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Cyberspace is the Child of the Industrial Age - Defining it as Independent is Nonsense
Woody Evans   Feb 20, 2016   Ethical Technology  

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.


I agree. Cyberspace is not utopia. It’s not a thing in itself. Like TV is not 2D electrical-reality-land. Your article is timely given the hype around just about all neurological, artificial, meta-whatever mind-reality-zeitgeist manifestations. As for the -transhuman- there I take the view that with the genesis of the shaman we transcended through psychotropical molecular infusions our basis animal ground state. That morphed into a voyage of the fantastic where enhanced humans enacted their fate with mythological beings totally transcendent to the human condition. The story, the first novel was the Epic of Gilgamesh - almost modern in implications to become immortal. The Egyptians claimed transcendence for humans as well. Genetics helped. And now finally in a post-Enlightened secular world -for less alas not more- the dream is replenished. However I think it wont be through machine minds but through molecular enhancements. Those who are ensnared with machine-captivated intelligence will be in for a rude surprise. You need consciousness to be trans-anything.

I largely agree with this article, but it falls into incoherence when it uses the term “intellectual property”.  There is no such thing and never was, neither in “cyberspace” nor in the United States of America.

The term “intellectual property” is an incoherent and confused attempt to lump together a wide variety of laws which have nothing in common except that they are laws.  If you try to treat copyright law and patent law as a single issue, you will misunderstand them both.  And that’s not to mention trademark law or trade secret law or publicity rights.

If you think these laws are similar enough to generalize about, it’s because the term “intellectual property” has given you a mistaken idea about them.

Please stop spreading confusion about these laws—don’t lump them together.


@rms, thanks for pointing this out, and I agree that there continues to be much confusion—and I accept that I may be among the confused.  But intellectual property does exist.  Some thoughtful arguments for it detailed in this recording at the Cato Institute [ ], mostly having to do with its derivation from other types of property and from labor.  See also especially p. 25 here [ “The Struggle for Open Mathematics Software”] for a suggestion that there has been wibbly-wobbliness even in the Free Software Foundation’s attempts at defining “free” and “open source”.  I look forward to continued discussions about this important topic!

@kdevans: To speak of ‘the Free Software Foundation’s attempts at defining “free” and “open source” indicates a basic misunderstanding.

We define free software in However, the term “open source” was promulgated by people who reject our movement and the values it is based on.  We have never used that term, let alone tried to define it, and whoever does use it doesn’t represent us.

See for more explanation of the difference between free software and open source.  See also for Evgeny Morozov’s article on the same point.

I will look at the Cato Instutute article when I get a copy, but it is clear a priori that the use of that term in an article doesn’t imply it fits the reality of existing laws or the reasons they were adopted.

@kdevans: I was unable to access whatever paper lies behind I don’t see any way to get past there without running nonfree Javascript code. I won’t run a nonfree program, because it would trample my freedom. (See

If you send the contents of the paper to me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), I will take a look at it.  Without a copy, I can only guess its content from its title.

In general, I think we do better not post URLs of pages like that one. They place hurdles in the way, and these hurdles do wrong to those who cross them.  See

@rms your argument is analogous to refusing to use toll roads, or refusing to use public roads in which the weight, make, or ID of yourself or your vehicle is recorded.

You are free to find your own way to the destination via pig trails in the forest, and to accept the consequences of it taking you a long time to arrive; you are also free to advocate for libre roadways or libre/free roadways.  I agree with your advocacy.  I also use toll roads when it is expeditious for me—I make the decision freely.

When using the Web of 2016, you should expect to encounter Javascript and other programs that you disagree with.  You should realize that most others will either agree with the use of these programs, or be ignorant of your disagreement with the programs; in the second case, it is not an act of doing “wrong” to you to provide a link that uses a program you disagree with.  You are free to click the link or not to click it, but the act of sharing the link is not a wrong.

I will leave it to you to find the article in question (“The Struggle for Open Mathematics Software” published in ONLINE SEARCHER, Vol. 39, Issue 2, by Information Today, Inc., March/April 2015. ISSN: 2324-9684) if you are interested—I believe it does mention the FSF.  You might use your local library to request it through inter-library loan, but do contact the librarians first if you are concerned that their library management software may use programs that are not libre.  This record in WorldCat may help, but again, I haven’t vetted WorldCat’s software politics:

@almostvoid “Those who are ensnared with machine-captivated intelligence will be in for a rude surprise.”

