'I Want to Tear Down the Veil of Secrecy': Interview With Cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow

11/17/2013 05:13 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The cyberlibertarian, John Perry Barlow, believes that we can no longer safeguard complete secrecy and privacy. He sat down with Alexander Görlach to discuss the true value of secrets, how the U.S. copied Nazi Germany and why driving a tractor boosts his creativity.

The European: Mr. Barlow, we are currently witnessing the decline of privacy. Is the Internet a curse or a blessing in that context?
Barlow: Like most things, it's both. Something as profoundly altering to practically every element of society as the Internet brings with it all kinds of benefits and risks. I like to say that I have been thinking about the Internet long enough to see both my dreams and nightmares realized.

The European: How come?
Barlow: The Internet amplifies power in all respects. It can grossly exaggerate the power of the individual. Back in the early 1980s, I remember glorifying the effect that a single individual could have on the whole nation state, and of course, in my narcissistic way, I was thinking about myself and not about Osama bin Laden, who was actually the first guy to pull it off successfully. The Internet may well disempower the nation state but at the same time it also strengthens certain specific state functions -- like surveillance. As a political entity, it doesn't empower the nation sate. It creates the availability of much more data than the digestive system of the nation state could possibly assimilate.

The European: Is that why you wrote in your manifesto that politicians should stay away from the web?
Barlow: At the time I wrote that, I had a simpler view of things. I really did believe that the Internet would empower new systems of human organization that would take over many of the traditional functions of the nation state, and that the coercive power of the nation state would be greatly delimited because of the difficulty of being coercive if you don't know where the body that you are trying to coerce yourself on, is located. Property also became something completely different than what it had been. And I felt that the general ability of power over people would be greatly diminished. A lot of this has happened. But there are, on the other hand, these larger institutions that are not nation states but are nevertheless very great concentrations of power.

The European: Such as?
Barlow: Google, Amazon, Apple. Any number of cloud providers and computer service providers who can increasingly limit your access to your own information, control all your processing, take away your data if they want to and observe everything you do in a way that does give them some leverage over your own life. And even governments, to the extent that they are not pitiable giants, are gaining some authority that they had lost by virtue of the fact that the Internet is, and always has been, the greatest surveillance tool ever designed.

The European: That's an interesting description.
Barlow: Back in 1985, I already argued that even though the Internet was enormously liberating, it was also a very penetrating way of seeing into peoples' lives. And back then I was really putting the emphasis on the liberating aspects, even though I was very aware of the other ones.

The European: Why?
Barlow: Probably because of what Alan Kay said: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." That is true. But it is equally true that the best way to invent the future is to predict it. You can predict it in ways that are persuasive enough to convince people that we are entering Utopia. We probably aren't about to, but demonizing the Internet will not help us on our way to Utopia.

The European: Do you think that the Internet has spurred the end of secrecy on both the private and the public level?
Barlow: It is going to make it very difficult -- I have felt that coming for a very long time. I decided, years ago, that I would never want to get another job, that I would simply become unemployable by nature. This, I thought, would be a good testing ground for what it's like to have no privacy since I could just fully expose myself without having to fear professional repercussions. I though that everyone was going to exist in this condition relatively soon, so I basically gave up my privacy. And I don't find being entirely visible as terrible as many people think it would be. But I also don't have to work for a large organization that is trying to preserve the mythology of human beings as being interchangeable machine parts that don't have their own internal weirdness. And I think that is going to become much harder as people become more visible.

The European: Will transparency at some point replace secrecy as a social norm?
Barlow: That's difficult to predict but think about this: I come from a little town in Wyoming. Everyone who is from a small town knows that you don't have any privacy at all there. But in my small town we were kind of protected from one another's judgment because everybody knows where the bodies of the other people are buried. We had mutually assured destructive capacity -- there was no asymmetry. And in larger society, we don't have symmetry at all. Individuals lose their privacy but the institutions actually increase their secrecy.

The European: So what can we do to safeguard our privacy and secrecy?
Barlow: I am not trying to protect privacy in the long run, because I think it is a lost cause. What I am trying to do is to tear down the veil of secrecy around the institutions in order to create symmetry. I don't mind people knowing about my details as long as I know what they are doing with that information and what their motives are. What kind of leverage they wish to have over me and how they would like to exert it. At this point, we don't know that about our institutions.

The European: What would the world look like without secrets? You studied Comparative Religion so you must be aware of the libraries full of books on the mysterious...
Barlow: Oh yes. But there are secrets that are intentionally concealed and there are secrets that are just too complicated to know. The world will always be filled with the latter. Many artifacts might only be revealed to you after thirty years in a Tibetan monastery, for example. Students of Judaism, for instance, were not given access to the Kabbalah before they had reached a certain level of awareness. It was assumed that you simply could not get it right. It was hermetic, it was secret from you because it was assumed that your consciousness would not be sufficiently developed for you to grasp the wisdom in that tradition and to let it grow and prosper properly.

The European: So we are just chipping away at one layer of secrecy.
Barlow: Exactly. And it is just the layer that is the most dysfunctional anyway. Most secrets revolve around things people feel guilt or shame about. But if they only knew how common the things they feel ashamed about really are. They often isolate themselves in this sense of guilt about something that is universally practiced and completely out in the open anyway.

