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Tech Industry

Trouble ahead, trouble behind

Grateful Dead lyricist and Internet guru John Perry Barlow riffs on dot-communism, cattle ranching and stopping content industries from taking over the world--literally.

Totalitarianism. Urban pathology. The death of creativity. These are the fears that keep John Perry Barlow awake at night.

The co-founder of the 12-year-old Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) tries not to be bleak. But he sincerely worries that Microsoft will usurp e-commerce and AOL Time Warner will seize media, and the two forces will extinguish dissenting voices in a "diabolical" plot to own the economy and the human mind.

But Barlow, perhaps best known as a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, isn't entirely forlorn. He's optimistic that courts will soon strike down the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a 1998 agreement that banned unauthorized online distribution of companies' intellectual property. And he's hopeful that Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates--the smartest man Barlow says he's ever met--will hatch a plan to control the Internet that is so ridiculous that it will spark a public boycott that ultimately will topple the software giant.

The 54-year-old owner of an Apple PowerBook--festooned with Grateful Dead bumper stickers--sat down to chai tea in his rent-controlled apartment overlooking San Francisco. Donning black leather pants, cowboy boots, a turquoise necklace and a cell phone earplug, the self-declared "techno hippie" talked to CNET News.com about dot-communism, cattle ranching and the hallucinations of the masses.

Q: What does a self-titled "cognitive dissident" do all day?
A: I'm spending an enormous amount of my time stopping content industries from taking over the world--literally. I feel like we're in a condition where private totalitarianism is not out of the question because of the increasingly thickening matrix of channels of communication owned by the same companies that own content, that own Web properties, that own traditional media.

In essence, they're in a position to own the human mind itself. The possibility of getting a dissident voice through their channels is increasingly scarce, and the use of copyright as a means of suppressing freedom of expression is becoming more and more fashionable. You've got these interlocking systems of technology and law, where merely quoting something from a copyrighted piece is enough to bring down the system on you.

Which companies or organizations constitute this totalitarian regime?
Microsoft, AOL, the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), not to mention...Panasonic, Intel--basically, large corporate capitalism in a completely unregulated environment.

I'm a free marketer and I'm not a fan of regulation. But I'm very concerned about what happens when you have these large organisms with no conscience. And why should they have a conscience? They're not human, and they can operate globally without any constraints.

What dissenting stories aren't getting published? What communities aren't being built because of corporate totalitarianism?
I would say that .Net and HailStorm are huge threats and really diabolical. The problem is that hardly anybody recognizes it because they don't know what .Net is or how it works. That's just it: We don't know. We've reached a point where the media are so owned by the large corporations and they live in this tight loop where practically all they can convey is what is already believed. I believe that mass media exists to confirm the hallucinations of the masses. If you want to get a story through that doesn't sync up with the dominant belief system, it's just not going to happen. So who the hell knows what else is going on out there?

After totalitarianism, what's the next biggest battle brewing in cyberspace?
There are a lot of things connected to totalitarianism, such as the ability to affect the technical architecture of the Net and the increasing number of standards and protocols that are being passed down by the likes of Microsoft. I worry that the Net is closing. I would say that (Microsoft e-commerce initiatives) .Net and HailStorm are huge threats and really diabolical. The problem is that hardly anybody recognizes it because they don't know what .Net is or how it works. They don't know that Microsoft is trying to own all of your transactions, literally.

To play devil's advocate, isn't Microsoft simply selling a product that millions of people are willing to purchase at their own will?
Oh, come on. People aren't willing. Microsoft is giving people what Microsoft wants because it has a monopoly, which isn't based on the value of the product but rather a positive feedback loop in the information economy: Everything is compatible with Windows, ergo, Windows prevails and continues to prevail regardless of its liabilities. It's No. 1 because it's No. 1, period, not because it's valuable. In fact, it's become totally diabolical.

If Windows is so bad, why does Apple have a meager 4 percent market share?
Four? Really? Jesus. They really blew that one.

