Copyright John Gerstner. All Rights Reserved.

Esther Dyson: Cyber-Realist (The Civilization of Cyberspace #4)

"Relax and don't try to fix everything. But try and fix something."

“We haven’t created a perfect society on earth, and we won’t have one in cyberspace either. But at least we can have individual choice, and individual responsibility. It just means, again, relax and don’t try to fix everything. But try and fix something.”

This interview by John Gerstner was first published in the June-July, 1998 issue of Communication World Magazine.

She’s the doyenne of the digital age, a cyber-social butterfly. She flits between being a high-tech analyst, author, newsletter publisher, conference impresario, venture capitalist, and electronic-liberties lobbyist as if – at age 47 – she still can’t quite decide what she wants to be when she grows up.

The New Yorker calls her a “cyber-schmooze specialist…the perfect high-tech hostess…with a sharp sense of who needs to be hooked up with whom.” Internet guru John Perry Barlow (“Cyber-Cowboy,” Communication World, November 1995) says she is “the smartest woman I know…there is a quality to her insight that is not masculine and is incredibly powerful as a result.”

The New York Times Magazine pronounced her “the most powerful woman in the Net-erati.” The rest of the media crown her with titles such as digital-age philosopher, high-tech priestess, cyber-cheerleader, powerbroker, knowledge entrepreneur and brilliant nerd. Esther Dyson prefers court jester.

“The jester represented the causes of the meek and the powerless to the establishment,” she laughs. “People thought they were entertaining, but they were really telling the king that these peasants had a real problem and they had better listen.”

Dyson raises some of the thorniest problems swirling around cyberspace in her 1997 book, “Release 2.0 – A Design for Living in the Digital Age.” On issues such as electronic privacy, security, anonymity, pornography, governance and intellectual property, Dyson offers – not simple solutions – but preferable paths. Her philosophy is pretty much, “Hey, the Net is a powerful instrument for both good and evil. Let’s all work to make cyberspace a nice place for humans.”

It’s clear Dyson and her followers would much rather see individuals (aided by new tools from technology companies) responsibly self-govern cyberspace rather than to have some government impose freedom-restricting laws. As head of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a strong lobbying group for freedom of expression on the Internet, she has been able to help persuade the U.S. government to hold to its strong libertarian course on electronic commerce and communication.

Vice President Al Gore has been particularly strident in his support of Dyson’s views. “Our approach to electronic commerce must be guided by a digital Hippocratic oath,” he said in a 1997 speech. “First, do no harm.”

Dyson couldn’t have said it better. “This sounds really corny,” she says, “but I simply hope to encourage more good people to get on the Net and not be scared. I want to invite nice new neighbors into my neighborhood.”

You could say Dyson was born to her computer crown. Her mother is the esteemed mathematician, Verena Huber-Dyson. Her father is Freeman Dyson, renowned in science circles for his work in quantum electrodynamics, and appreciated far beyond academia for his futurist books, the most recent being “Imagined Worlds.” As a youngster, Esther remembers seeing Nobel laureates at dinner parties in her parent’s home in Princeton, N.J. So it was almost natural for her to head off to Harvard at age 16, where she majored in economics. She soon spent much of her time hanging out and writing for the Harvard Crimson newspaper. Her dad once chastised her for wasting his tuition money by not going to her classes. With typical Esther aplomb, she countered, “Daddy, you don’t understand. You don’t come to Harvard to study. You come to Harvard to get to know the right people.”

After graduating in 1972, she took a job as a reporter for Forbes magazine, followed by a stint as a security analyst focused on computer and software companies. When her employer, Ben Rosen, now chairman of Compaq Computer, was forced to sell his small high-tech newsletter, she bought and renamed it Release 1.0. Dyson’s probing, off-center columns on important ideas and people in the about-to-explode computer industry made it a must-read by the captains of such little (at the time) U.S. West Coast startups as Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics and Intel. Release 1.0 is now mailed monthly to 1,700 of the most powerful and influential people in the computer industry (at U.S. $695 per year). Many of these subscribers join her annual PC Forum, a workshop/social-mixer for the “tech-know.” There new technology is unveiled, deals are made and gossip exchanged between sessions on weighty issues such as “Identity, Transparency and the Net” and “Will the Net become what is promised? Or what is feared?”

As chairman of her own company, EDventure Holdings Inc., Dyson has the added respect among technologists for putting her money where her mouth is. Her current investments include the light-emitting polymer (LEP) technology by Cambridge Display that promises to make possible TVs as thin and light as picture frames which can be hung on walls. Her other high-tech investments are in, of all non-tech places, Eastern Europe. She owns a piece of Poland Online, Scala Business Solutions (started in Budapest) and TerraLink in Moscow.