The European: What are the positive effects of the decline of secrecy?
Barlow: Take a look at what has been the most productive manifestation of human uniqueness: the development of science. Most scientific revelations happened after the pursuit of knowledge quit being secret and hermetic. It was not when we gave up alchemy but when we started doing science openly. Newton had written quite a number of hermetic documents before he wrote the Principia.

The European: If transparency is so desirable and beneficial, why do states still cling to secrecy?
Barlow: It is partly a left over from the Cold War. We all ended up imitating the totalitarian states. Nietzsche said: "Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one." And the United States took on an awful lot of characteristics from Nazi Germany and then took on an enormous amount of the Soviet Union's characteristics. We all did. And so there is a general attitude among institutions that there is a benefit to being secretive. I don't think it is practical.

The European: Why?
Barlow: Let me give you an example: I have been advising the CIA and NSA for many years, trying to get them to use open sources of information. If the objective is really to find out what is going on, the best way to do this, is by trading on the information market where you give information to get information. If you do it like science does, in the clear, in the visible, then you do not want to use sources of information that have a natural bias. And the press is always somewhat suspicious because they are selling the attention of the readers to the advertisers and they have a built-in bias about what they are going to be presenting. I always thought that the intelligence agencies could do a much better job if they'd do it in the open.

The European: Did the agencies share that opinion?
Barlow: I have my partisans there. I am at the CIA every half a year, despite the fact that my organization is suing them. But they have a very hard time buying into this because they have developed cultures where you get your personal mojo by the ability to stop the flow of information. The bigger the secret, the bigger the cahooney you are! And this is just plain stupid because information that is not moving doesn't exist. If you take a look at the record of the intelligence organizations in the U.S., I cannot think of a single event that they were able to predict. Their entire history is replete with one major failure after the other.

The European: Because they are just reactionary rather than visionary?
Barlow: They are barely even that! On 9/11 there was not a single person in Langley, Virginia that spoke Arabic. But you could have found 8.000 agents able to speak ten different Russian dialects. That's telling.

The European: Does that mean that these organizations as well as their local counterparts are irrelevant?
Barlow: They still have their role and place but they are abysmally terrible at it! What they do instead - and are not quite so terrible at -- are operations. The operation guys are drone pilots, rendition torturers and so on. We keep trying to scale that stuff back but it keeps rearing its ugly head again. I think that secret coercive thuggery is simply wrong - on every level. I find it very offensive that my tax dollars are being used for it. If this were a movie, the country with the flying death robots would not be the hero.

The European: Clare Birchall, one of our authors, argues that secrecy fosters creativity. She argues that for creativity to thrive, you need some "legroom."
Barlow: I have heard that. But I assume that she isn't talking about secrecy but about solitude. That is a very different thing. Moreover, speaking as somebody who has been pretty creative, what you really need is something that takes over about three quarters of your mind in a meaningless way. Driving a tractor helped me to write songs for example. Driving a car long distance. Digging a ditch. Any one of those things doesn't require a lot of thinking to do and leaves the other part of the mind just roaming around, spitting out stuff that is allowed to come through. Real creativity is a gift that comes from heaven knows what holy place. It comes out strictly because you are somehow able to get out of your own way. You don't make it yourself; you just get out of the way and let it happen. So I think she is probably wrong about that. If you are writing fiction, it is a bad idea to tell people what you are writing about. There is a point when the characters start assuming their own roles and say or do what they want. You don't know what it's going to be. But if you introduce other people in that process, it is disruptive.

The European: But is that reason enough to wholly abandon secrecy?
Barlow: Secrecy and anonymity become important once you are doing something the government is not too happy about. I am involved in trying to make sure that Edward Snowden is safe, so I am involved with some people to make sure that my ability to communicate with Mr. Snowden and the other people in the network around him, is invisible to the government. And that is a form of secrecy and privacy based on the practical necessity to be safe. That is important. Privacy really is connected to freedom of expression.

The European: But how can freedom of expression be upheld when our means of communication have become increasingly digitized. All the hardware that it runs on is based on U.S. soil. Back in your manifesto you told countries: "Cyberspace does not fall within your borders." Nowadays, it clearly does.
Barlow: This is a problem but I still believe in the overall statement of that declaration. But yes, the cloud is American and can easily become an instrument of abusive power - that's a frightening prospect.

The European: You were a good friend of John F. Kennedy Junior. What was his stance on secrecy?
Barlow: He is an interesting case. He came from a family that was quite private because of the way it had been treated by the press. But he had decided that the best way to fight this was to be as visible as possible. He was always right out there.

The European: Hiding in plain sight?
Barlow: Exactly. That diminished the value of his visual currency and threw up such a screen of naturally contradictory images that people could not turn him into a caricature. I am not a celebrity to the extent that many of my friends are. But I have observed that the most dangerous thing you can do as a celebrity in America is to let them buy you your own poster. Let you become the cartoon that they want you to be for purposes of convenience. And human beings are always more complicated than their caricatures. So the more they know about you, the less likely they are able to turn you into a monochromatic creature. And that isn't just true about celebrities. The more people know about you, the harder it is to form some kind of harsh or simple judgment.

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