John Perry Barlow: ‘People want to bypass the mass media’

The co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls the current wave of media realliances ‘the rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic’

John Perry Barlow is a retired cattle rancher, a lyricist for The Grateful Dead — and the theoretical architect for the cyberspace community. He spoke by phone on May 24, 1996, from a New York hotel room after a speaking tour of Dusseldorf and Paris.

Do you think people are generally tired of the top-down model of journalism, where professional journalists decide what’s important for the public, where it’s all push and no pull?

They’re absolutely sick of it. Most people have become profoundly skeptical of what they read through mass media. For all intents and purposes, the mass media have become a collective hallucination. People want to bypass those channels to increase the level of direct experience, to have a much more direct contact with reality and with the subjects they feel closely about. And so, to the extent that people can disintermediate, that’s what they do.

If there’s something in the world that I’m interested in, I try to go there directly, and I don’t need a professional communicator to help me do it. I’m not likely to anyway — what I experience directly and what I read about in the papers are so extremely different that it makes me skeptical of everything else I read. Given the corporate business pressures imposed upon the media, it becomes impossible to report anything except what the masses already believe. A mass medium exists to confirm the illusions of the crowd, and to sell the attention of that audience. If what you’re about is selling attention, then you’re also about getting it by whatever means are required.

‘The Net is not a channel. It's the ocean. And that's a vastly different thing.’
— John Perry Barlow
So then it goes without saying that you don’t believe traditional news organizations are doing a very good job in their forays into cyberspace.

If these organizations go online with shovelware and old video clips, then it’s same old story. On the other hand, if you’re giving people an opportunity to develop an interactive relationship with events on the scene — then you have something there. The real issue is whether the Internet is being used as a two-way medium.
If you’re in old media, one of the things you can do is increase the contact between people in the field and people in the audience. During the Gulf War, I found that the best way to find out what was going on was not to watch CNN, but to make contacts in field. And over a number of days and weeks, through various means and contacts, I was able to get some unintermediated information from both both soldiers and reporters on the scene, and what I was hearing didn’t jibe with the filtered, sanitized reports coming out of the mainstream media.

JP Barlow

John Perry Barlow (Copyright Matt Salacuse for the Industry Standard)

So you’re suggesting that reporters get out of the way completely. Just point the camera and that’s it?

I think both functions are needed. There is value in the filters in addition to the raw feed. But what I’m not seeing is anyone at the major media outlets making use of the new technologies to put users in contact with experts and sources in the field.

You’ve said on several occasions that the nature of the Internet is to de-corporatize. What do you make of the massive media migration to the Web in the past year?

What I’m mostly seeing is the rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. That is to say, I don’t think they’ll succeed. You’ve got a lot of people who are getting onto the Web for the wrong reasons. They think they can just take what they’re already doing and transfer it online, but they’re not prepared to make any fundamental changes to the way they’ve been doing business. And it just doesn’t translate seamlessly into an online environment. They’re not gonna be able to get away with that. I think they are, in their present manifestations, goners. There’s been a general demassification for some time now in all segments of society. Practically every element of society is becoming fractal. And we’re now seeing that in all the mass media, and they’re frightened and scared and not sure what they should do.
It reminds me of when television was first introduced. For a time it was assumed that it was kind of like radio and plays and newspapers, and all of those media were incorporated in its early days. And over time it became obvious that it was none of those things, it was television.

A completely new medium.

This isn’t even a medium, it’s a social space. The Internet is not a channel of communication. Cyberspace is a place where large numbers of people can gather and interact in any number of random and wonderful ways. A channel is two ways, or many ways, and this is far different from that. The Net is not a channel. It’s the ocean. And that’s a vastly different thing.

Imagine for a moment that you’ve been put in charge of an online newspaper with vast resources. What would it look like? How would it be different from what we’re seeing now?

I’d have a lot of eyes on the scene that could be clicked in by users watching at home. I’d like to put out as much raw, undigested feed as possible, a completely unedited flow from the site of the action, and also the ability to home in on details of interest to me. If the New York Times is online, it ought to be hypertext-linked to entire pieces of legislation. Rather than feed us a mere digest of what you think happened, provide source documentation, scan in bills and legal filings. And not just the raw documents, but give us the e-mail addresses of the people on the scene, the sources you talked to. Finally, given sufficient bandwidth, I’d want as a user to be able to ask about the phenomenon I’m watching in real time. I can certainly imagine scenarios where individuals in the audience are more familiar with the subject at hand than the reporter on the scene.

Michael Crichton predicts the extinction of the mass media within 10 years. Jon Katz says that newspapers don’t belong on the Web because they’re unnatural and unworkable creations. What’s your take on this?

I think all the mass media are in trouble. Ten years is a little premature. In the short term, people are still going to want a digest of particular sets of events, and they’ll tune in to the large agencies presenting those digests, but that’s changing, and I think the likes of the big three networks are probably doomed in their present form.

I don’t see how existing news organizations will be major players in cyberspace because they’ve got a set of habits that are very burdensome. When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. It’s hard to change your culture because it would require a complete transformation and reinvention of the business premises that have made you financially successful until now. When you consider the major social transitions in our history, the previous dominant, successful versions don’t generally make the transition when next thing comes along. Of all the covered wagon manufacturers, Studebaker was the only one that made the transition to building automobiles. It’s unlikely that the big media players now will be the ones to succeed in cyberspace.

What about nontraditional media outfits like Microsoft?

I think of Microsoft as being a retrograde, second-wave outfit as well. They also have a set of assumptions about how to create a physical economy because they’re trying to own everything, they’re trying to put their own stamp on the Net. What they could have is a relationship and instead they’re trying to own the property.

You’ve said you think the Net is still in the paper-cups-and-string mode compared to what it will soon become. Where do you think it’s going, and what will that mean for the news media?

There’ll be huge increases in bandwidth. When we get 100 megs a second instead of 28.8 kilobytes, the things you can do online, the amount of interactivity and the amount of people involved in that interactivity will be greatly increased, and there will be consequences that are unimagined at this point. But I can guarantee you they’ll be significant and what we’re seeing now has almost no relation to where we’ll ultimately wind up.

One trend that I see is that it’s the individual who replaces the big organization in many of our lives. I don’t know if people will have faith in the New York Times, but people will still have John Markoff online, based on the credibilty that he’s built up with his audience. You don’t have to be writing for an organization to have a credible voice. The Net elevates those voices. What the large media were about was distribution capacity to communicate with hundreds of thousands of people. Now the Net does that.

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
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