GERSTNER: What attracted you to a high-tech career?

Dyson: I was actually hoping to get a job with Variety and write about movies. But more people wanted to write about movies than wanted to write about business, so I got a job at Forbes and ended up enjoying it more than I expected. I like explaining things that people don’t understand. The Internet and social structures in developing countries such as Russia are particularly fine examples.

GERSTNER: Why aren’t more women working in the field?

Dyson: Oh, lots of reasons. Lack of role models. Being discouraged by parents and teachers. That community still isn’t terribly welcoming to women.

GERSTNER: It’s’ nothing in the genes then?

Dyson: No. There are differences between men and women, but there’s more to it than that.

GERSTNER: You lead a very private life, and others have reported that you have no telephone or television in your home, you do not drive a car, and you swim an hour every morning. Are these habits part of the way you’re coping with the digital age?

Dyson: I wouldn’t use the word cope. It’s not as if it was imposed on me. It’s the way I like to live. I’ve had no phone for quite some time. It wasn’t the Internet that caused that. When I go home, I simply don’t want to deal with all that stuff.

GERSTNER: And the swimming…is there an Internet metaphor here?

Dyson: Probably, or at least you could create one if you insisted. But basically I started swimming in college and I think it is healthier than running, although someone will probably discover that chlorine causes cancer. It certainly is easier on your bones. The only trouble is, I travel a lot and it can be a real challenge finding a pool in some of these places.

GERSTNER: What is your favorite metaphor for the Internet?

Dyson: Well, I definitely see it as an ocean, not a highway. It’s something you float in rather than something that has well-defined paths. It’s really an environment in which things happen. It’s not a single place; it’s a platform for lots of places.

GERSTNER: What effect will the Net have on content creators’?

Dyson: Long run, they need to be cleverer and more imaginative about how they get paid. The ever-greater proliferation of content on the Net (much of it by individuals doing it for love, not money) means much more competition for people’s attention. There will be way too much content, and not enough people with time to consume it. In fact, the time spent by amateurs creating content competes for the time they could spend consuming it. This means we’re entering an “attention economy.” The source of commercial value will be people’s attention, not the content that consumes their attention. And so you will find people hiring communicators because they want good content to attract people’s attention, but they won’t necessarily sell the content to the reader or viewer. They will give it away. Businesses who make content will have to figure out ways other than selling copies to make money. One model might be to creatively bundle content with unique, customized products and services – selling spin-off goods, memberships, face-to-face conferences.

GERSTNER: What does this mean to intellectual property rights? Is copyright obsolete?

Dyson: No, I think copyright is moral and proper, but its use is going to change dramatically. The Net makes it easy and almost cost-free to send or retrieve content anywhere in the world. It hasn’t changed people’s morals, but it’s probably made people more careless about stealing content and breaking the law. At the same time, in light of the new attention economy, I think a lot of people are unrealistic about the value of the content they create. The best way to get your works known is to give them away for free.

GERSTNER: But you’re not giving away your newsletter or book on the Internet are you?

Dyson: No. I certainly want both to make money. We put bits of it online, but basically we stick to paper. Content may be declining in value, but it hasn’t hit zero yet. However, I make most of my money, not from writing, but from activities that flow from the writing such as hosting conferences, consulting and speeches.

GERSTNER: There’s the Internet-As-Savior-of-the-Planet school. Then there’s another faction that says the Net is way overrated because half of the world hasn’t even used a telephone yet. What’s your take?

Dyson: I think the Internet is tremendously important, but I don’t think it’s the savior of the world. It is a very important tool and it’s going to trickle down, especially in the parts of the world I spend time in. Only a small part of society has access to it now, but I think they’re going to use it to change things fundamentally. It’s very long-term.

GERSTNER: One of the themes in your book is that the new digital age brings with it more chances for abuse as well as opportunities. What specifically should those of us-toiling in this new frontier be doing to exercise more responsibility in the world we are creating?

Dyson: The golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – is particularly suited to the Net. I would also suggest disclosing who you are, assert your own rights and respect those of others. Have a sense of humor and dignity, and don’t misbehave just because you can.

GERSTNER: You’ve mentioned trust is a key ingredient to seeing this technology reach its fullest potential. How can we get to that point?

Dyson: There are both social means and technical means that can allow you to know whom you are dealing with. Ask for and use systems like TRUSTe, a non-profit labeling and certification’ organization. “Trustmarks” will allow visitors to a web site to choose whether or not to do business based on what the site owner will do with the data collected. This enables you to make sure that people who need your information are not going to reuse it in some form you’re not expecting.