I think so too.  There can be no independence of cyberspace from ‘the industrial world’ anymore than there can be independence of consciousness from body.  I think the real key is in acknowledging sets of interdependencies of internet/industry/government/etc and mind/culture/food/body/etc.

Readers, please be aware that that comment (by @kdevans) criticizes some straw men: things the writer fancies I would believe.  To see where I stand, look at what I say.

Now I will focus on controversies about points I really do believe.
1.It is wrong to track cars on highways or streets.
2.It is wrong to ask people to run a nonfree program.

The comment’s argument is elliptical: it jumps from “X is widespread” to “X is inevitable and you’re a fool to fight it.”  The omitted step is the assumption of _defeatism_.  Hiding the gap, is a snear.

I think it is a mistake to be defeatist.  When I have fought, I have sometimes won.  Giving up guarantees failure.

It’s true that in 2016 cars are often tracked by cameras. We can surrender in defeatism or we try to can change it.

So let’s organize to require toll roads not to record who drives or who pays toll.  Let’s organize to require that license-plate cameras track only cars that have court orders.  In short, let’s organize to stop the surveillance that puts democracy in danger.  See

It’s true that in 2016 there are web sites that can’t be viewed without running nonfree software.  I won’t run it, so I can’t get anything from those sites.  I live without it.

The site admins may not care that I personally stay away.  But I don’t stop with this personal refusal.  I organize people to push back.

That’s why I urge people not to post links to those sites.  Linking to them encourages them; refusing to link to them helps direct society down some other route.  This is our chance to have influence; let’s not waste it.

@rms, thanks for your points.  I don’t mean to set up straw man versions of your positions (and if you disagree with my assumptions about your struggle with inter-library loan and WorldCat, I would be interested to hear more).

You say: “So let’s organize to require toll roads not to record who drives or who pays toll.  Let’s organize to require that license-plate cameras track only cars that have court orders.”  You seem to be making an assumption here that the reason a toll road system would have to identify and record vehicle registry is not a direct result of the need to… collect tolls!  It may be the case that there are other motives, but as a practical matter the tolling system must record “who drives and who pay tolls” if they want to maintain funding for the road; if they don’t record who has paid and who has not, they can’t raise funds by billing those who try to use it without paying.  The recording is essential in this process.

Again, you may choose not to use the toll road, and I totally support your decision*, but you must support the right of others to decide for themselves whether they will use that road** (or nonfree software)—and maybe you do.  If you do, please be realistic about the nature of tolls and privacy.  For example, a busy single mother working two jobs may have to use the toll in order to pick up her child from daycare in a timely fashion so that she can drop the kid off with a family member in the evening and go to the second job.  To effectively and successfully “organize to require toll roads not to record who drives or who pays toll” may mean the end of that tolling system, as the tolling corporation would not be able to consistently raise enough funds to maintain the road.  That in turn, creates a hardship on the mother who was willing to use the system, to be recorded, and to pay the toll, since now she would have to drive on smaller roads with more traffic, and would be late to pickup child from daycare and therefore late to the next job.  She may have to give up the second job because of traffic and time constraints, which then affects income (and healthcare access, grocery choices, school supplies, etc.).  Organizing to ‘give away the store’ of the toll road creates a burden on the toll user who needs it, and who is willing by her own free will to abide by its terms for her own perceived best outcomes.

That is immoral.

* I would not, however, support your decision if I was a passenger in your car and had to spend an extra forty minutes in dense downtown traffic; I’d probably offer to pay the toll for you so that we could get to the daycare before it closes.

** Are you suggesting that linking to sites with nonfree programs is immoral?  If so, the burden to make a strong argument for its immorality is on you. This is analogous to claiming that it is wrong for me to suggest the toll road to the mother with two jobs, when it would actually be an attempt to help her achieve her goals.

  But intellectual property does exist.  Some thoughtful arguments for it detailed in this recording at the Cato Institute [ ],

The concept of “intellectual property” exists.  My point is that it misrepresents the existing laws, because it leads people to suppose they are similar and they are not.

The only way to think clearly about any one of these laws is to avoid mixing it up with the others.  Since the concept of “intellectual property” encourages mixing them up, the best thing we can do is to erase it from our thinking.

When it is applied to copyright in particular, that concept adopts the wrong values and thus suggests bad policies.  See

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