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Review

Grateful for a virtual apple pie

John Perry Barlow, Grateful Dead songwriter-turned-Net activist, was in Bangalore on October 23, and his talk wasn't entirely free from capitalistic cynicism

"If you are so confident about the growth and egalitarianism of the Internet why are you campaigning for it?"

A young student asked John Perry Barlow the question that was niggling everyone after the Grateful Dead songwriter's upbeat hour-and-a-half talk on the future of the Net.

The venue was the J N Tata Auditorium at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The talk, organised by bplnet under its Net Prophets series, drew a young audience, mostly under 30.

The Net, or cyberspace as Barlow likes to call it, is the new bastion of free speech and everyone's right to a soapbox.

Provided, of course...

Barlow's enthusiasm is almost contagious. "It's immoral for anyone to own an idea. Take the Net to the villagers. Free them. Give them a voice."

Yet this former cattle rancher from Wyoming sees no contradiction in people owning real estate. The word 'free' seems to echo more the tenents of free trade than free speech.

"Information will regulate monopolies," says the Net prophet who is already being compared to Thomas Jefferson, the man defending the much-sued free music-exchange site Napster.

Barlow is campaigning in the Third World to prevent the Net from becoming an "American phenomena available in three colors." In his words, "The net needs more color and texture."

Yet Barlow leaves regulation of the Net to the goodwill of the technologically advanced and rich.

Citing the example of cyber-geeks (you might call them white techies), who work on goodwill, and retainers in Africa who network "villages, towns and companies", Barlow places the success of the Net squarely on the "morality and common sense" of the user (Netizen), an argument that smacks of the rhetoric of globalisation and multi-national PR.

Barlow has travelled extensively around the world, including Africa, and arrived at the conclusion that the north is paralysed by mind conditioning while the south is culturally better situated to reject the idea of intellectual property rights.

"If your idea is good, it will sell. Availability of MP3s will not affect CD sales of quality bands. People should want to buy what I haven't created yet. I shouldn't live off what I have already churned out," says the former Grateful Dead member.

Barlow, founder-member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, believes the Internet sees both "monopoly and regulation as malfuctions, and works around them."

Addressing a question on the exposure of children to expressions of hate, Barlow drops the age-old adage: "The information is harmless, it's what you do with it".

But 'Net gurus' aren't entirely free from capitalistic cynicism, which sometimes peeps through their global concern: "If the Chinese want to do what they want (regulate the Internet), let them. Someone has to make the hardware."

Barlow's logic is desperately held together by optimism, but one must remember that no revolution ever came with too much logic.

Jomo


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