Internet idealism was out in full force in San Francisco on Saturday as an impressive roster of activist speakers contemplated the legacy of John Perry Barlow and his years of activism for free speech, transparency and generally good human behavior on both the internet and in life.
Barlow was the sort of character we are unlikely to see much of in our 21st Century world — a rowdy countercultural libertarianish cosmic cowboy with a heart of gold and rust roaming the world with few rules and big appetites — and yet still with some strong ethical grounding. The speakers shared loving stories about Barlow, the character (always massively late to the EFF board meetings); as well as Barlow the philosopher of total transparency, absolute free speech and the belief that humans are creating a sort-of unity of minds — a noosphere — and that this will be a good thing. The panelists spoke of participating with Barlow in organizing for free speech protection, transparency and the freedom to use and transform these tools as we wish — the programming that is being used to collect our data should be transparent and we should be able to use and alter the tools any way we choose.
At the same time, panelists shared some sharp skepticism regarding the utopian edge of the Barlowian vision, acknowledging that things have not gone entirely well — to put it mildly. Joichi Ito spoke of being in the darkest time he has experienced and wondered if those clouds would lift. He advocated bringing some counterculture flavor — a spirit of play and humor — into the powerfully growing social justice movements.
While the panelists referenced the dark complexities we’re currently facing, some aspects of that seemed to go unmentioned.
This difficult moment for free speech might have been best expressed in a conversation I ran here last week wherein Angela Nagle said, “you have a culture that seems to justify all the worst fears about what happens when you allow free speech — extreme misogyny, dehumanizing racism, and just the most cruel stuff the human mind can come up with.” (emphasis mine). This is where the rubber is hitting the road regarding speech and it doesn’t fall before easy answers.
Which brings me to another point that I raised in a piece here — the announcement by Microsoft that they will be censoring speech on a variety of their platforms (including Office… Whaaaa?) And as I noted, the pressure that these giant corporate organisms are reacting to that is causing them to sloppily attempt to gain control over the cacophony of the online world comes largely from people who demand sensitivity towards those mainly bearing the brunt of that “cruelest stuff the human mind can come up with.”
Finally, these sorts of problems call into question the fundamental Barlowian optimism. The notion that minds linked together in cyberspace would become more enlightened. And the question many of us have been asking ourselves for awhile is whether disembodied minds aren’t, in fact, uniquely cruel — more capable of abstracting the people they hurt than those who aren’t sitting behind a keyboard but roaming the actual world. Of course, there have been epic moments of monumental dehumanization of embodied (and soon to be murdered) people that has occurred for the millennia before the internet, so it’s possible that our mutual agitation at seeing what the other “tards” say on the web may prove to be less consequential than it might seem. But it’s certainly an inquiry that needs to be made before the mass casualties pile up.
None of this is meant to distract from the spirit of Barlow or his visions. One of the panelists (I forget which one) spoke of his ideals as being like a north star to guide us through the ups and downs. I’m not so sure about the noosphere thing — seems a bit Borgian to me — but I hope his vision of an online and offline world that is both liberatory and humane comes to pass.