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Advice for the Net-lorn

Esther Dyson isn't the first person to make a career of high-tech hobnobbing, but there's little doubt she has taken it the farthest.

CNET Newsmakers
December 22, 1997, Esther Dyson
Advice for the Net-lorn
Margie Wylie

Staff Writer, CNET NEWS.COM

Esther Dyson isn't the first person to make a career of high-tech hobnobbing, but there's little doubt she has taken it the farthest.

After 20 years of high-tech punditry, the enigmatic Dyson not only remains something of a force in Silicon Valley, but also has cultivated a following overseas and in Washington. In addition to running the exclusive annual industry schmooze-a-thon, PCForum, her New York-based company publishes the influential industry newsletter Release 1.0. And, since the Clinton administration took an interest in the Internet, she has been advising the president on issues such as privacy, intellectual property, and, most recently, commerce.

In fact, Dyson is such an omnipresent and forceful undercurrent in the high-tech arena that it's a little surprising to meet her face to face. The tiny, slightly frail-looking Dyson speaks hesitantly, hopping lightly from thought to thought, like a sparrow. Though her reputation for being coolly cerebral comes in part from being the daughter of a famous physicist, her own remote manner re-enforces that notion. Pecking at one thought lightly before distractedly moving on to the next, it appears her train of thought is moving faster than her lips.

But that's not unusual for Dyson, whose frantic, breakneck approach to life involves traveling much of the year, conducting business by email and phone from planes and remote hotels, and packing her schedule impossibly tight. Journalists tell of snagging interviews by offering the digital doyenne a ride to the airport and asking questions en route.

When Dyson says she "lives on email," she really means it. Phone calls may go unanswered, but an electronic message can evoke a nearly instantaneous response. Yet, for all the frantic activity, Dyson seems more diffuse than her legendary reputation for cool efficiency might allow. Though friends say she simply discards information no longer of use to her, to the casual observer her behavior can sometimes appear simply ill-organized and absent-minded.

Like the famous Bill Gates--who Dyson befriended when she wrote in her first Release 1.0 that Microsoft had to "lose some of its charm" to be successful--Dyson is impatient with questions she sees as irrelevant, repetitious, or otherwise wrong-headed.

She bristles at a question on her selection criteria for the exclusive PC Forum. "Who said that? Where does that come from?" she asks of Michael Kinsley's image of Dyson as the bouncer at Studio 54, formerly an exclusive New York dance club. The current editor of Microsoft's Slate and her former Harvard classmate and fellow hack at the Crimson, Kinsley used the image in a Vanity Fair profile she originally dismissed as funny. "They spelled my name right and the picture is flattering," she said when the interview came out. Today her assessment is different. "This one is sort of like bad burps--it keeps coming back," Dyson said.

But such is the price for fame. Having reached industry magnates and world leaders, Dyson is taking some of her personal philosophies and dreams for the Internet to the rest of the world through her recently published book: Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age.

On the shelves for only a few months, the book has been panned as naive and condescending by the New York Times. But Dyson remains optimistic that its message of free markets, individual choice, and the power of the Internet to enable both will reach ordinary people who are trying to figure out the Internet from the outside. CNET's NEWS.COM talked with Dyson in our San Francisco offices last month.

A lot has changed since you cowrote "Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Digital Age" for the Progress and Freedom Foundation in 1994, the famous paper that Newt Gingrich endorsed in the year of the "Republican Revolution." Have your views changed, too?
I wouldn't say my views have changed structurally, but certainly the texture is probably somewhat less libertarian and friction-free. But the basic concepts that the world is changing, that national governments have less impact,

that the market can do a lot of good--those are true.

The world is complex and the problems we have in the physical world are not going to be solved in the online world. The problem with the online world is the people on it. And the solution in the online world is the people on it.

