“We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.” John Perry Barlow
As a long time Deadhead, I attended a bunch of Grateful Dead shows in the New York area in the early 1990s. I had no idea that some of the songs I heard performed were written by a man who was at that very time helping to create the Cypherpunk movement.
It wasn’t until recently that I became aware of the surprising connection between the music of my youth and one of the people who laid the groundwork for the creation of bitcoin.
A few years ago I read John Perry Barlow’s autobiography, “Mother American Night.” The epilogue revealed that he died two days after finishing the book. All I knew about him was that he had written a couple of songs I really liked.
Putting aside his connection to the cypherpunk movement, his life story made for a very entertaining book. As a real renaissance man, writing was one of his many talents.
As I read the book, I thought of him as a kind of Zelig. He seemed to know everybody. He was a close friend of John F Kennedy Jr. He dropped acid with him and his then girlfriend Daryl Hannah. He also has the dubious distinction of having given the former president’s son his first flying lesson. Barlow met the Dalai Lama, and supposedly dated his daughter. He was a Republican for a while, and he helped run one of Dick Cheney’s campaigns. He eventually turned on Cheney, telling him to his face that he was Dr. Strangelove. He was a mentor to Edward Snowden, and they remained friends through his exile.
You wouldn’t have guessed his future by researching his austere, rural upbringing.
John Perry Barlow was born in Wyoming, the son of a Morman Republican State Senator. His parents owned a ranch, where Barlow claimed he was raised “by drunken cowboys and farm animals.” Due to his family’s strict religious values, he was only allowed to watch televangelists on TV. After managing to get straight ”F”s as a high school freshman, his father eventually shipped him off to boarding school in Colorado Springs, Colorado. There he met future Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir. They became lifelong friends and collaborators. He began writing lyrics for Weir’s songs in the early 1970s.
During college he discovered LSD at Timothy Leary’s Millbrook, New York gathering place. He introduced Weir and other members of his new band, The Grateful Dead, to Leary and LSD. Drugs were a big part of his world, and they remained so throughout his life.
Barlow was a natural libertarian, although to the best of my knowledge he never described himself as such. He valued freedom, and had a strong distrust of government. As a result, he became active in the world of internet freedom. In 1990 Barlow co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) with John Gilmore and Mitch Kapor.
In the early 1990s Barlow co-founded the Cypherpunks mailing list with David Chaum. Barlow and Chaum, among others including Adam Back and Hal Finney, discussed cryptography, privacy, and individual rights. Barlow is credited with coining the term “cyberspace.” He believed that anonymity was necessary to freedom. "I feel the same way about anonymity as I do about guns. It may be useful to have in the closet if the government gets out of control." At the same time he participated in the message board he continued to write songs for the Grateful Dead.
He also was continuing his work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Those Weary Giants Of Flesh and Steel”

When the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed by Congress, Barlow wrote "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" in response. The declaration was in the form of a letter addressed to the World Economic Forum.
Here is the full text, although I recommend you watch him read the document himself in this 2013 video :

