The Difference Between Data, Information & Experience As ‘Splained by J.P. Barlow

Shari Steele, John Gilmore, Joi Ito, Steven Levy

John Gilmore, EFF Co-founder and MAPS Board Member, joined the stage with Shari Steele (Executive Director, Tor Project, Former Executive Director, EFF), Joi Ito (Director of the MIT Media Lab), and author Steven Levy. Most of the day was about cyberspace rights and the First Amendment, but then the conversation took a fitting turn toward psychedelics and consciousness, specifically: data, information, experience, and the differences between them.

Complete transcription and video available here at the Internet Archive. (Transcription courtesy of Lisa Rein and the Internet Archive – and the video is released into the public domain.) (A complete index of all speakers is forming here on the Aaron Swartz Day website.)

By John Gilmore

There are probably 25 million Americans who have taken LSD. They would, if hard pressed in private, also tell you that it profoundly changed their lives, and not necessarily for the worse. I will readily grant that some of these are hopeless crystal worshippers or psychedelic derelicts creeping the Oregon woods, but far more of them are successful members of society — CEOs, politicians, ministers and community leaders. This is true whether we want it to be or not, but the fact that so few among those millions dare utter this truth is, in a supposedly free country, a symptom of collective mental illness.

Now that the worst of the war between the 50s and the 60s may be over, perhaps it may become possible. Many people may be able to do as they ought to have done decades ago. Like the peculiarly honest Steve Jobs and the peculiarly lucid John Perry Barlow and the peculiarly persistent Rick Doblin and the merely peculiar John Gilmore, and say in public there was a moment, years ago, when I took LSD, and whatever the immediate consequences, it made of me a different person than I would have been, and different in ways I have been grateful for all this time. By the way, everything I’ve said so far is literal quotes from Barlow, just slightly rearranged.

And so is this: “One can make a non-ludicrous case that the most important event in the cultural history of America since the 1860s was the introduction of LSD. Before acid hit American culture, even the rebels believed, as Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman implicitly did, in something like God-given authority. Authority, all agreed. derived from a system wherein God, or dad… or more often both, was on top and you were on the bottom. And it was no joke. Whatever else one might think of authority; it was not funny. But after one had rewired oneself with LSD, authority, with its preening pomp, its affection for ridiculous rituals of office, Its fulsome grandiloquence and, sublimely, its tarantella around mutually assured destruction, became hilarious to us… and there wasn’t much we could do about it.

No matter how huge and fearsome the puppets, once one’s perceptions were wiped clean enough by the psychedelic solvent to behold their strings and the mechanical jerkiness of their behavior, it was hard to suppress the giggles. Though our hilarity has since been leavened with tragedy and loss, and a more appropriate sense of our own foolishness; we’re laughing still. LSD is illegal primarily because it threatens the dominant American culture. The culture of control.

Well that’s what Barlow thought, and after studying how to end the drug war for a few decades, I tend to agree. I think that Rick Doblin’s approach is the most promising path toward ending the collective mental illness that Barlow diagnosed. Rick is using psychedelics in FDA approved clinical trials, successfully treating traumatized, out of control women and soldiers, bringing them back into self control. This is gradually removing psychedelics from the counterculture and making them less threatening to the culture.

Now, one of the classic experiences that happen when people take psychedelics, is to see that “all is one.” It’s a feeling of unity with everyone and everything. A feeling that you and I, and God, the rocks, and the trees, and the stars; are all the same person. The same thing. And not just made of the same stuff but literally the same.

You can find echoes of these experiences throughout our world. The Indian namaste that salutes the divinity in another person. Thou art God, from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. The All One” of Jewish soap maker Dr. Bronner, which he hoped could heal the world against future holocausts. Barlow knew this oneness well. He seemed to embody it much of the time.

In speaking to a women’s gathering, Barlow said, “Anytime you’re more in touch with the unity of all things, your chances of having a positive approach to the world are enhanced.”

And right here is where Barlow’s psychedelic philosophizing merged with Barlow’s Internet philosophizing. In a 1992 keynote speech to the Usenix association, Barlow said that earlier in the 20th century, the French philosopher and anthropologist (Pierre) Teilhard de Chardin wrote that evolution was an ascent toward what he called “The Omega Point” when all consciousness would converge into unity, creating the collective organism of mind. Whether or not it represents Teilhard‘s vision, it seems clear that we are about some great work here… the physical wiring of collective human consciousness. The idea of connecting every mind to every other mind, in full duplex broadband, is one that, in the words of Barlow… “for a hippie mystic like me” has clear theological implications, despite the ironic fact that most of the builders are bit wranglers and protocol priests — proudly prosaic lot.  

I know that when I’ve talked to computer audiences in times past, I’ve had a continuous question and complaint from people in the room. They say, “well you know, you want me to behave as though I were a social philosopher. And, actually what I do is bus architecture.” Well, exactly. I don’t think you can expect the social philosophers to understand bus architecture very well for a while, either. So both of those jobs fall to us — the people who understand the basic nature of this very different environment. Now as we build and use the Internet, Barlow cautioned us to distinguish “data,” “information,” and “experience” in ways that are often forgotten today. And he had a 1990s conversation with John Brockman that later Brockman put in a book in which he explained, “data differs from information.” You can gather infinite sets of data with machines. But in order to convert the data into information the human mind has to process that data and find it meaningful.

That’s the important difference between information and other kinds of products. Products of the physical world are generally themselves, regardless of the context. A toaster is a toaster is a toaster. In the informational world however each piece of information draws value from its direct relevance to the area of mind that is finding it meaningful or not meaningful.

So then the next layer is “experience,” which also differs from “information.” Experience is the real time interactive relationship between the sensorium and all the phenomena that the sensorium has available to it. Every synapse in my body is assessing my surrounding environment… is in an interactive relationship with it. Is testing it. It’s on the alert. Whereas information, in most cases, is something taken from the realm of experience and compressed into a potable format that eviscerates and alienates. Information is like Life Jerky; dried up and not terribly communicative. Through information, you can come back to experience the vast set of phenomena that are creating the data in the first place. Experience and the universe itself are intimately bound up with one another. The purpose of the Internet and all its surrounding phenomena is to create a context where experience is universal and the informational reduction is no longer necessary.

It becomes possible for me to ask questions in real time on phenomena that are taking place where my body is not. If your objective is understanding, you don’t want data. You don’t want information. You want to simulate experience as much as possible, because that’s where understanding comes from. So, in another context Barlow said, “I really feel that what we’re essentially doing here is reaching for that point at which human beings become so good at communicating with one another that they would create what would amount to a great collective organism of mind. I think we are going to become such a creature. Perhaps we already are. It is a very different kind of creature than has ever been seen in the universe before. It will be enormously powerful and intelligent and you folks are helping it to be born.

Transcription by Lisa Rein (Co-founder Aaron Swartz Day & Creative Commons, and friend of John Perry Barlow). Lisa Rein used Teme to start – and then cleaned it up by comparing it to the video, over many days 🙂 Corrections are very much appreciated-please send them to: lisa[@]

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