Co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation

NPQ | When the Republicans swept into control of the house and senate this past election and the counter-counter culture emerged triumphant, part of their promise has been to reestablish a sense of order in the current chaos by strengthening local communities and American values. Such promised change extends well beyond public policy as does their attack on the last liberal bastion and fomenter of instability - the media. Do you see media in the same way and is the media in the grasp of a liberal elite?

JOHN PERRY BARLOW | I don't believe in a media elite. I do believe in a media organism and this organism exists in the space between the people who create the media and the people who consume them - the media exist to confirm the delusions of the crowd. That is what the media are there for, to reify every hysterical belief that the mob might suddenly espouse. So what we are dealing with here is a collective hallucination - what Guy Debord called the Spectacle. A completely coherent, seamless loop exists that is continuous between the great engine of fear that is television and the terror of the populace. The media have managed a complete departure of the map from the landscape.

If you think of this in terms of cybernetic systems, you will see that in nature, there is not only negative feedback and equalization, there are also positive feedback loops. The accelerator gets stuck to the floor until the whole damn thing crashes. That is where we are with the media right now. The media live on the attention of the audience. Audience attention is what they sell advertisers, which makes it the energy source, the photons in their ecology. And there are a few simple ways to capture the attention of the audience - sex, violence and fear. Given this fact, the media has every reason to optimize for these three things. And they do.

So out there in television land you get a constant battery of terror and sexuality of a particularly virtual and toxic sort. Gradually the effect is that people become less willing to go out and engage in experience because everything the information channel is telling you is that experience is dangerous and it would be best to just stay in your home and suck down information all day. People don't get out and have the experiences that would correct their misapprehension of the terrors of the world. In the past, the way in which people have always determined what was appropriately frightening was to go out and engage it, feel it, use the entire sensorium to analyze the environment and determine the actuality of threat.

NPQ | ...and not only does TV separate you from tangible experience, it also goes to places where you might not easily get to, like Somalia...

BARLOW | Hell, you can't go to television! It doesn't make any difference if it is a very familiar place - it can't really take you anywhere at all. What you perceive through that one-way mirror is not an experience. It is information, it is alienated experience, it is eviscerated, it doesn't have much of the nutritional material that real experience has. The problem with television is that it mimics experience so much better than other media. When reading the newspaper, you know that you are not there, you are reading the paper. As Magritte said, you can't eat the menu - it's like his painting of a pipe that's labeled "This is not a pipe." Exactly! this is a picture of a pipe.

By the same token, television has a way of making you think, "Hey, I am there!" Bullshit! You are not there, that is not your point of view, it is somebody else's point of view, you don't even know whose it is! Thus arises the hallucination. And, the answer to this hallucination, if there is one, is media that are much better at conveying experience over distance. The central difference between experience and information is that experience allows you to ask questions of your surroundings in real-time. Ask questions through the medium. Use your own senses. Experience is truly interactive.

NPQ | If TV were interactive, would we be able to penetrate the hallucination?

BARLOW | I think that TV is basically irredeemable. There is some possibility of "re-experientializing" information by things like telepresence. And in a very thin form it exists now, in the sense that instead of having to take uncritically the feed that comes from the networks about some horrible event, the Internet allows some direct communication with people on the scene. It is possible to ask those people questions, which one cannot do of CNN.

It is important to find who was there on the scene, form a newsgroup or an e-mail relationship with them. This is the initial phase. I think that ultimately the World Wide Web will become a place where people will engage in telepresence. We will be able to click on something and be able to map everything from the surrounding temperature to the pheromones into our own sensoriums. It might be almost like being there eventually.

In the Internet, in particular, we have this magnificent engine of anarchy that is growing logarithmically - faster than anything that size has ever grown. Processor velocity is speeding up, bandwidth is going to increase a gazillion-fold. There is no known upper limit on what you can shove through fiber optic cable with ATM - you can put many, many gigabits through a single strand of fiber. The next problem will be the sort, the edit - narrowing all these data down to something which has meaning. If there is an undifferentiated white spew of information coming at you, it is like trying to take a sip out of the firehose - and it will get worse.

NPQ | Newt Gingrich has hinted that the Internet can help shore up local community by helping any American detach themselves from mass media. But, doesn't Gingrich see that this super-dynamic system that is plugged right into people's homes is introducing more chaos than stability, stability needed to achieve his goals?

BARLOW | Gingrich sees opportunities and perils, but, part of the reason that there appears to be more paradox here than there is, is that it is very easy to conflate Gingrich and his group with the Christian fundamentalists. There are two very different kinds of Republicans in power at the moment. While they have a lot in common stylistically and culturally - they all like hair spray, for example - but they don't have much in common philosophically. The fundamentalists and the libertarians have big divisions. But Republicans are very good at denial, public denial. They are very good at producing a monolithic front to the world because a lot of what Republicanism is about culturally is the nuclear family, another denial-based institution. So they have a lot of practice at it.

