Printed: 2020-10-26

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Cyberspace is the Child of the Industrial Age - Defining it as Independent is Nonsense

Woody Evans

Ethical Technology

February 20, 2016

In February, 1996, John Perry Barlow (of Grateful Dead, Electronic Frontier Foundation, etc.) declared cyberspace to be independent of states and their industries, economies, and politics.  He was wrong.  “Cyberspace” (and we’ll use the same term here, for what it’s worth) is an expression of fleshly and natural and mechanical processes; it is derived from human politics and industry, and it cannot be independent of it.

The Information Age is the child of the Industrial Age.

Now on the 20th anniversary of its release, The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) should know better than to celebrate such a silly thing.  The EFF is a ferocious defender of online liberty and privacy—it is the ACLU of online communications—and it works in and with very physical law offices, press releases, water bottles, airports, paperclips, and human beings to do this good work.  To celebrate a juvenile fantasy of cyberspatial independence is beneath them, despite the fact that the declaration was made six years after its founding, by its founder.

There’s no need to call into question the personal motivations of the man behind the declaration.  Let’s assume his reasons for the declaration were good—as were his reasons for co-founding EFF, and for writing great lyrics for the Dead, and for living and working as a Wyoming rancher. His recent and ongoing work with Algae Systems seems very good indeed.  So no one should attack the man for writing the declaration, but critique of the declaration itself is perennially called for, and especially so in 2016.  We should make February 8th the annual “Critique the Concept of Cyberspace Day”, or at least a day in which we all remember to look critically (which doesn’t necessarily mean to criticize) at Barlow’s 1996 declaration.

Today, though, the aim is to criticize the thing, because it is a high pile of bullshit.

Paragraph 1:

“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.”

This argument is analogous to children declaring their sandbox off limits to their parents: “Parents of the working world, you weary giants who cook and pay bills, I come from my sandbox, the home of my imagination.  On behalf of my future ability to play, I ask you of the past to leave me and my sandbox alone.  Get back in the house and write a check for the homeowner’s insurance—you are not welcome here, and you have no sovereignty in this sandbox.”  So says the child.

Such a child misses the essential point about his sandbox.  It is on property paid for and maintained by parents.  The sandbox was built by the parents, for the amusement and wellbeing of the child.  The sand was brought from elsewhere in Dad’s pickup truck, and bought and paid for by Mom’s job, at that.  If the sandbox breaks?  The child asks parents to fix it.  It is fixed with materials procured by the parents.  If a cat poops in the sandbox?  The child asks parents to clean it out.  Yet the child tells the parents that they are not welcome in the sandbox, and that they have no sovereignty there.

The Internet lives in flesh and steel.  Cyberspace, perhaps sadly, doesn’t float freely, like a cloud drifting in a sky “the color of television tuned to a dead channel”.  It happens when caffeine meets neuron, or when pseudoephedrine is metabolized and crosses the blood-brain barrier of a hungry grad student at 3:14 AM, as she reaches for that can of stale Red Bull, spills it, and sees a new network architecture in the splash pattern.  The eureka doesn’t happen in some Platonic “home of the Mind”—it happens in the swirl of body-mind, and it is folded, beaten, proven, and borne out in the polymer, aluminum, Terfenol-D, and silicon of the now mutating giants spawned in last century’s industries.

Like the sandbox, cyberspace cannot happen without help from grownups.  It is hosted on private and public servers, which are very physical things, and very real laws apply to the uses and abuses of those objects and the data they house and route.

If those weary Industrial Age giants actually had left cyberspace alone, the Information Age economy would never have happened.

If those giants leave cyberspace now, the Information Age would fail.

Government happens.  Most everybody wants to be free, and sometimes we want freedom so badly and to be so fully realized that we make the mistake of believing that any and all organization or government is bad for liberty.  This is a major strain in the idea of an independent cyberculture.

Look at paragraph 2 of the declaration:

“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.”

This version of cyberspace calls for statelessness, for no elected government, and maybe even anarchy; no problem in principle, except that anarchy always (yes, always—I challenge you to find counterexamples) becomes organization during crises.  A band of hunting families on the icy steppes forty thousand years ago would have found themselves considerably more organized—maybe forming a rudimentary micro-government—after herds fled in a wildfire.  A plan is called for, roles must be defined, and food must be found if we are to survive.  Run the experiment forward, and humans further specialize, reinforce and occasionally overturn organizing structures to fortify their economic advantages: so government happens.

Cyberspace, struggling with its own crises, has also organized into structures that are governmental or government-like.  Of course nation state governments have long since colonized cyberspace, but even the “wizards who stayed up late” at ARPANET to build the networks in the first place have developed governing bodies for the Web and the wider Internet: ICANN and W3C, for example.  These are democratic bodies, with open processes and transparency built into their policies.

