Leaving the Physical World

For the Conference on HyperNetworking, Oita, Japan
by John Perry Barlow

Like very few Americans of my generation, I come from the physical world.

I spent most of my working life running a large cattle ranch, first as a cowboy and then as a cowman, earning a living from things I could touch and smell.

This career involved the continual and palpable presence of such non-abstractions as the hindquarters of a hundred cows plodding through sagebrush before me or the sound of my ball-peen hammer banging on cold and greasy metal. I found myself constantly hard up against the physical world, whether digging holes in rock-packed glacial rubble or stringing barbed wire as far as the eye could see.

I conducted this enterprise...if any such unprofitable endeavor could be called an enterprise...in the last part of America still holding out against the advancing Information Age. This is where our great and bogus cultural myth of independent, kick-ass-and-take names individualism, having finally ran up against the finite limits of physical resources, space, and the resilience of nature, is down to.

It's Aristotle's last stand. occidental arrogance having finally become confused in its trajectory of dominion. Plato is about to have his day. Or even better, Heraclitus. Better still, Nagarjuna.

I come from that Great Blank Slate, the American West, now migrating across video displays into eastern Europe and Japan, universally known as Marlboro Country.

(Indeed, I was for several years in the horse business with the actual Marlboro Man, a neighbor of mine, who would have been appalled at the international familiarity of his face. In the service of his sanity, he stayed home.)

When I was a kid growing up in Wyoming, there seemed nothing artificial, or even particularly romantic, about this place. Soon its tarted-up advertising after-image will be all that remains of it.

The country I grew up in is about the size of the Netherlands and even today supports fewer than 5,000 people. When I was a boy, I actually rode horseback three and a half miles through deep snow to a one-room schoolhouse. We didn't have television. (Nor did we get it in any useful sense until the advent of the satellite dish in the late 70's). We barely had telephone service.

Here, guns were part of the furniture, and my taciturn neighbors used them on one another with heart-breaking regularity. These domestic killers rarely went to jail, since they could usually remind the jury that the deceased, whom most of the jurors knew, needed killing anyway.

This is one of the last parts of America where, despite all our vaunted independence, community not only exists, but remains a practical necessity. We are united by shared adversity and a common enemy, the natural, physical world.

Until recently, Nature always seemed to us an implacable, irrational, invincible foe which must somehow be placed in harness and turned to the work of Man. It is always present and trying to kill you. Absolute temperatures of -50 Celsius and wind chills of -70 are not so uncommon. Life sometimes feels a practical joke played on man by God.

This is a very placeful place. In my little town people often live out their lives in the same houses they were born in, a condition of geographical relationship almost unheard of in the rest of the country, where the average citizen moves 17 times over the course of his life.

It is the sort of place where there is no privacy and little need for any. People generally tolerate and even brag about one another's peculiarities. And we are a little odd. We descend from people who were chased here by their unwillingness to fit into anyone's program elsewhere.

Thus, this became a culture disinclined to impose any programs of its own. These people don't talk much, but are determined to be able to say whatever they want whenever they feel like it. Shame is almost unknown among us, though a kind of easily provoked self-loathing is endemic.

We are tough, suspicious, friendly, testosterone-poisoned, alienated, local, violent, reductionistic, industrious, resourceful, mechanical, brutal, and honest. We are meat-eating, big-bellied, alcoholic and generally fairly crazy. We're not good at taking orders or giving them and do not erect large organizations of any sort.

In other words, I come from the Homeland of American Individualism.

We remain the apotheosis of everything America for a long time thought itself to be. Around here we suspect it isn't true any more. Ours is a culture of the physical world, a place which, increasingly, the rest of America no longer inhabits. It is certainly true that America no longer earns its living there.

After 17 years in the cattle business, I was forced to conclude that America has developed an economic system which does not supports those who traffic in material goods.

Whether you are the Bar Cross Land and Livestock Company or U.S. Steel, if your product is both tangible and American, you are in trouble. (Actually U.S. Steel is now called, with unintentional irony, USX, having shifted its bleary focus onto...what..X?)

There are a lot of reasons for this, and Alvin Toffler has already identified most of them. But he missed an important one, and that is this: much of that Popular Science future we American kids dreamed of in the 50's may have actually come to pass.

