There’s mosquitoes on the river
Fish are rising up like birds
It’s been hot for seven weeks now
Too hot to even speak now
Did you hear what I just heard?
Say it might have been a fiddle
Or it could have been the wind
But there seems to be a beat now
I can feel it in my feet now
Listen here it comes again
There’s a band out on the highway
They’re high steppin’ into town
It’s a rainbow full of sound
It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns
The Music Never Stopped: Grateful Dead, 1975: Barlow/Weir. [Aficionados of this particular song should check this post out, updated since the news of John Perry Barlow’s passing].
One of my favourite Grateful Dead songs, from one of my favourite Grateful Dead albums. I first heard Blues For Allah sometime in 1976, and, to use the language of those times, the album “blew my mind”.
1975. There was no internet in those days, no Web. If, like me, you’d lived in Calcutta all your life, information used to be pretty hard to come by. It was all “analogue”, often physical, often simultaneous: “word-of-mouth”. Radio was the medium by which you found out things, and newspapers and magazines were the ways in which those things were persisted, often after applying filters.
Some of the filters were censoring filters: after all, 1975 was the beginning of the Emergency in India, 21 months of authoritarian rule most of us would prefer to forget. But for the most part, the filters were marketing filters, attempts to prioritise and contextualise the flow of information.
Suffice it to say that tidbits of information about the Grateful Dead did not make that prioritisation cut, and so the way we heard about the band, band members, their music, their lives, it was pretty much all based on community interaction: sharing tapes, articles torn out of tattered foreign magazines, the liner notes on well-worn albums passed on from hand to hand, stories, some of them nothing more than rumours, permeating through the collective consciousness of the Deadheads in Calcutta and in the rest of India. Which sort of makes sense, given that the Dead were the band who gave us “taping rows”.
That’s how I first heard of John Perry Barlow. As a Grateful Dead band member and lyricist, writer of songs I’ll never forget.
When I left India in 1980, it became a little easier to hear about the Dead, to hear them, even to watch them play live. Which was incredible. But when I asked about John, all I heard was “he’s retired, he’s become a rancher somewhere like Montana or Wyoming”. Which really intrigued me. But it was hard to find out more.
Then, in the early 1990s, his name began to crop up here and there. That’s how I heard about the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and was intrigued enough to find ways of supporting their work. I’ve been privileged to meet many of the EFF pioneers over the years, and I’m grateful to all of them for helping me understand things I didn’t understand earlier.
By the late 1990s I’d read A Declaration Of the Independence of Cyberspace, and John became that rare beast to me, a hero in more than one domain, made even more mysterious by his decision to walk away and return to ranching roots.
A strange convergence was taking place. It was through reading about the EFF that I found out about Esther Dyson, someone who’s been an incredible mentor to me, not just in person but often from afar (and possibly without even knowing about it). It was through Esther that I learnt about Christopher Locke, and began to discover what would later become The Cluetrain Manifesto. I managed to convince Chris to come and speak to my teams in London and in Bangalore, one thing led to another, and soon multiple pathways led to my speaking to and then meeting Doc Searls; meeting David Weinberger and Rick Levine would soon follow.
Some years later, Doc would introduce me to John. And so I finally met someone who was a childhood hero of mine, an adolescent hero of mine and an adult hero of mine. [Yup, I was tongue-tied. Entranced].
Soon after that, as I began to delve more into this mystical man, I learnt about his Principles of Adult Behaviour. They’re reproduced in AC Smith’s blog What I Know So Far, in his eulogy to Barlow. Please do go there and read the article and the Principles, you won’t regret it.
John Perry Barlow’s path began to cross mine every now and then after that, and he remained as welcoming, as affable, as laughing-glinting-eyes as ever. We became friends on Facebook, and it gave me the chance to have some vicarious connection to him and what he was going through over the past decade or so.
With his passing we mourn the loss of a gentle man, one who spent time thinking about things that are important, and then writing about those things and sharing them. The age of cyberspace is upon us, warts and all. If you haven’t done so already, do make the effort to read his Principles, his Declaration of Independence, his Economy of Ideas, his Next Economy of Ideas.
I didn’t know him well. At most I met him a dozen times; at most I had three conversations of any note with him. Yet, in all those interactions, he sought to embody the principles he’d written about and referred often to. He was open and welcoming, encouraging and “building up”, willing to question himself in everything while at the same time striving for a future with hope and purpose, seeing the value of humanity as a collective rather than a set of isolated human beings.
I remain grateful to him (no pun intended). I remain grateful to the ideas he helped birth in me.
Cindy Cohn, over at EFF, has written a brief but very moving piece about John and his life and what he leaves behind; by continuing to visit that site you will learn more about his work and his legacy; by supporting EFF you can play your role in extending that legacy.
RIP John Perry Barlow.