A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace

by John Perry Barlow
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear. Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions. You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. You do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions. You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts. Many of these problems don't exist. Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different. Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live. We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity. Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here. Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge. Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule. We hope we will be able to build our particular solutions on that basis. But we cannot accept the solutions you are attempting to impose. In the United States, you have today created a law, the Telecommunications Reform Act, which repudiates your own Constitution and insults the dreams of Jefferson, Washington, Mill, Madison, DeToqueville, and Brandeis. These dreams must now be born anew in us. You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants. Because you fear them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the parental responsibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves. In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat. In China, Germany, France, Russia, Singapore, Italy, and the United States, you are trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace. These may keep out the contagion for a small time, but they will not work in a world that will soon be blanketed in bit-bearing media. Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. These laws would declare ideas to be another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish. These increasingly hostile and colonial measures place us in the same position as those previous lovers of freedom and self-determination who had to reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers. We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts. We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before. Davos, Switzerland February 8, 1996
It was a very influential manifesto, and still has its own page on the World Economic Forum web site. Edward Snowden claims that reading Barlow’s declaration changed his life.
Among his greatest achievements was his work with the Electronic Frontier Forum. To this day, the work done by the EFF ensures that for all practical purposes bitcoin and similar software enjoy first amendment constitiutional protection in the United States. The organization provided legal representation and advocacy for Professor Daniel J. Bernstein in the case of Bernstein v. United States. Bernstein was a computer scientist and professor at UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois. The plaintiffs argued that restrictions on the publication of cryptographic algorithms violated the First Amendment's protection of free speech. They contended that computer code is a form of expression and that regulating or restricting its dissemination is a violation of free speech rights.
In 1999, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in the case of Bernstein v. United States that computer source code is protected as free speech under the First Amendment. The court concluded that source code is a means of communication and expression, and therefore, any restriction on its publication or distribution would implicate the First Amendment.
In 2012, he founded the Freedom of the Press Foundation with Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and others, including Glenn Greenwald. Assange tweeted this upon heaqring of his death: “Very sad to hear my friend John Perry Barlow [@JPBarlow] with whom I started the Freedom of Press Foundation has died aged 70. Barlow was a fighter and a lover. He lived a rich life, filled with passion and purpose. The best of America.”
Barlow continued writing and lecturing about online freedom for the rest of his life. The internet is filled with videos of his speeches, lectures, and Ted Talks. He was a brilliant man and a tireless advocate.
Here is my favorite Barlow quote:
”When cryptography is outlawed, bayl bhgynjf jvyy unir cevinpl.” John Perry Barlow
Barlow’s funeral was a unique and controversial event. He was laid out dressed on his bed, wearing his favorite cowboy boots, while his family and friends gathered around him. Bob Weir played guitar and sang “Cassidy”, one of Barlow’s most well known songs. A video of the event is on youtube. Warning, some people might find it disturbing.
It is not an overstatement to say that his work did much to lay the foundation for the cryptographic advances that led to bitcoin, while making it very difficult for projects like bitcoin to be made illegal in the United States.
Electronic Frontier Foundation Memorial Poster
”When cryptography is outlawed, bayl bhgynjf jvyy unir cevinpl.” – John Perry Barlow
I love that quote!
Hi Siggy, I was always surprised that ol' Stewart Brand didn't give Bitcoin a similar thumbs-up. I was surprised at that with his Long Now thinking.
Keep wearing that psychedelic, teddy bear t-shirt - mine's hanging up somewhere or other...
Are you old enough to remember when The Whole Earth Catalog was everywhere? I'm still wearing the garb of my tribe. I'll be seeing 4 D&C shows in 5 nights next week. I have to rest these old bones to get ready.
It's actually surprising how connected the Grateful Dead are to so many things and underground movements and communities! I thought they were just one of many bands from the golden days but they show up time and time again when you read about stuff
Just yesterday I was reading about Gigi's take on value for value. He says he thinks content should be free. The Dead embraced this early on. When bands started cracking down on bootleg live concert tapes, the Dead set up an area for recording. Everyone could tape. Although I doubt this was an ingenious marketing ploy, their financial success skyrocketed. Attendance at their live shows increased.
Great post, I’m going to read his autobiography because of it, thank you
It's a great book. I read it right at the beginning of covid when they started lockdowns. It really stirred up my always present anti government fervor.
“Distrusting the government doesn’t mean you’re a conspiracy theorist, it means you’re a history buff”
  • can’t remember who said it
Really enjoyed this! Didn't know much about JPB before this. Thanks for posting.
I didn't either. His Declaration was unbelievable. I knew nothing about it.
I had seen the Declaration before, but didn't know anything about its author. Thanks for posting his biography!
I used to make lightning bolts out of opal and trade glass-blowers for cash or really nice functional artwork. Lightning bolts, teddy bears and crescent moons were all they ever wanted. One of my fondest memories is the time I kicked it with Bob Snodgrass, a very well known dead-head glass artist, and I sold him every lighning bolt i had made, over an hundred. I only charged him five bucks a piece for them, but he became very focused and excited when i told him I had lightning bolts. I could tell he would have bought them all at any price I wanted. I could have charged him twenty and he would have bought them. Bitcoin is a world-changing discovery, and the Grateful Dead are a world-changing group of musicians. If you guys never heard of it, the String Cheese Incident is a soft fork of the Grateful Dead. i always wondered if someone in this group is a big contributor to the creation of the Lightning network. After reading this, it wouldn't surprise me.
Such a great write up I'm a huge fan of the Cypherpunks mailing list and had no idea he started it. Super interesting all the amazing people he was friends with. On his wiki, it mentions he was a big influence on Aaron Swartz.
In 1996, Barlow was invited to speak about his work in cyberspace to a middle school classroom at North Shore Country Day School. This event was highly influential upon the life of then-student Aaron Swartz: Swartz's father Robert recalls Aaron coming home that day a changed person.
JP was one of the few people ever to live on the planet who could truly understand the value of freedom. Listen to it and you will get goosebumps....
That's an amazing story
I had no idea until I read his autobiography
Thank you, I never knew of this connection. You've piqued my curiosity and I look forward to delving deeper. Do you have any insights into how Terrence McKenna is related to any of the above?
I don't know much about him. I just a quick bit of searching around. Did you read his memoir True Hallucinations? He certainly sounds like a west coast Leary kind of guy, and I bet he read a lot of Carlos Castaneda back in the day. If you learn more I would be interested to hear about it.