Freedom and the Digital Frontier

"Internet Freedom," Cravens World

“Internet Freedom,” Cravens World

In 1994, John Perry Barlow published a prophetic essay in Computerworld College Edition titled “Jack In, Young Pioneer” (available here), in which he outlined how he and his fellows humans were being

“swallowed by the cultural superorganism of digital technology, a beast now well beyond anyone’s control… slouching off to Cyberspace with us in its belly.”

Even in the mid-1990s, when many American colleges and universities were first establishing email accounts and servers  for students, Barlow was aware that even at that early stage of the digital revolution, most of our everyday lives were governed directly or indirectly through our interactions with what he calls “Cyberspace.” Barlow, who had run a ranch in Wyoming, described his own encounter with new forms of technology as one in which he had no choice but to surrender, since he:

was as culturally doomed as the Tasaday of New Guinea. Technology had so empowered my competitors with fertilizer, growth hormones, and computerized futures hedging programs, that only a few of us were necessary to feed those remaining Americans who still eat beef. Such atavistic practices as mine were like stone axes against smart bombs.

Barlow relies on the myth of the frontier, to explain the significance of the new digital frontier that ” we are all going [to] whether we want to or not.”

He writes that,

“Misfits and dreamers, rejected by or rejecting society, are pushed out into the margins. There they set up camp and maintain what little order they want in it by unwritten codes, the honor of thieves, the Code of the West.

Despite their usual haplessness, they discover resources and start exploiting them. Burghers and boosters back in the civilized regions hear of these discoveries. Settlers, a milder sort, come in with their women and children and are repelled by the savagery and license of their predecessors, whether mountain men, prospectors, or Indians. They send for troops to secure the frontier for the Rotary Club and the PTA. They elect representatives, pass laws, and, pretty soon, they’ve created another place which is boring but which at least appears predictable.”

His cartoon-ish history of society’s conquest of the frontier, and its transformation from a place of independent individuals bound by nothing more than honor, codes, and pledges to the banal, conformity of suburbia, is troubling for a number of reasons, not the least of which for its reversal of causality. Without state investment in railroads, military conquests of indigenous lands, and capital investment from cities such as New York and London, there is no frontier. It is unclear who occupies Barlow’s imagined camps. For every misfit and dreamer who landed in the West, there were many more whose initial arrival on the frontier was enabled by the very forces Barlow claims came only subsequently.

Barlow’s problematic use of the frontier aside – he is certainly not the first – his fascinating personal history, and the backgrounds that explain his initial involvement in debates on the freedom of the internet, are worth noting. He was, among other things (see a fascinating biography, preserved as an artifact of the earlier Internet, here), a lyricist for the Grateful Dead. A favorite song that he wrote is “Cassidy” from 1970.

“Cassidy,” though named after the recently born daughter of the band’s office manager, is also a reference to Neal Cassady, the drug-using, constantly riffing, and always wandering bisexual muse of the Beat Generation, who appears as Dean Moriarty in  Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. As with many things Barlow, it is a statement about freedom, in Cassidy’s case what being a free spirit might mean to her as she enters the world, and a reflection on Cassady, who had embodied a particular idea of a person who lived freely, in opposition to social norms, yet had died two years earlier at only the age of 41. (Or at least this is one popular interpretation. According to the comments section of this discussion, on the Dead’s official website, cats may have something to do with the story as well. Narrative form in a Deadhead comments section follows its own rhythms.)

A super groovy Grateful Dead poster for a 1967 show at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. I wonder what Barlow would think of the watermark tag on this poster, signifying its "ownership" by the Vault, which will also sell you a reproduced hard copy of the poster. They might own the real property here in the form of the poster they made this quality scan of, but should they be able to claim every reproduction - not matter how intangibly - that is distributed across the internet?

A super groovy Grateful Dead poster for a 1967 show at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. We take for granted the ability to circulate an image like this, using simple functions like cutting and pasting, or with digital files, by transmitting bit torrents, but this ability to reproduce and duplicate cultural information is quite novel. Bootlegging novels in the 18th century, for example, required the ownership of a printing press and therefore significant capital investment in equipment and education in the skills needed to work that equipment. Not so anymore. For a fascinating history of piracy and accompanying legal and philosophical debates about the cultural and intellectual ownership of property, see Adrian Johns’ wonderful book Piracy.