GERSTNER: Isn’t the fear of losing one’s privacy the reason many people don’t use the Internet?

Dyson: It’s still a big issue. Some people are paranoid about it. Some people don’t even think about it. The interconnectedness of the Net makes safeguarding privacy an increasing challenge. People are rightly concerned about the ease of combining data from different sources. But people are also revealing much more about themselves today everywhere, for better or worse. I think it’s inevitable that people will simply become more comfortable with the fact that more is known about them on the Net.

GERSTNER: You say in your book that the Internet can change our “overall experience of life.” How optimistic are you about this?

Dyson: The Interact is not a mystical entity in itself, but the widespread availability of two-way electronic communication will change all of our lives. It will flatten the landscape by sucking power away from central governments, mass media, and big business. It gives awesome power to individuals…a powerful lever to connect with other people to accomplish their goals. But that will change human institutions, not human nature. The Net doesn’t create the bad people; it just gives them another place to exist. But I’m fundamentally optimistic because I believe people by and large would rather be good than bad.

GERSTNER: With the rise of the Internet, you say companies now need to learn to live with increased visibility and loss of control over corporate image. How so?

Dyson: In the networked world, the boundaries of what can be held private are narrowing. The world can easily see organizations for what they are, not for what they pretend to be. Plus, on the Internet, people will say anything they like, which can be a mixture of fact, fiction and opinion. Successful companies and leaders in the future will be those who learn how to respond to feedback rather than crush it. They will be adept at influencing what they can no longer control.

GERSTNER: You’ve been described as a brainy college professor in a classroom of cyber-millionaires. Accurate?

Dyson: Not a university; I’m more like a one-person explorer. The job of the university, with all due respect, is to do research and be a repository and a transmitter of existing knowledge. What I like to do is go find the stuff that is not written down and not yet discovered.

GERSTNER:So, Esther, what’s the computer world’s next big thing?

Dyson: I think applications that help us automate the handling of mail are going to be a really big area over the next year or two.

GERSTNER: Filtering?

Dyson: Filtering, automated answering. You don’t want my agent sending e-mail to your agent, but I do want to be able to have an agent deal with the routine stuff.

GERSTNER: Are we as humans simply incapable of coping with the torrent of messages that are flowing today?

Dyson: Well, it depends on how many you are getting. I think there is going to be more and more and that’s why I think there is going to be a big market for things that will help us deal with all this.

GERSTNER: In the realm of using software to filter sites for, say, pornography, is there a danger in totally trusting the tool to do that? You don’t really know all of the sites that it is blocking, do you?

Dyson: Well, if you read a magazine you don’t know what the editor left out. Let’s face it, in your life you’re always making choices with incomplete information and you just have to relax about it. Years ago when I was covering this industry, it was quite small and there was some sense that I could know everything that was going on. But every day of the week somebody knew Bill Gates was having dinner with somebody and it wasn’t with me. I can’t be everywhere and know everything. It’s not a question of ever hoping to do that, it’s a question of setting your priorities and deciding are you going to do the first five or 10 things on your list, but never kid yourself that you will do them all. That’s what mortality teaches. Actually, it’s very relaxing because it says, don’t worry…you’re not going to do it all so just do what you can and do what is most important to you.

GERSTNER: I must say you seem very calm amidst what could be a very pressured lifestyle.

Dyson: There are days that I try to fit too much into one day. But fundamentally, I don’t feel that this technology is forcing me to do stuff. I’m dealing with trade-offs all the time, but I’m doing what I like and that’s the real issue. Too many people think they need to deal with someone else’s likes, whether it’s to answer someone else’s phone calls, or please their parents, or make a lot of money because that’s how other people define success.

GERSTNER: But l feel like the pace of my life has sped up simply due to my involvement with the new electronic media.

Dyson: Well it probably has, and you have to decide how much you are going to let it do that. Just being conscious that you can’t do everything, and never will be able to, can help. Just decide your priorities and do those.

GERSTNER: Which brings to mind another thread that I found interesting in your book. It is simply that life is not perfect. Is that truly your philosophy?

Dyson: Yes. We haven’t created a perfect society on earth, and we won’t have one in cyberspace either. But at least we can have individual choice, and individual responsibility. It just means, again, relax and don’t try to fix everything. But try and fix something.

John Gerstner – CEO, Communitelligence John Gerstner, ABC, estimates he now spends about 75 percent of his time on Internet and intranet issues as Manager of Internal Communication at Deere & Company, Moline, Ill. Previous interviews in this Communication World series include John Perry Barlow, Nicholas Negroponte and Cliff Stoll.

  • Client
    IABC Communication World Magazine
  • URL
  • Date
    May 11, 1996