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PdF '10: John Perry Barlow Predicts the Rise of the City-State

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, June 9 2010

John Perry Barlow has been thinking about the interplay between cyber space and our offline civic spaces since before most of us had a clue about what "cyber space" meant.

Back in 1990, the former Grateful Dead lyricist and one-time Wyoming cattle rancher founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and his "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," issued six years later is perhaps the foundational political text of the Internet. ("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.")

In his talk at PdF 2010, Barlow painted a picture of the next metamorphic effect of the Internet on how we live in groups, as a people. In the age of information abundance, argued Barlow, a centralized government simply can't cope with the deluge. "There is too much stuff going into Washington for it to handle." The alternative? Modern-day Spartas. "We're going to be going back to the city-state," predicted Barlow. "We can no longer run this country from the center. We need to run it, just as the Internet is run, from the edges."

Barlow is, by almost any definition, an optimist. But even he sees a few dark clouds hovering above. Barlow hammered some of Google's recent decisions in particular: "The capacity to control human thought -- I mean, it makes the Catholic Church jealous, I bet."

That said, Barlow wrapped on a rousing note, invoking a vision of the positive, transformative potential of the Internet in the right hands. "You folks, in this room," he told the crowd, "have the capacity to be some of the greatest ancestors anybody has ever had." Give it a watch.