You've been heavily involved in wiring Africa for Internet access. But increasingly, it seems, a new digital divide has emerged--not between the rich and the poor, but between the people who give their consumer data, such as credit card numbers, to corporations, and the privacy zealots who refuse. If this is true, what's the future for the zealots?
That's the new divide, and it's not pretty. I have old hippie friends who refuse to have a credit card and pay for everything in cash and are not essentially engaged in the modern terms of society--and they're living accordingly. They live in shacks in Humboldt County (on the rugged Northern California coast), which is all they can handle because there's so much friction and overhead in their economy that they can't live on a competitive basis with the rest of us. The people who don't opt in will basically have similar lives, be similarly disengaged from society.

Presumably, you'll do more and more purchases online, and presumably, Microsoft will make it more inconvenient for you--unless you provide your consumer data to Passport (the company's database of customer information). At some point, are you going to cave and provide Microsoft your credit card and other data?
I don't know. (Long pause. Heavy sigh.)

I'm really worried about this, and I keep praying for guidance. These are really dark times. On practically every front that I care about, the voices of the foes are winning. I have a beleaguered optimism that this isn't going to continue to be the case, but this is a time to have your faith tested, that's for sure.

You paint a pretty gloomy picture. How can we stop Big Brother Inc.?
People could simply boycott the products. Frankly, I think anybody's a fool to put (Microsoft operating system Windows) XP on their computer. It's like installing a continuous, 24-hour monitor on your mind. But people are doing it like crazy because they don't know any better.

But again, if this is so nefarious, how do we stop it?
In some respects, I've had to rein in my horns a bit to figure out what to say that's constructive--as opposed to saying the sky is falling, even though it is. Basically, I just can't come up with a plan to keep the sky up there. I hope that enough people will become aware of what's going on.

And one thing I've noticed about monopoly in the information world is that while this arena is extremely favorable to growing monopolies very quickly, it's also favorable to disintegrating them. I remember a time not that long ago, when 80 percent of all computers on the planet were dedicated WordPerfect servers. Unless you go to a law firm, you aren't going to find any of those now. So I have some faith that, at some point, Microsoft would do something that is so outrageous that they simply alienate the marketplace, and at some point, Linux or some substitute will take over.

Let's talk about copyright laws, which you hate. How would musicians and other artists make a living if, in your perfect world, copyright law was abolished?
On practically every front that I care about, the voices of the foes are winning. I have a beleaguered optimism that this isn't going to continue to be the case, but this is a time to have your faith tested, that's for sure. You as a journalist produce copyrighted material for a living. You don't make your living on the basis of royalties--and there are very few human beings who do. Royalties are things that get paid to organizations and institutions that have thieved royalties from human beings. The idea that royalties need to be there to "incentivize" creativity is pretty abstract these days.

What you get paid for is the delivery of service. If you're talking about services, it's best not to view what is being served as a form of property.

So should the music industry adopt a publishing model, in which companies give away a newspaper for 25 cents or publish on the open Web but collect revenue from advertisers, referrals or other sources?
In the case of the music industry, the model is already well established: If you're a performing group, you make your money off of performance primarily, but not exclusively.

The Grateful Dead invented viral marketing without really meaning to...We gave our music away. At the time, we did it because we felt there was no way to stop Deadheads from taping it, and besides, we weren't in it for the money, because we weren't making any. But those tapes became the androgen of our success. They spread that virus all over the damn place, and by the time we died, we were the largest-grossing entertainment act in the business because of performances, but not exclusively.

The interesting thing is that our records weren't nearly as good as the tapes that a lot of Deadheads made, but they all went platinum. There is a desire on the part of the fan base to actually own the physical objects, in addition to having the music to play.

But I've been to a bunch of Dead shows and know that no other band conducts concerts like the Dead. How do talented musicians who can't tour as well or as often make money?
Most bands perform. If you allow your music to freely circulate and use it as advertising, it's a big help. Paradoxically, you can allow your music to freely circulate and still sell it if people are willing to pay for your encapsulation of it and for convenience.

I'm writing now for String Cheese Incident, which is like Grateful Dead 2.0, and they're getting big very fast. Their audience has quadrupled in the past year...They've been making their board tapes available online for some time. At the same time, they have a system where they'll ship you CDs of the concert. People are buying them--in spite of the fact that they can download the music.

