barlowian insights

John Perry Barlow

The notion of ‘Barlowian cyberspace’ is no news, I know, but nevertheless worthwhile to clarify. Jakub Macek summed it up nicely:

The term cyberspace was coined by the American writer ↑William Gibson at the beginning of the 1980s [mind how careful Jakub is with the dating—he doesn’t attribute the first appearance of the word in print to “Neuromancer” (↵Gibson 1984) as so many do. Actually, to my knowledge the word first appeared in “Burning Chrome” (↵Gibson 1987 [1982])]. Gibson described it as a shared data hallucination visualized as an imaginary space made up of computer processed data, accessible to the users’ mind only. Gibson’s metaphorical vision became a powerful inspiration for contemporary OS interface developers as well as for other cyberpunk writers. The term became established in the 1980s as an integral part of cybercultural discourses and was consequently adopted by the language of new media theory. In relation to existing computer networks the term was first used probably by ↑J. P. Barlow, therefore a specific subterm ‘Barlowian cyberspace’—in contrast with the original Gibsonian notion—was coined. Barlow basically understands the concept as any deteritorialized symbolic stage of technologically mediated communication where the complexity of the experience depends solely on the complexity of the technology. (↵Macek 2005: ↑endnote #8)

For precision’s sake I hunted down the according quote:

Whether by one telephonic tendril or millions, they are all connected to one another. Collectively, they form what their inhabitants call the Net. It extends across that immense region of electron states, microwaves, magnetic fields, light pulses and thought which sci-fi writer William Gibson named Cyberspace. (↵Barlow 1990)

And now for something completely different. Barlow, who describes himself as “a retired Wyoming cattle rancher, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation,” displays an impressive humanistic stance in his writings. He succeds in attempting the equilibristic feat of treating even the tragical imponderabilities of life with a kind of adequate humour which never makes me feel that injustice is done to the subject. His recent blog-entry “Alas, Vince Welnick” on the suicide of his friend, late Grateful-Dead keyboarder Vince Welnick, is just wonderful. Within this entry there is an austere paragraph, by far the best I have yet read on a particular phenomenon:

Fighting clinical depression is inevitably a lonely struggle. What could be less conducive to compassion than a disease that make you whine? Laymen and loved ones tell you to get a grip. They make you feel ashamed to be sick. Even if they’re more enlightened about the disease, they can’t help but harbor a secret, naturally human, belief that you are suffering a failure of will rather than biochemistry. Meanwhile, the doctors consider little but the neuro-soup and turn you into a shambling medical experiment, testing pharmaceutical nostrums on you that are as blunt as the mind is subtle, though just as unpredictable. But, for you, life just trudges on. It remains, despite whatever visible signs of well-being—wonderful spouse, great kids, well-located house, etc.—a purgatory of uselessness, barren of joy and meaning. Love, incoming or out-going, becomes something you think, not feel.
—John Perry Barlow

photography by Bart Nagel