Tag Archives: History

Barlow as Rorschach test

An op-ed by Joshua Benton on the first quarter-century of John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace on the Nieman Lab website.

Unpacking the different facets of Barlow’s personality and worldview goes a long way toward mapping out early internet ideology: most everyone finds parts to admire as well as intimations of disasters to come. The protean nature of the author of the Declaration helps in the process. Was Barlow Dick Cheney’s friend or Ed Snowden’s? Was he a scion of Wyoming cattle ranching royalty or a Grateful Dead lyricist? Was he part of the Davos digerati or a defender of civil rights and founder of the EFF? All of these, of course, and much besides. Undeniably, Barlow had a striking way with words, matched only by a consistent ability to show up “where it’s at” in the prevailing cultural winds of the time (including a penchant for association with the rich and famous).

Benton does a good job highlighting how far removed the techno-utopian promises of the Declaration sound from the current zeitgeist regarding the social effects of information technology. But ultimately we see in Barlow a reflection of our own hopes and fears about digital societies: as I previously argued, there is no rigid and inescapable cause-effect relationship between the ideas of the ’90s and the oligopolies of today. Similarly, a course for future action and engagement can be set without espousing or denouncing the Declaration in its entirety.

Long-run trust dynamics

Long, thoughtful essay by David Brooks in The Atlantic on the evolution of mistrust in the American body politic. The angle taken is that of the long span of the history of mentalities: Brooks couches his analysis of the current crisis in the recurrence of moral convulsions, which once every sixty years or so fundamentally reshape the terms of American social discourse. What we are witnessing today, therefore, is the final crisis of a regime of liberal individualism whose heyday was in the globalizing 1990s, but whose origin may be traced to the previous moral convulsion, the anti-authoritarian revolt against the status quo of the late 1960s.

The most interesting part of Brooks’ analysis is the linking of data on the decline in generic societal trust with the social-psychological dimension, namely the precipitous –and frankly shocking– decline in reported psychological well-being in America, especially among children and young adults. Where his argument is less persuasive is in the prognosis of a more security-oriented paradigm for the future, based on egalitarianism and communitarian tribalism. It is not clear to me that the country possesses either the means or the will to roll back the atomizing tendencies of globalization.