You lived in San Francisco in the late '60s and '70s when the Dead were giving free concerts in Golden Gate Park and it was all about free love and be-ins. How has the Bay Area changed--particularly in light of the late 1990s dot-com invasion?
San Francisco is one of the most pathological cities on earth. The people who live here lost their sense of human connection (in the '90s). The city was completely emptied of diversity at a certain point, and the entire population that came in were suburban kids who had never lived in any city or town or community in their whole lives. They had no sense of community. It's now a place where if you give eye contact, you get maced.

The culture that has come up around the economy--and I admit I've personally tried to build this economy--is a culture that I can't stand. It's a good thing I have a sense of paradox. But I really don't like the society that has grown up around the dot-communists, who are all products of suburbia and television.

So when the tech industry imploded and all the dot-communists lost their jobs, returned to business school or groveled in blue-collar jobs, you gloated?
Being an Internet guru isn't what it used to be. I lost probably 95 percent of my net worth. But it's been good for the Internet, and in the long term it's going to be very good for the dot-communists. Hey, it hurt me too. Being an Internet guru isn't what it used to be. I lost probably 95 percent of my net worth. But it's been good for the Internet, and in the long term it's going to be very good for the dot-communists. Never has there been a time when there are so many young people who have been poor and then rich and then poor again. I think it's an educational experience that teaches you what's valuable in life. To have a whole bunch of money at a really young age and see how completely useless it is--it trains a lot of folks in the real value of things.

What was the big economic lesson you learned from the tech collapse?
The whole dot-com thing was an effort to use 19th and 20th century concepts of economy in an environment where they didn't exist, and the Internet essentially shrugged them off. This was an assault by an alien force that was repelled by the natural forces of the Internet.

So through the Internet we're creating a new economic paradigm--like the 15th century transition from feudalism to capitalism?
Yes. Exactly.

We're transitioning from capitalism to what?
It's more of a gift or barter economy than we're used to, and it's much more decentralized--a place where the buyer and seller are much more obscure. In the early '90s, people were saying, "This Internet isn't going to go anywhere because there's no economy there, no way to make money there." I would say, "Wait a minute. There are people entering trillions of keystrokes into this database. There's an economy there--but it just happens not to be monetized."

There was this belief that you made money from market cap, and there was no difference between a venture capitalist and a customer--that if you sold your product to a VC you were one step further toward your final goal, which was a ridiculous IPO, following which you'd liquidate and spend the rest of your life chasing starlets on the Riviera. This is not a good reason to start a business. Business should be about the simple proposition of creating a product or service that costs you less than you can sell it for. For a long time, we forgot that.

Do you blame yourself at all for fueling the Internet bubble?
Well, yes. I'm doing a piece now for Forbes about the economics of humility and admitting my own errors in all of this, and trying to evaluate where to go because we've so massively screwed up.

In fairness, I've always claimed that the long-term effects are going to be far more profound than the short-term effects. At the same time, I was certainly one of the primary promoters that this was the biggest thing that had happened since the capture of fire. I still believe that. But I take a slightly longer-term view of it. The capture of fire didn't revolutionize human society in five years. It took thousands. In this case it's going to take a minimum of a century. These initial exuberances were probably counter-productive, and I fully confess to having fueled those fires.

How do you want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as someone who did everything he could to keep the Net open and build an architecture for the future that has as its foundation principles of openness and free flow. I want a future where anyone can say anything they want.

You co-founded EFF for that purpose. Is there still a need for it?
Absolutely. More than ever. I don't know who would be fighting these fights if not for the EFF. We need to get rid of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act--that is one of the principal tools of repression. That has to be removed from law, as well as its European equivalents. The EFF is the primary force to make that happen.

I'm convinced that liberty exists in the public's willingness to exercise it. And if people are timid, they're not going to exercise their liberties, and they'll lose them. We have an extremely important function in making people feel there's an organization for them if they want to be brave.

Do a series of mounting attacks on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act give you confidence that copyright laws will someday be struck down?
Yeah. They'll get rid of the DMCA because it's unconstitutional. And at some point, we'll get to a level where the courts agree with us. It's clearly a violation of the First Amendment, and it's being used to create all kinds of secondary violations. I just can't believe that a court could continue counting putting a link to a text file as a criminal act in the United States of America.

You've been a Wyoming cattle rancher, a Grateful Dead lyricist and an Internet guru. Which career did you enjoy most?
I liked being a rancher more than anything else. I'd still be doing it if there were any conceivable way to afford it.