Rather than discourage bootlegging at their shows, which many bands did – at the behest of record labels, who believed that unauthorized recordings cut into potential profits – the Grateful Dead encouraged the practice. As one anecdote goes, the band, upon observing a fan using equipment to record a live performance at the Hollywood Palladium in 1970, instructed, “You, with the microphone, if you want a good recording, you’ll need to move back about forty feet.”.

An NPR segment explores how bands make royalties on their intellectual property.

In a 1994 Wired article titled “The Economy of Ideas,” Barlow noted that

In regard to my own soft product, rock ‘n’ roll songs, there is no question that the band I write them for, the Grateful Dead, has increased its popularity enormously by giving them away. We have been letting people tape our concerts since the early seventies, but instead of reducing the demand for our product, we are now the largest concert draw in America, a fact that is at least in part attributable to the popularity generated by those tapes.

True, I don’t get any royalties on the millions of copies of my songs which have been extracted from concerts, but I see no reason to complain. The fact is, no one but the Grateful Dead can perform a Grateful Dead song, so if you want the experience and not its thin projection, you have to buy a ticket from us. In other words, our intellectual property protection derives from our being the only real-time source of it.

For Barlow, so long as the embodied experience, the one that took place in real time, possessed exchange value,  distributing its analog counterpart only served to promote the real product.

The policy that the Grateful Dead and its representatives pursue today is that Soundboard recordings, coordinated by the band, which have also been released as master versions by record labels, are available, but only streaming and not as downloads. Recordings made by audience members are available for download. All of this is organized on the Internet Archive, the “non-profit  digital library with the stated mission of ‘universal access to all knowledge.'” (The Dead’s page is here.)

The homepage for the Grateful Dead Internet Archive collection of streamable and downloadable music.

The homepage for the Grateful Dead Internet Archive collection of streamable and downloadable music.

 The site is a playland for Deadheads, catering to fans’ collective obsession with cataloging and tracing performance patterns. Nick Paumgarten, a New Yorker music critic and devotee, gives thirteen of his favorite recordings of live concerts here. The 1974 show he references in Oregon has a lovely version of “I Know You Rider.” Be sure to listen at the end of the song to the surreal announcement that fire trucks will be driving around providing water to thirsty Deadheads, who are instructed not to be alarmed by their presence. Despite the site’s rich offerings, as my above link to the YouTube video of “Cassidy” demonstrates – and as Barlow more than anyone knows and appreciates – distribution on the Internet remains a place in which rules of conduct apply only loosely.

Rainey Reitman, "Computer Search and Seizure: A Three-Panel Cartoon," Electronic Frontier Foundation

Rainey Reitman, “Computer Search and Seizure: A Three-Panel Cartoon,” Electronic Frontier Foundation

Barlow is a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a name that borrows from his influential essay. The EFF is one of the most prominent non-profit defenders of the legal rights and freedoms of Internet “free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights.” Just two days ago, the EFF reported on the testimony it had compiled and provided to a federal judge in the case of First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA, on how the National Security Agency “Surveillance Chilled the Right to Association.” The long strange trip continues…

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5 thoughts on “Freedom and the Digital Frontier

  1. First comment I would like to make is the fact that I was fairly unaware of a majority of the material presented in your blog post. I was under the impression that Jerry Garcia had pretty much sole possession of creative freedom for The Grateful Dead and was fairly stunned by the impact that John Barlow had on the band and the way the music was formulated. I especially enjoyed this article as it spoke to two generations of music within the boundaries of the article. The Grateful Dead were of an age of vinyl and bootlegging came from independent fans and the band embraced this. As mentioned specifically the fan that was asked to “stand 40 feet back” to capture a better quality for recording. This positively reinforced behavior differs greatly from the digital age of bootlegging that occurs via digital media such as online streaming. Today music is dictated heavily by record label’s expectations to sell sell sell, and many artistic freedom is lost in translation. There are very few artists like The Grateful Dead to begin with, let alone the compassion and love for their fans. This allowance for fans to produce their own bootleg versions of live performances is something to be admired for certain. Today if a leaked version of a song is released on a site like Youtube, site administrators make every attempt to shut the song down. It is a shame that the music industry has become so consumed with greed, that it has attempted to shut down the most important part of consumer music, the fan.