In that vision of pastel enamels and stainless steel, the machines would do all the heavy lifting necessary to keep us in food, shelter, and clock radios. We humans would be liberated into an Elysian condition of permanent leisure. We'd have nothing to do but hang out in our indestructible miracle-fiber jump suits and talk philosophy.

Only it didn't happen quite like that. The machines did get many of our physical jobs alright, but no one could quite figure out how to pay us for all that hanging out. So, aside from the homeless people who now throng our cities, most of us weren't given that option.

Instead, we became "knowledge workers". We spend our days florescently lit, shipping around terabytes of data in the service of obscure purposes. We assemble presentations, reports, and memos, works as ephemeral as the electronic haze from which they emerge. We might as well be shovelling smoke.

Having been driven out of the factory and off the land, we "earn" handsome livings from bytes which no one can chew, architecture no one can inhabit, and software which keeps no cold winter wind from anyone's bodies.

In fact, I believe most of this activity is a giant make-work project designed to keep us out of trouble and on the payroll while Asian robots churn out most of the physical things we really need, and I would guess most knowledge workers secretly suspect this as well.

Many of us would go back if we could. The money's not bad, but so many people would rather make things they can touch, under conditions they can experience with their whole bodies, that there will long be a greater supply of these nostalgic "physicalists" than the economy needs.

At present levels of productivity, half the farmers who still farm could feed America without difficulty, and it's a pretty safe bet that if half of that half gave it up, the remainder would just become twice as productive within five years. Whatever it took to remain around dirt and obviousness.

People will do a lot to maintain consciousness, identity, and the sense that they occupy an objectively verifiable condition where the quality and need for their work is well-apprehended.

But work, in the sense of my previous career, and indeed, the careers of most humans since the Neolithic, no longer exists to any large American extent. Where work was once physical exertion which transformed sunlight and minerals into food, shelter, and warmth, much of it now involves transforming thought into value. This sounds suspiciously like something for nothing to me, but it seems to be working.

Anyway, whether I like what it says or not, I've never been one to ignore the handwriting on the wall. Concluding that ours had become an economy which would now consistently reward bullshit over bulls, I sold the Bar Cross in the spring of 1987, and am thus the first historically recorded male from either side of my family not to pass his whole career in agriculture.

I managed the ranch for the new owner a little over a year. In June, 1988, I walked from the ranch my great great uncle founded and became a knowledge worker myself. I was determined to make this disspiriting prospect as entertaining as possible.

Not long before this I had been asked, for reasons too convoluted to relate here, to co-author a book about Apple Computer. As I knew nothing about computers or corporations, I figured this might be a good way to start. So I moved my little family to the Silicon Valley and started looking around.

I wasn't there long before fleeing back to Wyoming, but I discovered a number of surprises which have commanded my attention ever since.

First, I learned that computers were not just faster adding machines, toiling the grim vineyards of columnar arithmetic. Nor were they even typewriters improved beyond the need of white secretarial error-correction paint. Instead, they could become. when connected together, a new kind of place.

I discovered a computer called the WELL. Inside it were minds whose bodies were scattered all over the world. As I found myself cruising its conceptual back streets, it felt like a small town whose inhabitants were invisible but were nevertheless engaged in the kind of thing I could recognize from rural experience to be human community

Like Pinedalians, these WELLbeings were an irascible bunch, likely to go off all over you without much cause. Unlike Pinedalians, they loved to talk. About everything. Which was not so surprising when one considered that talk was literally all they were made of.

They were humanity stripped of racial characteristics, pheromones, sexual identities, personal style, and, in fact, bodies.. Words were all of themselves they could bring here. But nevertheless this crowd of strangers chattering at one another in the electronic darkness seemed to me immensely pregnant with the possible.

The WELL, I later learned, is but one small backwater in a global electronic matrix called the Internet. If one can count it, the Internet connects some 800,000 (mostly UNIX) computers (to any of which thousands of individual minds might also be attached). Growing exponentially since the late 60's, the rates of Internet growth now sometimes exceed 25% per month! The mindscape inside this network seemed vast and wild.

