginning, there wasn’t much pressure during our meetings, while he answered questions about Dr. Timothy Leary, who he had a close and very interesting — albeit sometimes strained — relationship with. He was helping me fill in the little details between the overlapping stories I had heard from others. I often showed up with a box of artifacts from whichever specific time period I wanted to discuss that day. Although the lives of psychedelic folks in the 1960s and 1970s are often portrayed as footloose and fancy free, their real lives weren’t really like that most of the time (except when they really really were :).
I would often ask him to confirm specific facts for me, and would end up hearing completely different stories that took place around the time period in question. Being Dr. Leary’s Digital Librarian, I liked to know the story behind every artifact. Since I wasn’t alive yet, much less there, when a lot of things took place, my job, most of the time, amounted to collecting and comparing notes from everyone I could find who was there.
I would often get conflicting stories about how certain events played out, and I was usually hoping that John Perry’s account of events could break the tie. Unfortunately, his accounts did no such thing. More often than not, he would say that something different altogether had taken place, making it so the only thing I knew for sure was that the “official” story was wonky. Nevertheless, it was always quite amusing hearing his take on famous figures — Dr. Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, Baba Ram Dass, Bobby Weir, Jerry Garcia -— or hear him tell (and re-tell) the story of forming the Electronic Frontier Foundation with Mitch Kapor and John Gilmore.
These last few years, as things became more intense around my work, if I stopped by for anything, he would literally drop everything (give or take an hour 🙂 to see me and help me figure out what I needed, and quickly. Often, it seemed as if he was dealing with two or three other critical situations at the same time, and I felt quite honored to be included in his circle of intensity.
In 2009, I worked with the Leary Estate to put on a family reunion and party for close friends. John Perry Barlow was there, and said a few words:
From that talk:
And, this archive…”will attempt to tell a complex story from a number of different points of view”… and will attempt to encapsulate Timothy Leary, who was truly the most paradoxical and vexing and inspiring and maddening of human beings. He probably had more to do with introducing people to the spiritual matter than practically anybody who wasn’t born in the desert someplace, and yet he was, for much of his life, a profoundly anti-spiritual man.
He was a very loving man, who introduced a lot of people to a greater depth of love…
I think it’s really important to decode this guy. He was one of my friends. I knew him from ’65 until he died, pretty continuously, and I loved him dearly. But it’s important to take him apart, and figure out who he really was, ’cause you can learn a lot about America, from learning a lot about Timothy Leary.”
On May 31, 2009 I threw a “Timothy Leary’s 13th Death Day” Party in order to bring more awareness to Dr. Leary’s archives. John Perry and Ralph Metzner both showed up and gave memorable speeches. You can watch the videos here (Ralph Metzner) (John Perry Barlow), but here’s a near-complete transcription of Barlow’s talk:
“Tim used to say — and this was both the greatest cop out and the greatest truth — that “you get the Tim Leary you deserve,” which put all the responsibility for him being an asshole in your corner. But also, ya know, you can recognize something profound about human beings, which is, we all tend to get the version of the other person that we deserve.
And Tim also got what he deserved in all manner of different ways. His life is an argument that life is actually kind of fair. Because, as much as he suffered the slings and arrows of his own contrariness, he was also richly rewarded with love, and the knowledge that he had probably done more to change the world than anybody in the 20th century that didn’t kill at least a million people. At the same time, he set off this war between the 50s and the 60s that has been going on until Inauguration Day of this year — and has eaten a good chunk of my life.
Of course, we now know that the battle Barlow refers to — one that many of us thought was over, in 2009, with Obama’s election — is far far from over. It appears that, for many, this “war between the 50s and 60s” involves carrying on many great traditions of duty and suffering that some feel are still part of being a modern American. Of course — these folks — they are welcome to live that way, if they choose. But that’s not enough for them, they must also insist that others are not allowed to be themselves. This is the very essence of every social conflict that is going on to this day. The right to be left alone, while also being treated equally. Barlow felt strongly that LSD had fueled our side of this “battle to be left alone,” and assisted it, by providing a new source of empathy that leaving others alone often requires.
