John Perry Barlow, who wrote lyrics for some of the Grateful Dead’s most recognizable songs and later became a visionary champion of Internet freedoms and digital rights, died on Wednesday at the age of 70. His passing was immediately met with outpourings of grief and remembrances from fans, friends, and collaborators who celebrated his contributions to the music world and his inspired activism.
“This life is fleeting, as we all know – the Muse we serve is not,” said Bob Weir, Grateful Dead guitarist who co-wrote many songs with Barlow during the band’s long run. “John had a way of taking life’s most difficult things and framing them as challenges, therefore adventures. He was to be admired for that, even emulated. He’ll live on in the songs we wrote…”
Among dozens of others—including “Black Throated Wind,” “Mexicali Blues,” “Estimated Prophet,” and “The Music Never Stopped”—Weir and Barlow also wrote the song “Cassidy” together – our Video of the Week, by the Dead in 1980 during an acoustic show at Radio City Music Hall.
While his time with the Dead was forever part of Barlow’s legacy, he also attached himself firmly and profoundly to the rise of the Internet when it sprung into the culture in the 1990s. In 1996, Barlow authored what is still considered one of the breakthrough manifestos for internet freedom by penning “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace“—ironically (or not) written on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The declaration states that the new digital space being created online would not tolerate the tyranny of governments. “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity,” the declaration states.
“We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace,” it concluded. “May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.”
Earlier, Barlow was co-founder, along with John Gilmore and Mitch Kapor, of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a national advocacy group that continues to defend online privacy and the primacy of democratic principles online. Later, in 2012, he cofounded Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit that supports free speech in the press.
In a message on Thursday, EFF executive director Cindy Cohn announced Barlow’s passing “with a broken heart” and said the organization and its member will miss his vision and wisdom for decades to come.
“It is no exaggeration to say that major parts of the Internet we all know and love today exist and thrive because of Barlow’s vision and leadership,” Cohn wrote. “He always saw the Internet as a fundamental place of freedom, where voices long silenced can find an audience and people can connect with others regardless of physical distance.”
Barlow was sometimes held up as a straw man for a kind of naive techno-utopianism that believed that the Internet could solve all of humanity’s problems without causing any more. As someone who spent the past 27 years working with him at EFF, I can say that nothing could be further from the truth. Barlow knew that new technology could create and empower evil as much as it could create and empower good. He made a conscious decision to focus on the latter: “I knew it’s also true that a good way to invent the future is to predict it. So I predicted Utopia, hoping to give Liberty a running start before the laws of Moore and Metcalfe delivered up what Ed Snowden now correctly calls ‘turn-key totalitarianism.'”
In a touching and detailed tribute at Wired, journalist Steven Levy writes that he and Barlow became soul mates when they first met, but that it was clear there was nothing rare in his having had that experience—”it also applies to probably 10,000 other people.”
He had a unique and compelling credential—”junior lyricist of the Grateful Dead” was the way he put it—and he wielded it like an all-access laminate to the concert hall of life. His rock and roll bona fides was only one strand of a web of myths he pulled out of his suede jacket like a well-rolled joint: cowboy, poet, romantic, family man, philosopher, and ultimately, the bard of the digital revolution. He was an influential voice and an intimate participant in the early days of Wired, a co-founder and spiritual inspiration for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and the guy who promoted cyberspace as deftly as Steve Jobs hyped Apple. By the time he was done, he was more famous for proselytizing the internet than he was for co-writing “Cassidy” and other Dead classics.
Done he is—Barlow died in his sleep last night in San Francisco. He was 70 years old.
Barlow’s impact is such that even those who aren’t familiar with his name have long been grappling with his vision of the networked world, one where speech and creativity flow unfettered, and truth targets power with the speed of a bullet. But Barlow won’t be remembered only for the way he rustled prose, ideas or lyrics. IRL, he was bigger than life.
In their memoriam of Barlow, Trevor Timm and Parker Higgins at the Freedom of the Press Foundation mourned his passing while celebrating the profound imprint he left on so many.
“John Perry Barlow was a good man,” they wrote. “He was a good friend, and a visionary whose impact on technology, culture, and the world will be felt for generations. As the Grateful Dead say: fare thee well, JPB.”
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