  2. I am very intrigued by Barlow’s comparison of the mental frontier of cyberspace and how it came to exist, with the physical frontier of the American West. As Barlow says, “Cyberspace, being a region of mind rather than geography, is simultaneously jeverywhere and nowhere. There are no national borders. The only boundaries which are significant are those which one crosses by entering a password. The location of those systems is irrelevant”. As we have transitioned into our digital age, our concept of place is changing, and as cited in the article, our concept of jurisdiction is changing as well. If the Internet really knows no place, then how do we assign laws to govern its use since we are deriving the jurisdiction of our laws from the physical world. Also noteworthy is the connection between Barlow’s personal views of freedom of expression and how this is being shaped by the internet, and how those views have influenced his work as a lyricist for The Grateful Dead. The song “Cassidy” can be interpreted in multiple ways and it is because of this open interpretation that the song and what it stands for is so abstract. Barlow’s adherence to the freedom of choice and the institution of free will played an intricate roll in his career and these themes were pervasive in much of his work.

  3. It really is a shame to look back and see how lyrics impacted music so much as compared to today’s generation. Jerry Garcia was a lyrical genius along with many of the rock legends that were present from the 1960s-1980s. Fans of rock actually listened to the lyrics and analyzed them to make sense of words the artists sang them as. Jim Morrison of the band, The Doors, was very much into Poetry, and all of his lyrics contain a purpose in his music. Yet, today, music has drastically changed. A song will become successful if the beat is catchy. As seen in popular songs like, What Does the Fox Say?, and Gangnam Style, no one really pays any attention to the lyrics, yet enjoy the beat that goes along with the song. Gangnam Style is one of the most popular songs of this generation and no one knows what the singer is saying because he is speaking in another language. The power of language in lyrics is really deteriorating, and for fans of the rock generation and older music, it is upsetting. Dubstep and house music are some of the most popular music genres that are on the rise in today’s society. Most of the “songs” that are created do not contain a single lyric. What would great lyrical poets like Jerry Garcia and Jim Morrison have to say about the changes that occurred in music? I do not believe they would be happy.

  4. I find it fascinating how John Barlow was able to combine the widespread obsession of technology with the Greatful Dead’s music, as well as the Frontier. With little knowledge of the Greatful Dead and its background, I found this article insightful and informative. I think that Barlow’s acceptance of the affects of technology in time made a huge impact on the Greatful Dead’s Career. Barlow chooses to accept these advances in technology “whether we want to or not.” Being the only band that allowed bootlegging at concerts, this showed the band’s love and compassion for not only their music, but for their fans. Although the band could’ve made more money by selling their music, they chose to allow their music to be spread by the popularity within the fans. Also, Barlow and the Band knew that bootlegging was inevitable and so, allowing it sets a positive vibe for the music. New advances in modern technology allow people to stream music for free and torrent music rather than purchasing albums. Similar to bootlegging and piracy, people still enjoy the music for free but avoid the cost of the music. However, downloading music for free can be seen as a crime and can be punished. I think that punishing someone for not paying for art is ridiculous. Although the artist makes their career off of those that purchase their songs, the idea in music is behind the song and not the money. Therefore, bootlegging, piracy, and downloading via the internet should not be seen as a crime. The Greatful Dead’s allowance of bootlegging not only increased popularity, but the bootlegs that were created display their legend in music. These bootlegs displayed the energy and love that occurs during a Greatful Dead concert and that cannot be felt through a simple recording of a song.

  5. I find the above comment about lyrics not mattering anymore interesting. Pop music is not necessarily the place to look for deep lyrics. Many rap lyrics still have some of the poetry and lyricism of artists such as Garcia or Morrison. In fact, they might even surpass them in many ways. While there are many corny lines in rap (“Real G’s move in silence like lasagna”), there are also many songs that use lyrics to tell compelling stories that reflect social issues, such as Kendrick Lamar’s album “good kid, m.A.A.d. city”.

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