Revisiting Barlow’s Misplaced Optimism

Revisiting Barlow’s Misplaced Optimism, Symposium for John Perry Barlow, 18 Duke L. & Tech. Rev. 97.

As part of Duke Technology Law Review‘s Symposium for John Perry Barlow, I reflected on the perspective of early Internet luminary John Perry Barlow, the vision he offered, and what I see as the most promising sources of accountability for online behavior. My piece begins:

Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace calls for a “civilization of the mind in cyberspace,” and he says it will be “more humane and fair” than what governments have created. Barlow’s vision is unapologetically optimistic, easily embraced by anyone who longs for better times to come.  Yet twenty years later, it’s easy to see some important respects in which reality fell short of his vision.  Alongside the Internet’s many pluses are clickbait, scams, hacks, and all manner of privacy violations.  Ten thousand hours of cat videos may be delightful, but they’re no civilization of the mind.  With a bit of hindsight, Barlow’s techno-utopianism looks as stilted as other utopianism—and equally far removed from reality.

Beyond being overly optimistic about how perfectly the ‘net would unfold, Barlow was also needlessly skeptical of plausible institutions to bring improvements.  He writes: “The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule.” But the moral suasion—and practical effectiveness—of the Golden Rule presupposes participants of roughly equal power and status.  It is no small feat to meaningfully consider what Joe User might want from Mega Social Network if the tables were turned and Joe owned the goliath.  As a practical matter, any claim a user has against a goliath requires state institutions to adjudicate and enforce.  When Barlow wrote A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, tech goliaths were much smaller.  Plus, the Internet’s early users were in a certain sense more sophisticated than the mainstream users who eventually joined.  So the gap from little to big was much narrower then, arguably making governments less important in that era.  But as the big get bigger and as the Internet attracts average users who lack the special sophistication of early adopters, governments play key roles—adjudicating disputes, enforcing contracts and beyond.