Image by the European Graduate School, via Wikimedia Commons
The most successful outlaws live by a code, and in many ways John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, Wyoming rancher, and erstwhile songwriter for the Grateful Dead—who died on Wednesday at the age of 70—was an archetypal American outlaw all of his life. He might have worn a white hat, so to speak, but he had no use for the government telling him what to do. And his charismatic defense of unfettered internet liberty inspired a new generation of hackers and activists, including a 12-year-old Aaron Swartz, who saw Barlow speak at his middle school and left the classroom changed.
Few people get to leave as lasting a legacy as Barlow, even had he not pioneered early cyberculture, penning the “Declaration of Independence of the Internet,” a techo-utopian document that continues to influence proponents of open access and free information. He introduced the Grateful Dead to Dr. Timothy Leary, under whose guidance Barlow began experimenting with LSD in college. His creative and personal relationship with the Dead’s Bob Weir stretches back to their high school days in Colorado, and he became an unofficial member of the band and its “junior lyricist,” as he put it (after Robert Hunter).
“John had a way of taking life’s most difficult things and framing them as challenges, therefore adventures,” wrote Weir in a succinctly poignant Twitter eulogy for his friend. We might think of Barlow’s code, which he laid out in a list he called the “25 Principles of Adult Behavior,” as a series of instructions for turning life’s difficulties into challenges, an adventurous reframing of what it means to grow up. For Barlow, that meant defying authority when it imposed arbitrary barriers and proprietary rules on the once-wild-open spaces of the internet.
But being a grown-up also meant accepting full responsibility for one’s behavior, life’s purpose, and the ethical treatment of oneself and others. See his list below, notable not so much for its originality but for its plainspoken reminder of the simple, shared wisdom that gets drowned in the assaultive noise of modern life. Such uncomplicated idealism was at the center of Perry’s life and work.
1. Be patient. No matter what.
2. Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, not blame. Say nothing of another you wouldn’t say to him.
3. Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.
4. Expand your sense of the possible.
5. Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.
6. Expect no more of anyone than you can deliver yourself.
7. Tolerate ambiguity.
8. Laugh at yourself frequently.
9. Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right.
10. Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.
11. Give up blood sports.
12. Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Don’t risk it frivolously.
13. Never lie to anyone for any reason. (Lies of omission are sometimes exempt.)
14. Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.
15. Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.
16. Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.
17. Praise at least as often as you disparage.
18. Admit your errors freely and soon.
19. Become less suspicious of joy.
20. Understand humility.
21. Remember that love forgives everything.
22. Foster dignity.
23. Live memorably.
24. Love yourself.
Barlow the “cowboy, poet, romantic, family man, philosopher, and ultimately, the bard of the digital revolution”—as Stephen Levy describes him at Wired—“became a great explainer” of the possibilities inherent in new media. He watched the internet become a far darker place than it had ever been in the 90s, a place where governments conduct cyberwars and impose censorship and barriers to access; where bad actors of all kinds manipulate, threaten, and intimidate.
But Barlow stood by his vision, of “a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth… a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
This may sound naïve, yet as Cindy Cohn writes in EFF’s obituary for its founder, Barlow “knew that new technology could create and empower evil as much as it could create and empower good. He made a conscious decision to move toward the latter.” His 25-point code urges us to do the same.