I grew up in a society where lawyers worked for people too gutless to shoot. And a lot of them would still rather be shot than sued,” deadpanned Wyoming-born John Perry Barlow Friday to a ballroom full of media lawyers here for the University of Kansas’ highly regarded annual Media and the Law Conference.
This year’s agenda is “Privacy, Prirates and the Big Data Debate.” In the room are attorneys quarterbacking the biggest of the big data lawsuits, eyes trained on the Skype screen where Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead; founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; and Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, was holding forth.
Privacy, Barlow notes, “is not in the Constitution because none of the Founders had experienced it.”
Indeed, for most of history, everybody lived in communities where everybody knew everybody’s business. Of necessity, there was more “warmth toward human foible” in the ranching community of Barlow’s boyhood.
Following World War II, said Barlow, suburban life and corporate cultures that shifted from “manufacturing goods to manufacturing needs” combined to give us “a sense that nobody can peer univinvited into the dim recesses of our private thoughts and deeds.”
In fact, like those giant African land snails that Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has been warning us about, people “lay down a slime trail everywhere they go.”
“I used to worry that the world would be like 1984. Or Brave New World. I was surprised to find that it could be both at the same time,” said Barlow.
Barlow is listed in Time Magazine’s “School of Rock: 10 Supersmart Musicians” and brags, tongue-in-cheek, about how his band “invented viral marketing….we could fill a stadium anytime we wanted because we carried our audience around with us,” said Barlow of the Deadheads, the superfans who created the enormous public library of Grateful Dead live performances years before absolutely everything anybody said, did, or possibly even thought could be captured in real time and uploaded to the entire world a nanosecond later.
”You practically tripped over the private recording equipment” at Dead concerts, confirmed Deadhead Chuck Tobin, a University of Florida j-school graduate who grew up to be the Washington-based Chairman of Holland & Knight’s national media law practice.
“It didn’t seem right to kick people out,” said Barlow. “We weren’t in it for the money, which was easy to say in those days because we weren’t making any.”
As a consultant to intelligence agencies, Barlow was surprised at “how good we are at collecting data and how bad at turning it in to information.”
“These are not the same things, “ he adds, and “you cannot get machines to learn what is relevant.”
It’s a straight line from there to Barlow’s North Star: “Those who govern must be seen by those of us who are governed.”
Checking the cyber-newstand, I see that back home in Tallahassee, the Miami Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas is all that stands between us and Rep. Clay Ingram chairman of the House Government Operations and Appropriations Subcommitee and efforts to undermine the state transparency web site managed by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.
In a world where everybody’s “blood type is on-line” the poetic sensibility which informs Barlow’s leadership in the Resistance to the “staggering, upsetting level of government secrecy” is as wonderful as a Kansas City Delmonico steak washed down with a great bottle of wine in the company of people who know the difference between transparency and transparent nonsense.