John Perry Barlow, from a great post by John Battelle of NewCo
One of the great privileges and pleasures of my life has been meeting extraordinary people, often in extraordinary places. I learned this morning of the death of Grateful Dead lyricist, who I met in the Bahamas in 2006.
Looking back, I think we were both something of a shock to a rather staid conference of American furniture-makers of German extraction. But we had some wonderful conversations, including one walking along the beach in the teeth of the trade winds. Sand in our teeth.
Here’s what I posted on my blog about those encounters:
Friday, February 10, 2006
Lunch today was on the beach, the tables and chairs sinking into the white sand, and with a fair old trade wind blowing. You had to hold your salad on your plate to stop it ending up in Cuba. Under heavy cloud, and with a man trying to take off on a parasail and bouncing across the stacked chairs and tables, [Elaine and I] found ourselves sitting opposite one of the two main speakers for the afternoon, John Perry Barlow.
Had known of him (http://homes.eff.org/~barlow/) for years, particularly as a lyricist for The Grateful Dead, as a long-time contributor to Wired magazine, which I used to adore, and as co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (http://www.eff.org/), which campaigns for free speech in cyberspace. But had never met him. Turned out we had a shared interest in comparative religion, among other arcane subjects, and things took off from there.
He was probably a bit of a shock for the audience, though he soon had my brain geysering. One of his early observations was that when he is living in the Chinatown area of New York, one of the bars nearby is home to a large mobster or enforcer type who has a “genius” son. So every time John turns up, the guy brings out his son, and the question the boy asked John about furniture was something along the lines of: “What would chairs look like if our legs bent the other way?”
Like the Indian industrialists I met there a few weeks back, Barlow hates government with a will – as do many folk from where he lives, Wyoming. And the feeling is mutual, as his blog (http://blog.barlowfriendz.net/) underscores, particularly his post-Burning Man experiences last year (http://barlow.typepad.com/barlowfriendz/2004/12/a_taste_of_the_.html).
But when it comes to multinational corporations, he’s a little more conflicted in terms of government’s role. Viewing them as a higher form of human life, but one with an enormous stake in the next two quarters, not in the future, he sees they need regulating and reining in.
One of the issues he talked about – and it had some of the audience shifting in their seats – was intellectual property, a term he described as an oxymoron.
He noted that The Grateful Dead had been early entrants into the open source and content-for-free world, deciding to allow their fans (Deadheads) to record their concerts, which generally produced better music than their recording sessions. The result was a a huge boost in their popularity, although he noted that while they could fill just about any stadium, one reason was that – so loyal were the Deadheads – that the band pretty much trucked a large part of the audience along with them.
Tomorrow’s economy, he predicted, will be more about relationships than property, with value turning out to have an increasingly powerful link back to familiarity – hence the the benefit of the underground market in Grateful Dead concert tapes. Fans then felt they wanted the ‘totemic’ CDs, even if the tapes were generally better.
Extraordinary man – and someone I mean to follow up, not least because if his efforts to ‘wire’ the South. He even got involved in a project to wire Timbuktu, on the basis that – to paraphrase – “if you can wire Timbuktu you can wire anywhere.”
One of his phrases that sticks in my mind – though it’s one I’d heard before – was that a key responsibility for us all is “to be a good ancestor.” That’s the very stuff of sustainability, done right. Later, as we chatted after his session, another delegate came up and the two of them compared their Japanese shoes. So I asked them both to bare their (Japanese) soles, which they did – though sadly I only caught John’s.
As to why we were both there, here’s some background:
Saturday, February 11, 2006
PIRATES, WRECKERS AND SPONGERS
Spent much of the morning ambling around Freeport, where we find ourselves at the ‘Our Lucaya Beach & Golf Resort’ – because that’s where the BIFMA International (www.bifma.org) conference was held and it was easier for me to stay over and write ahead of a trip to Toronto on Tuesday, rather than flying back to London. This afternoon I also spent much of the time reading, inside or in the sun on the beach. One of the books I read was Paul Albury’s The Story of the Bahamas (Macmillan Education 1975), which cast that ‘Our Lucaya’ tag in a very different light. The native Lucayans – who were, by all accounts, an attractive, healthy, welcoming people – were pretty much wiped out by the incoming Spaniards, who used them for slaves. Eventually the Spaniards turned to African slaves, arguing that they were worth 4 or 5 Lucayans, but by then an entire race was extinct.
When the Spaniards first arrived in Haiti, which is where the Lucayans are thought to have originated from, there were perhaps 300,000 Tainos. Sixteen years later, only 16,000 were still living. By 1550, there were thought to be less than 500. Today there are none. Believing that the Spaniards were from another world, many Lucayans were easily lured aboard the slaving ships with promises that they would see their relatives in heaven.
The book is also a rich mine of interesting stories about piracy, wrecking and the sponge industry. The best known pirate was probably the infamous Edward Teach, or ‘Blackbeard’, though the region was also home to women pirates who managed to grab their fair share of notoriety – among them Anne Bonney and Mary Read. Another period of the area’s history I remember reading about in the early 1960s was the blockade-running ventures of the US Civil War and the rum-running of the Prohibiton era. Indeed, as we flew in from Nassau, it was hard not to see many of our co-passengers as today’s equivalents of rum-runners. A sense of concealed menace, of dark undercurrents running beneath the brightly lit, cocooned world of the tourist.
Because Elaine’s father was raised in Barbados, we have long taken an interest in this part of the world. And sponges were another link, featuring heavily, soggily in the bathscapes of our early years. Like many other industries on these islands, the spongers had periods of fantastic profitability, but then overtaxed their natural resource – and, though they later learned to farm sponges to some degree, industrially made alternatives were soon ousting the natural products. I was always fascinated that the sponges we used as children were once living animals. Among the types of sponge traded from the Bahamas, apparently, were the wool, velvet, reef, hardhead, yellow and grass varieties. The names conjure up one of many worlds that once existed here – and which have been largely forgotten in the rush to quarry the latest resource, tourism.
As we walked around Freeport, we saw evidence of a more recent industry, big game – or deep sea – fishing. Many of the boats moored in the harbour were obviously designed to go after fish like the marlin, increasingly endangered, and it was hard not to see them as killing machines in the process of doing themselves – and their owners – out of a future. Their fishing chairs (photos below), from which the wealthy catch big fish with the aid of technology that would have been unimaginable for the likes of Ernest Hemingway, reminded me of electric chairs. But maybe that was just wishful thinking?
Elaine and local flora
Reflection of moorings
High tech sharks
Fishing chair 1
Fishing chair 2