The real question that I have of Gingrich and his group is that although we agree that in this unregulatable environment, ethics will have to replace laws; ethics are based on a culture and the question is: Whose culture? Gingrich's response is: "The American culture."

NPQ | What is the American culture?

BARLOW | That's the problem. The American culture either doesn't exist anymore or exists in a potpourri of stuff that is only a culture when taken as a whole and not down at the level of particularity that is required to form coherent ethics. There is perhaps one ethic that is agreed upon throughout America - the Golden Rule - and even this is not so generally practiced. Go down to the more granular ethical level - the mores of individual culture, whether it is the African-American community or people with cowboy boots - and you get more variation on the particular questions of right and wrong.

NPQ | We need to respect our diversity...

BARLOW | And we need to figure out what we agree upon as a species. The central problem is this: The organism does not stop at the skin. There are concentric virtual organisms that go all the way up to the vanishing point, and each one of those organisms has an immune response. Culture is a collective organism, and one of the things that every organism does is continuously define the self versus the other. Now there are various ways of doing this, some of which are more aggressive and hostile than others, but every culture has its methods. As we enter into a global condition where these organisms are in continuous grating contact with one another. They will having their communities strengthened by the Internet, and at the same time called into question by direct interaction with other communities. One gloomy of the future is that it will look like the Balkans everywhere.

One way of avoiding this is with over-arching cultural homogeneity. Some see family values as central to American culture. But I am increasingly starting to wonder if the whole idea of the nuclear family and the impulse toward nuclear family values is also part of the hallucination. I wonder if it isn't something else that exists more on the map than the landscape. It seems that the American family model is a cultural delusion so close to being shattered that all we can do is sit and wait.

People are stuck in a tightening internal gridlock over the most important of human issues, sexuality They're locked in Televisionland - the isolated, hermetically-sealed suburbanite is getting a steady feed of really high-temperature sexuality that doesn't relate to any part of their experience, which is, in fact, becoming more desexualized all the time. They're not getting any and they're sitting around watching MTV. Rock and roll is the fire below - it's not Mozart - it's about dancing and sex.

NPQ | Can blame, then, be placed, for example, on record company executives for producing music that increases this tension?

BARLOW | But this is exactly the thing! To say "I've got this terrible pressure inside me, I'm going to have the government solve it. I've got this thing that I cannot deal with internally, so I'm going to ask the entire nation to deal with it for me." It's the Shadow. You can blame the abstraction, but the abstraction is not the people, the problem is the entire process. Blame the process - hate the sin not the sinner. Here again, people are being conditioned not to know what real satisfaction is. They have been pumped up with an hallucination that doesn't exist anywhere except in Coke ads.

NPQ | Is there hope for the next generation? Will we see a coming of age?

BARLOW | I hope so. Society is healthier when there is some degree of consensus. And when society becomes neurotic, like ours is, that which can no longer be held by consensus has to be held by force. Anytime coercion is needed to give people coherence, the game is lost because force never prevails over the long haul. In the short term though, I fear we haven't seen the maximum display of force. We will go through a cycle of repression, with the degree of that repression depending on how savagely the ambiguophobes will try to impose an impossible certainty on the world.

There are, though, as many forces operating against repression as there are operating for it; and the interesting thing is that this time they are not lining up in a symmetry that tends to amplify both sides. The anti-repressive forces are going around authority. They are evading confrontation, ignoring it. There used to be a bumper sticker that said "Question Authority." Now it says "Question Reality," which is a much more adept and insidious method for dealing with the problem. You just don't play. You opt out. You still have to render unto Caesar, but as little as possible.

I take hope in tribal gatherings of those people under 30 who don't seem to be particularly fear-based. There is an extended familial quality, the way they treat each other is very affectionate, there is a real sense of togetherness without the fear of being bound. I might be over-optimistic, but, every time I get around them, I feel good about things. Through them, perhaps, we can achieve the most important task, which is getting to the global "we accept the diversity" level.

NPQ | In the short term, is there a central authority? Who is Caesar?

BARLOW | I think that central authority is usually an illusion. When President Clinton first got into the White House, they asked Mitch Kapor and me to come in and talk about the information infrastructure. And we realized that they didn't have any clearer grasp of this than we did - it was a scary moment. I looked at Mitch and I said "Where's Dad?" And he said "I'm afraid we're Dad."

The transformative realization that followed was that it has always been like this. We have always tended to imagine government as though it were a Prussian unity - a hierarchical and mechanical model in which the wheel house connected to the rudder with everything moving according to a design. The reality is that muddle through according to the Italian model - government by that which emerges from chaos. And in this chaos, we need to shift; we need to quit believing in the comforting delusion of that structure and start relying on that which will emerge. It is like making plans that you know you don't intend to adhere to, but you make them because there is something comforting about having plans. Ultimately, centralized anything is going to be greatly de-emphasized and re-distributed. This is what we are all experiencing - all of the current power relationships on the planet are currently being disassembled. It's going up into the air.