More from his death day speech, where he broaches this topic:
“…it was probably gonna happen anyway, regardless of how LSD entered the American psyche. You can second-guess it any number of ways. But Tim did that, as much as anybody did, for better or worse…And I think that… the bottom line is that I am profoundly grateful for his having done that. And I’m profoundly grateful for having known him, and for receiving many different Tim Learys, as I deserved them, over the course of 30 some odd years.
…he had this sort of involuntary way of becoming whatever the times were around him. And he lived through some extremely tumultuous times, and he was, in many ways, part of a feedback loop between the times he was living in and the life that he led, and the person that he manifested.
I still miss him a lot, and rarely a day goes by that I don’t think about some experience he and I had together over the course of the time I knew him.. “
In 2013, my life — and the lives of many other people — was sent on a trajectory when Aaron Swartz took his own life. What made it worse was that, at first, the public did not yet have a factual understanding of what happened to him until the release of “The Internet’s Own Boy” and our 2014 Aaron Swartz Day event shouted the truth around the world.
We didn’t realize it, but John Perry Barlow really identified with Aaron and was greatly inspired by him. Barlow showed up at Aaron’s San Francisco memorial and read a short prepared statement, the first in a large collection of many other folks who were not part of the “official memorial.” (Brewster and I had so many requests from people that wanted to speak, we figured we’d better open it up afterwards to give people a chance to share their stories.)
It was in part due to John Perry’s words that night that Brewster and I realized we needed to have an Aaron Swartz-inspired celebration every year, to harness the sad energy into something constructive and positive that could reach out and protect future generations of precocious youth.
Here is John Perry’s speech from the San Francisco memorial:
“I will be brief. My name is John Perry Barlow, and Aaron Swartz was the embodiment and the apotheosis of everything I’ve stood for for the last 25 years. And it is paradoxical that even though that is true, and even though he was profoundly involved with most of my best friends and greatest heroes, I spent almost all the time I ever spent with him, one afternoon in, I think 1996, when he really was a very little kid.
I had been asked by the Headmaster of Northshore Country Day to come and speak to the middle school. And, for some reason, there was this 10 to 11 year old that was among the middle schoolers.
And I spent the afternoon —- and this was a time when I don’t think there were that many people that felt the way I did about this stuff — most of them are in this room now… and I was promoting the idea that we could make a world where anybody anywhere could give his thirst for knowledge and curiosity everything that it wanted to know, and that anybody could know as much as any human being knew about anything in the future.
And, he didn’t say much. He was extremely memorable however. He was much younger. He was all eyes and mind and spiritual radiance, in a way. And I scarcely saw him again.”
Later that year, as the first Aaron Swartz Day began to come together, John Perry let me know that he was there for me for anything I needed. In 2014, “The Internet’s Own Boy” was released and it was the focus of that year’s event. John Perry was a special guest during a Q and A with the film’s director Brian Knappenberger, and Trevor Timm, the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Executive Director.
Here’s an excerpt of John Perry from the Q and A video:
“The time has really come for everyone to become more fluid, and more comfortable, with invisible communication. It’s a simple thing really. As long as the institutions are going to be secretive in the way that they are, and make decisions that you can’t see based on systems of judgment that you can’t have a role in determining, increasingly you have a requirement to be as invisible to them as they are to you, until they’re willing to bilaterally disrobe (or unilaterally disrobe) and I think that that day will come. But in the meantime we have to get a lot better, especially if we’re engaging in journalism, at being invisible.”
The very next year, in May of 2015, John Perry’s health took the first of many unexpected downturns. During this time, for just a few days, I was his “patient advocate” with duties ranging from making sure he got his medicine on time from the hospital staff to taking pictures of him wearing sunglasses and flashing peace signs and sending them to Bobby Weir. More than once, my mission involved picking up a healthy stash of In and Out Burgers. He even shamelessly attempted to coerce me into obtaining some Coca-cola for him… on more than one occasion, that devil; and I mean he really really tried… desperately trying to convince me that ingesting cola-based poison was ultimately going to somehow help him get better. (And in all fairness, the doctor had encouraged the hamburgers to give him iron: I heard it myself!) Alas, he was unsuccessful. His daughter had already trained me to resist his charms.