People look at the Net and they say, "Oh, it's digital, it's electronic--it must be very sanitary." But people are not and the moment something is living it's going to have parasites, it's going to have problems. But it's also got, if we do it right, smart people, grown-ups willing to make moral judgments, people willing to assess the reputations of other people. Let's just not let it all be centralized.

Principles are never as complex as the reality they're applied to. The one The Net isn't going to solve the world's 
      problems...If you want to solve all the world's 
      problems, kill all the people. principle that I've seen hold most generally true is that as things get large and powerful, they lose their humility and they start to abuse that power. And so the one rule I think is most important is to foster competition and feedback and change.

The Net isn't going to solve the world's problems.

It's not going to create them.

And I always feel defensive when people say to me, "Well, the Net isn't going to fix all this." No, it's not. If you want to solve all the world's problems, kill all the people, because then nobody is going to be unhappy, nobody is going to be on the bottom tier, and we're going to end a lot of unhappiness.

NEXT: The rule of law


Age: 46

Claim to fame:
Publisher of high tech's most influential newsletter


Member, National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council; Chair of the Board, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Avocation: Angel investor (especially in Eastern and Central Europe)

Books: Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age

The "other" Dyson: Her father, preeminent physicist Freeman Dyson

CNET Newsmakers
December 22, 1997, Esther Dyson
The rule of law

You've said that the Net is redistributing power and will make nation states as we know them irrelevant. But right now there are thousands of laws either enacted or proposed that would very greatly impact the Net. Censorship laws, taxation laws, copyright, you name it.
Oh believe me, they're trying!

Some of them are out-and-out stupid and won't have an impact. Some are really dangerous, but most of them will never come to pass. A lot of them just won't work, like laws against spam. It doesn't make sense. How do you define [spam]? There's so much ingenuity in designing things to counter stupid laws.

One side of me says, "Well, it doesn't really matter--they're just stupid laws." The other side of me says, "Well, you go to Russia where they have a lot of stupid laws, and there's no respect for the law." I think there should be respect for the law. And one way to have respect for the law is to have only laws that make sense, that are enforceable, that are clear about what they mean, that cannot be applied simply ad hominem if you don't like somebody. In order to have respect for law, you need good laws and not stupid ones.

But if the Net is descentralizing all of this power, how do you have a central enough power to create a common set of laws for the Net?
You don't. And that's one of the challenges. What you do have are a lot of reputation webs. If all the ISPs say they don't want to deal with, say, Sanford Wallace, Sanford Wallace will have a tough time. You don't need a central law. You need much more, if you like, common agreement.

Sanford Wallace, the so-called spam king, is an irritant, spam is an irritant. But what about serious crimes?
Most serious crimes don't occur on the Net--they occur off the Net. They may be organized over the Net, people committing crimes use the Net just as good people do. And believe me, those guys should be caught and punished, whether it's child porn or fraud or murdering somebody. I wouldn't hook up a power station to the Net in the way that would let anybody get it. You can use the Net as a tool, but it's still a physical person committing a physical crime by and large. I don't think most forms of speech are crimes. There are exceptions, when you get towards hate speech or incitement to violence and stuff like that. But most things that are real crimes don't happen on the Net--they happen off the Net.

Like fraud?
Yes. Somebody takes your money and doesn't deliver. And that somebody is somewhere.

Like in Moldova...?
Yeah--and that's why you need reputation systems. In some sense I think the ISPs are going to be very much involved in enforcing not the laws, but regulating what goes on in cyberspace. They don't really want that because they don't want to be liable, as we see very clearly in the copyright issue. But I think to some extent they're going to be forced into it screaming and kicking, just as banks to some extent are enforcers. Banks have a requirement to know their customers. You've seen various banks get into trouble because they had really sleazy customers.

But it is big government that's watching them, not ...
Yes--and that's why we need to keep...I mean, God bless the Justice Department for fighting Microsoft; God bless Microsoft for creating good products, and the customers for keeping everybody in line. This is what I want: I don't want anybody to win. I want the game to keep going. I want little guys to keep on coming up and tweaking the noses of the big guys.