Cyberspace, de facto, has an elected government.

Besides this, it is also right and natural for cyberspace to have governance.  Why shouldn’t law, which is so often the distillation of a shared moral sentiment, apply to online spaces which are equally susceptible to crimes and abuses?  Theft is and should be illegal in cyberspace as well as in the alley behind the grocery store.

Or to turn the challenge on the declarer of cyberspace independence: the use of the word “tyrannies” is a straw man, and what he really means by “rule” is “rule of law”, so Barlow should tell us why theft, libel, fraud, or human trafficking should be allowed in or enabled by cyberspace but not in the world of dust and blades and blood and burning tires.

Cyberspace ain’t heaven, it’s a tool.  Until I choose to call it up like a witch’s familiar, it rests in my pocket, in my spimes, along with eight dollars and eighteen cents in cash, a midwakh pipe, and my state of Texas fishing license (come and take it).

But it’s time now to talk about the choice of the word bullshit: bullshit studies is a small but important field, that I can only hope is growing fast enough to keep up with the burgeoning bullshit we must all address and answer.  Bullshit, according to Frankfurt, isn’t exactly a lie.  As Pennycook and others put it, bullshit is “designed to impress but [is] constructed absent direct concern for the truth.”  So it’s information that sounds authoritative, or tries to, but gets used in such a way that its effect is to impress others whether or not it is true or useful.

We find bullshit manifested in the declaration, especially in three of its later points.  First:

“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.”

Your identity has a body.  Without your body you are dead, and can’t have a cyberspace personomy.  You can’t type a response on the BBS without a body, for example.  You can’t “like” a post with a physical entry into the system, even if that entry is cyborgized or hosted in the cloud.  Earlier in the declaration, it is stated that cyberspace denizens have no elected government and are not likely to have one; but ask yourself if shared ethics and commonweal (general collective happiness and well-being in a group) can emerge in non-democratic forms of governance?  If not, then why would cyberspace be unlikely to have an elected government of some kind?  Ergo, bullshit—a plea for an independence with words that do not intend to deceive us, but are not interested in rigour or truth.  The declaration continues to impress.


“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.”

Taken at face value, this means that thieves, liars, and rapists are as welcome as saints in cyberspace (which is in conflict with the earlier commonweal idea).  But it’s probably just bullshit, because it uses distracting language to imply that there is a spiritual or utopian vision bubbling up here in the idea that we must accept the dark as well as the light—since the declaration does not go on to seriously consider the way that problems of too much dark or too much light would be dealt with in their non-elected but enlightened sorta-psuedo-government, it seems to fit the criteria for bullshit.


“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.”

Copyright matters to authors and creators, to re-mixers and DJs, to poets and coders.  Copyleft and Creative Commons has helped us refine what we mean by property and “use” of ideas and media work, and this has been very widely supported by “cyberspace” because we know that insofar as cyberspace exists, it exists both because of the existence of protections for intellectual property (yep, some laws there protecting some patents to encourage innovations that led to telecommunications) and perhaps within the medium of intellectual products themselves (the noosphere, if you like).

Furthermore, “whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost”, if not a lie is certainly bullshit.  It costs me and my body and mind time, calories, and attention, at least, to create.  To reproduce and distribute finitely, never mind infinitely, also has costs—memory and processing power are getting cheaper, but even 20 years after the declaration, they don’t cost nothing.  Neither are the environmental costs irrelevant, as “cyberspace” accounted for at least 2% of global carbon emissions in 2014.

The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace is and always has been bullshit, in the technical sense.  It is full of lyrical tufts of sentimental distractions that sometimes seem to suggest a coherent ethos or a pointed manifesto, but falls short in every paragraph.

Let’s respect the work of the EFF and, in perhaps most cases, of Barlow; here I am calling out the bullshit in his declaration without ever calling the man himself an intentional bullshitter.  I haven’t met him, and, again, assume only good intentions from him.  But rational folks, especially those of us on the cyber-utopian spectrum, must identify and dissect bullshit and ask those who produce it to work more carefully.

Indeed, in 2016 “cyberspace” ain’t the place.  Cyberspace became a set of ideas about a the future, and about a virtual reality, a permanent “temporary autonomous zone” of eternal Platonic ecstasies.  The 21st Century is about the augmentation of the real with data and information toys and tools; it’s about slicker versions of Google Glass, arphids and smart-ink tattoos.  Our century may be surreal as it writhes its way toward a new aesthetic, but won’t be and can’t be independent of our bodies or of our votes.

Our century will be transhuman, and that requires real and interdependent humans.

Woody Evans is an American librarian and author of short stories and nonfiction works, who is known for critical commentary on technology, technoculture, and transhumanism. He works at Texas Woman's University.


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