It was during this time that a staff member came in and interviewed John Perry about his life and interests. They were just form questions designed to help the staff choose reading material for him, and weren’t meant to be poignant, but for John Perry, they really were. Questions like “Do you try to have an effect on the world?” and “Do you pay attention to current events?” Then, strangely, I thought, for a hospital, she asked him “How would you like to be remembered?”
“Jesus why bring that up?” I thought, as I looked over at John Perry, and his raised eyebrow met mine.
“Wait one darn minute,” I said, grabbing a pen and paper. (Being an archivist, I just had to write it down.)
After much thought, and one or two better words chosen, he decided on “a good man who wanted to make sure that anyone, anywhere, could express themselves and that anyone, anywhere, could receive it, without interruption.”
John Perry finally got well enough to leave the hospital, and decided to move back with friends in San Francisco. It was that summer that I decided to contact Chelsea Manning, ask her to write a statement for Aaron Swartz Day, and see if there was anything else we could do to help her. Barlow and I relished in the promises of the unknown possibilities.
The letters from this time period are embargoed until later this year, when they will be displayed as part of the first exhibit of The Swartz-Manning Virtual Reality Museum, Art Gallery and Fun House project I am creating with my Aaron Swartz Day development team. However, I will give you a sneak peek. 🙂
Here is the text of that letter:
October 28, 2015
I’m sitting here talking to John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and he wonders why requiring you to identify as a man is not a profound abridgment of your civil rights. Perhaps it could be a relatively straightforward process to have such possibly cruel and unusual punishment addressed and amended? Should that be the case, would you have any objection to our pursuing the matter legally, and raising the money to do so?
If you decide you would like us to assist in this, we would be interested in your suggestions of legal counsel. We definitely don’t want to make a fuss if it’s going to make your life any harder. We consider you one of the great heroines of your time, and if they’re looking for a woman to put on a bill of the United States, we would support your face 🙂
Chelsea explained to me, on the phone the next day, that she already had the best representation ever regarding such matters, from Chase Strangio, at the ACLU. We were, of course, quite relieved to hear it.
Sadly, John Perry won’t be around personally this year to help us plan Aaron Swartz Day, but he was able to help us continue the great tradition of fighting for justice that will to live on forever.
About Lisa Rein:
Lisa Rein is the Founder of The Swartz-Manning VR Museum, Art Gallery & Fun House. Lisa is Chelsea Manning’s Archivist and was her ‘Communications Liason’ from December 2015 – May 2017. She is a co-founder of Aaron Swartz Day and a co-founder of Creative Commons, where she worked with Aaron Swartz on its technical specifications. Lisa is the Digital Librarian for the Dr. Timothy Leary Futique Trust and was the Text Editor and Graphics Editor for Dr. Timothy Leary’s last published work: The graphic novel Surfing the Conscious Nets (Last Gasp, 1995). (Here’s the phone message from Dr. Leary where he thanks Lisa.) Dr. Leary was the first to give Lisa the idea of building a virtual reality museum, when she first met him and his son Zach, at their home, over twenty years ago. Zach, who is now best known for his “It’s All Happening” podcast, is collaborating with Lisa on the developing the Dr. Timothy Leary Wing of the Swartz-Manning. Lisa has been an educator for the past 20 years, and lectures on News, Social Media, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality and many other topics for the Broadcast Electronic Communication Arts (BECA) department at San Francisco State University. She has taught for UC Berkeley Extension Online and for Rutgers University, with Dr. Benjamin Goertzel, about AI and the Singularity. Lisa writes for numerous blogs and publications, is a musician, and a technology consultant with past clients including: Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG), KurzweilAI.net and Singularity University.
One thought on “John Perry Barlow Through the Lens of Lisa Rein’s Archival Memories”