Here is the bottom line - we are going from monotheism to pantheism for the first time in 2500 years. And all these Judeo-Christian-Islamic orders in which the great white stone of God squat on all are about to unravel. And, as much as I might want to, I have a feeling that I will not entirely like the future that will arise in its stead. It will be a lot more contentious, tribal warfare. Molecular civil war. Dirty little wars, street fights, riots, hand to hand combat - the Third World becomes the whole world. Whether that defines the dominant flavor of being human is an open question. It probably won't. I think the overriding flavor of being human ultimately will be the disappearance of the self altogether.

NPQ | The evolution of the human species into a higher plane.

BARLOW | Right into the Collective Organism of Mind. When every synapse on this planet is actually hard-wired to every other synapse, so that there is a continuous connection between all the wetware of humanity, then something new probably starts to happen.

NPQ | What are the new structures emerging out of this? What, then, will lend shape to this chaotic future?

BARLOW | As we are learning from research into natural complexity, chaos is actually filled with shape. Beneath the swirling surface there are certain ordering principles to all natural systems that are actually quite simple. Look at all the odd little recursive patterns that seem to order so many things. Take, for example, the Fibonacci Series. This is the spiraling progression found in, say, the nautilus shell - one, three, seven, thirteen - the next number is that number added to the sum of the previous numbers. This can be found all over the place. And there are those break points in chaotic systems where a smooth laminar flow of either events or materials suddenly becomes chaotic or turbulent. And between the point of initial chaos and complete disorganization certain strangely orderly things happen, basins of attraction appear in the space of what is possible.

My hope is that what we will become more comfortable organizing ourselves around these basins of attraction - economic interests, collective self-interests of various sorts. They will replace our rigid power structures. Basins of attraction are not geographical but cultural. The Chinese as a cultural group over the face of the planet will become a major basin of attraction. There will be a natural accumulation of economic power and as a consequence military and cultural power. And among the Chinese both as a nation as a distributed culture. The Arab world is also a basin of attraction.

NPQ | What about America?

BARLOW | Unlike Gingrich, I don't think that America as a cultural institution willbe a clearly definable phenomenon. And as a political institution I think it is going to go away altogether. Nevertheless, in 200 years, the global information organism will still have a distinctly American flavor. There may be no America to taste like, but the Web will feel American in some respects. I think it will still have the sense of liberated possibility, the never-ending frontier. In the terrestrial sense there is no more frontier in America, or any place else. My family had been on freshly plowed ground as far back as the genealogical horizon, and in my generation, I ran up against the loss of frontier, there was no more new ground to plow. So, I headed off to cyberspace.

NPQ | The image of earth as a full house now comes to mind - exponentially increasing numbers of people contributing to global culture and global chaos.

BARLOW | Connection crash. Natural systems, when they get too many connections - when the web is too horizontal and doesn't have a hierarchical component at all - will start to fibrillate. The information can't organize itself into something like an equilibrium. The way in which consciousness works is by narrowing down reality into something perceptible, something tolerable that won't blind you - because the thing itself, whatever it is that might be the True Phenomenon of Reality, is a thing of such complexity and motion that to behold it raw would make you crazy instantly.

We are now, as a global group, going into a period where the old editorial system, the old way of stopping down consciousness to a bearable aperture is about to get blasted. Our future will require us to reorganize our filters along completely different lines. I am confident that other methods will develop to stop it down in other ways. But they are not going to look like anything that we are familiar with. I think it is sufficient at this point to say, hey, everything is going to be different and we don't know how and we are proceeding at a high and accelerating velocity through the fog.

NPQ | ...bravely...

BARLOW | Let's try to do so bravely, since we are going there whether we want to or not. Let's go there with a sense of opportunity and excitement and not merely with a sense of dread and dislocation. The one thing that we can have some control over is the attitude with which we do things. If we can proceed, like that phrase from Desiderata. "placidly amidst the noise and haste." That is how I am trying to do it. I feel sane, but the world around me is crazy, truly surreal. I feel like the eye of my own hurricane.

Pullquote - The media have managed a complete departure of the map from the landscape.

Pullquote - Out there in Televisionland you get a constant battery of terror and sexuality of a particularly virtual and toxic sort.

Pullquote - Communities will be strengthened by the Internet and at the same time called into question by direct interaction with other communities.

Pullquote - Rock and roll is the fire below - its not Mozart - its about dancing and sex.

Pullquote - In this chaos, we need to shift; we need to quit believing in the comforting delusion of structure and start relying on that which will emerge.