I've always been a believer in antitrust. It's the concentration of power that bothers me, not whether it's "for profit" or "for You want to preach open markets 
  without preaching American culture. government." And I've never claimed to be or not to be a Libertarian. People put labels on things and stop thinking.

You write we need simple rules for commerce and for catching criminals. It sounds a bit like an endorsement of the sort of e-commerce ideas that have been floating around the Clinton administration and in its paper on e-commerce that it's trying to sell to European and other governments. What do you think of the e-commerce paper, Ira Magaziner's effort?
Basically, two things. First, I was one of the many people who contributed to it, so of course I think it's terrific! I wish he had been a little clearer and pro-crypto. But fundamentally, having spent a lot of time in Russia and elsewhere in Europe, we don't realize how lucky we are having such an enlightened government. It doesn't always look like that to people here, but compared to what other governments are up to, we're really lucky.

I had Ira Magaziner speak at my conference in Amsterdam in October and he was great. A lot of the Europeans came up and said, "Boy, are you guys lucky! I wish our government would listen to that guy."

It's very delicate because you want to preach open markets with disclosure, with reputations, with internal regulation, without preaching American culture. People resist our commercialism and often, I think, rightly so. But there's a lot more to it: there's openness, there's disclosure, there's freedom, there's consumer choice, there's citizen choice. There's some concept of consumer choice in Europe, but there's much less citizen choice. They tend to trust their governments much more than we do. And then I go to Russia where they don't trust the government at all. And neither is good.

You also wrote in your book that "The Net is lumbering towards a single system for domain names that will be administered locally. This is through the IAHC plan." What gives you cause for this optimism?
Well, I haven't watched what's happened in the last month or two, but it seems to be doing the right thing, which is lots of back-and-forth, lots of criticism, lots of reaction to the criticism. It's a very messy process, but I'd rather have a messy process than a clean, final, rigid result. As long as it keeps lumbering, I'm happier!

You want the technology to be clean and clear and open and not necessarily centralized, but distributed and redundant and very fault-tolerant and, as far as possible, failure free. But you want the process by which it happens to be pretty open and messy--which it has been. All the mud-slinging, all the jockeying for position, all the posturing--we don't want somebody making a profit off this, we don't want some government controlling it, we don't want these giant, archaic trade organizations [controlling it, either]. Fundamentally, I'm pretty cheerful about it.

NEXT: Societal impacts


CNET Newsmakers
December 22, 1997, Esther Dyson
Societal impacts

Technology seems to be increasing our workload in a lot of ways--it lengthens our days, it adds pressure, there's a lot of pressure on our lives. When does technology start to lighten the load for the average person rather than increasing it?
No, it doesn't. Our use of it does. Technology lightens the load for me in the sense that I'm now doing lots of stuff that I couldn't do otherwise--and I enjoy it. But technology doesn't do it to us: An abusive boss using the technology may. Our own perfectionism may. And our own inability to say no. I keep pointing this out. I don't have a home phone. And the reason is I don't want to be bothered at home. I made that choice. It's not a moral judgment. It's not something that I think everybody should do. What I do think everybody should do is decide for themselves what do they want and what don't they want.

But aren't you in something of a rarefied position? If I'm a reservation taker at an airline or an order taker at mail-order catalog, I don't get to decide even how long my bathroom breaks are.
No, but that is not the technology--that is your company. And you do get to decide at home whether you watch television or whether you read a book, whether you go bowling with friends. You do control your own life and I hope that in the future you'll also take advantage of the Net to quit your job as a reservation taker and find one that you like better.

And that's sort of optimistic: Not everybody has the education. But the more knowledge you have as a person looking for a job or looking for a product or looking for a community you might want to join--I've got to believe the result is better. The more you sit passively and say, "Oh, the technology makes me do this, that, and the other," it's your fault. And you need to take responsibility for yourself.