And yet somehow familiar too. Despite being a very different place, it shares many of Wyoming's historical characteristics. Like the Old West into whose waning days I was born, this place has a lot of unmapped terrain, resources which are barely understood, wild sociopaths operating in the absence of social contracts yet to be drawn, and alarming ambiguities about the nature and ownership of property.

At first, I called it the Datasphere, but then I read Neuromancer, a 1984 science fiction novel by William Gibson. In it he had a 21st Century digitally created landscape of information and mind called Cyberspace.

Gradually, I realized that Cyberspace had been around since Alexander Graham Bell met someone named Watson there in 1876. Cyberspace is where you are when you're on the phone.

Despite its gathering presence among us, we hadn't noticed it before because, unlike computer bulletin boards and larger networks, phones have no apparent spatial dimension unless one is making a conference call (which is another fairly recent development). Their linear end-to-endedness hides from callers the dark "space" which surrounds the path of conversation.

Besides, Cyberspace is pretty "thin" at present, despite being the new home of most of the world's wealth and business. When I first happened upon it, it was so thin that one could only take his mind there. But I also found underway efforts to "thicken" it using a technology called Virtual Reality. Jaron Lanier and others, whom I came to know well and work with, are developing methods to inject the body into the heretofore spiritual realm of the immaterial. Now, I realized, would the Flesh be made Word.

Another of my disorienting Silicon Valley discoveries was that even those Americans who have never seen a modem are coming to live in environments which are almost entirely virtual. Glued to the one tube all day and another all evening, they are rapidly trading the old stuff of life for information, which is, in Lanier's words, nothing more than "alienated experience".

Televisonland spreads out from the screen and across the land, covering it in one continuous array of homogenized marketing iconography...McDonald's, Toys R Us, the Mall. Generica the virtual. It smooths the texture of place, becoming a kind of decal to be interchangeably affixed to any terrain without regard to the local characteristics of geology or climate.

In the Silicon Valley, I never know whether I'm in Mountain View or Sunnyvale or Campbell. They all look the same, and, in fact, they all look more or less like what one finds outside Austin or Boston. Most Americans can't be said to come from anywhere at all.

Third, my studies of Apple (about which I concluded I didn't want to write a book as soon as I realized that it was more myth than mission) led me to a variety of realizations about the modern corporation.

The most striking of these was that all large human organizations have more in common with collective organisms than the machines after which their management is still conceptually designed. The American captains of industry remain pleased to think these things as ship-like. They imagine themselves on the the bridge, their hands on something which definitely connects to the rudder.

In fact, individual humans, regardless of station, are as about as likely to "run" large corporations as coral polyps are likely to run reefs. I've been told that Japanese management understands this a little better.

I further found that detachment from such artifacts of physicality as space, time, and Newtonian predictability was having a profound effect on the nature of organizations, tending to favor the creation of small, fast-moving, short-lived adhocracies...digitized hunter-gatherer groups roaming the steppes of Cyberspace.

And finally, fourth, in another example of the never-ending strangeness of life, I woke to find myself having become something like a cross between Tom Paine and Wyatt Earp in this new electronic frontier... both attempting to maintain its independence and culture from the tyranny of the Old (physical) World it was replacing, and helping maintain a certain measure of community and order in its wilds. (The irony of having this role thrust on a renegade physicalist wasn't lost on me.)

After a disorienting visit from the FBI in May of 1990, I wrote a rant called Crime and Puzzlement, which led to my establishing with Mitch Kapor (who had previously founded Lotus Development Company) an organization called the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

We were joined in this effort by a group which now includes Apple founder Steve Wozniak, Whole Earth-ist Stewart Brand, computer guru Esther Dyson, cryptologist and early Sun Microsystems employee John Gilmore, Internet elder David Farber, and long-time ACLU Congression Liaison Jerry Berman. We were also joined, almost immediately, by an uncountable number of ghostly citizens of the Net.

At first we described the purpose of the Electronic Frontier Foundation to be, simply, the "civilization of Cyberspace." Now, after almost two years of operation, we also think of ourselves assisting in some Great Work, creating what may be nothing less than the united Mind of Humanity, hard-wiring the collective organism of human consciousness.

In preparation for that distant realization, EFF seeks policies of openness, easy access, as well as freedom and privacy of expression in digital media. At first we relied on such legal protections for speech as were provided by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But we soon we realized that, in Cyberspace, the First Amendment is a local ordinance.

As a result we have shifted to a set of strategies which we hope will result in the greatest ubiquity and redundancy of digital connections which can be achieved in the shortest time. We have come to see that "Architecture is Politics," as Mitch puts it. The fewer channels there are which are critical to the integrity of the overall Net, the more difficult it will be for any government to suppress it.

That this approach works was demonstrated during last summer's coup in the Soviet Union. The hierarchical information systems of the geriatric plotters in the Kremlin were no match for the horizontal and self-organizing networks of PC's and fax machines which informed their popular opposition in the streets.

Lately we have been working on a variety of fronts to accelerate deployment of ISDN in the U.S. and abroad. We are also fostering the growth of the Internet, acting as a kind of informal regulatory agency while the bases for electronic capitalism are defined.

EFF has also been heavily involved in matters pertaining to intellectual property and reminding society of the fundamental differences between soft and hard goods. We work on fostering virtual community, promoting network-distributed communications multimedia, and educating law enforcement agencies and corporate security forces on the culture and actual threat posed by computer "hackers."

The first half of my life was about landscape, place, dirt, physicality, facts, and experience. I now find myself trying to understand a world which has moved off the territory, where such things exist, and onto the map, where they are replaced simulation, thought, process, image, relationship, and information. In other words, information.

I have profound misgivings about this weird new place, but it has several advantages over the one in which I am leaving behind. (Besides, as we're headed there whether we want to be or not, one might as well enjoy the ride...)

Since most of its wealth derives from the most renewable resource of all...imagination...it is potentially far richer than the last New World we entered. Its basis in mental rather than physical terrain means that its frontiers will always be expanding. Thus, restless iconoclasts like me will always have some marginal region to explore. We'll never find ourselves stranded at the old frontier's terminus, as I felt myself to be growing up in Pinedale.

Its fundamental indefinability might do a lot to eliminate the national borders across which wars are fought. And the protean capacity of its inhabitants to present themselves any way they see fit may eliminate some of the cultural immune responses which have caused those wars in the first place.

Furthermore, it continues to offer the promise that humans can quit spending so much of the world's treasure travelling to physical proximity to other humans when they can assemble instead their far more portable minds. And then there is the potential conservation of those resources which we have traditionally devoted on impressing one another to an extent well beyond the requirements of survival. The trappings of prestige can be as easily manufactured from bytes as leather and brass.

We may also see something like the restoration of community, both inside and outside Cyberspace. Since I came this way, I have observed many examples of social congregation which could not have taken place without these media.

And finally, if you are able to pursue any work you like while leaving your body wherever it suits you, the small towns and villages of the world may be again repopulated with real neighbors. Perhaps we can retire that bleak human relationship which passes for neighborhood in the Global Suburbs.

This is not to say that the entry into Cyberspace is without hazard. For example, there may be almost no way to assure privacy there. While these electronic thickets may afford the best guerrilla jungle that ever harbored discontents, certain kinds of technological development could render it as flat and barren of hiding places as the salt deserts of the American West.

In its present condition, it lacks many of the communications media which people count on most heavily...body language, smell, style of dress, and culture. Reduced to pure content, opportunities for misunderstanding are rife and Cyberspace burns continuously with the flaming declarations of its inhabitants.

That there is already so much digital strife worries me. Most of the current population is male, white, affluent, young, well-educated, English-speaking, and suburban-acting. That such a homogeneous citizenry would find so much cause for dispute does not bode well for what will follow the arrival, already well underway, of people from completely different cultures. The opportunities to create innocent offense will increase dramatically.

But while the ascii howls of violation may clog hard disks all over the Net, vrtual bullets cannot kill. And the hybrid cultures we will eventually assemble there will not have, in the absence of boundaries and limited resources, the usual bones of contention to scrap over. Perhaps they will find ways to define the cultural Self without imperilling the culturally Other.

In any case, we are all off to Cyberspace whether we like it or not. The best we can to is to proceed with faith and try to enjoy the ride.