One thing people don't like about the Net and especially some people in the more developed and smug parts of Europe, they say, "We don't want all these choices; we don't want this responsibility. We'd rather just have the government tell us and everyone else what to do." And you now have choices--you can't complain because it's up to you what you want to do.

Somebody has to take those reservations. Somebody's going to be on the bottom tier, a tier that's increasingly larger...
Hold on! Somebody always has to be on the bottom tier.

Somebody does not necessarily have to take those reservations. More and more of that is going to go to self-service. I mean, that is one great thing about the Net: people start making their own reservations. But yes, somebody's always going to be on the bottom tier and Internet or no Internet, that's not going to change. More people will have more choice and more control over their lives. I think that is going to change. But they have to get up and do it for themselves.

You have got to admit there are some ways technology and the global economy is forcing American workers to do more with less. It can be oppressive.
Yes, but at the same time, I'm a global person, and frankly, I would like my guys in Russia to get a decent salary and I would like them to compete with the overpaid American programmers who are in short supply. Change is always disruptive and harmful, but I really don't particularly like the concept of Americans living off the labor of all these poor people all over the rest of the world. And that's not fair.

But it's the technology, you're saying, that's going to float everybody's boats a little higher and give us all better wages?
Most of us. Not all. And nothing ever will. As you said yourself, there's always going to be a bottom rung.

So you don't worry about the sort of splintering of society based on technology?
I worry about it, but I don't think it should stop us from going forward. I think we should worry about it and try and stop it from happening.

Really? Your book seems to endorse the view that it's healthy for society to fracture into small groups and to govern by small groups.
Everybody is going to be part of more than one community, I hope. I mean, I think those small communities are great, but not to the exclusion of--to some extent, at least--being a part of larger communities as well. The neat thing about cyberspace is you're not stuck in a single geographical community and just subsets of that. You can be in your local neighborhood, you can be part of computer programmers in Russia and California, you can be part of some worldwide church or something. And these all intersect.

But if you're a member of only a single community, you have a pretty sorry life, then yeah, that is a problem. Again, you have to be a grown-up. You can't just say, "Small communities are good to the exclusion of large ones" or "Large communities are good to the exclusion of small ones." That is the challenge of life and it's a greater and greater challenge the more and more choices you have. Be a grown-up, be aware of what's going on around you, make moral judgments and be open to the world around you. It depends on people. The rules aren't good enough.

Your own PC Forum conference seems to be a community of its own. It's been said that you stand at the gate at PC Forum like someone at a club in New York City--letting people in or not. What criteria do you use?
We sell out, so we have to leave some people out. We could raise the price to $6,000, but I don't think I'd really like what kind of an audience that would result in. So we do some social engineering. I don't know if I want to tell everybody everything, but to some extent we discriminate against PR firms, we discriminate for women, for foreigners, for minorities of whatever kind, for little start-ups. The sixth person from Xerox doesn't have as much chance as the first person from a company you never heard of, and, you know, just what I call "cute companies." We're trying not to make it [the forum] into an all-boys club. Obviously we want the movers and shakers in the establishment, but for their benefit and for the benefit of the new kids, we want to get a good mix.

You spend a lot of time in the book discussing rating systems and filtering, but these systems have come under attack from some quarters, like the ACLU, as censorware. Why do you think rating and filtering is an acceptable answer?
Again, people need to make judgments, they need to discriminate--and they want tools to help them do that. Those tools are very powerful and they can be used for good or for bad. But again, I think they're valuable and I just disagree with the ACLU. Sorry. That's like saying, "A gun's greatest purpose is to harm." "Crypto's greatest purpose is to protect." Neither of those is neutral. Something like a filtering system, I think, is fairly neutral and it really depends mostly on who is using it.

Or where it is. If it's on the library PCs...
Well that's what I mean: If somebody is controlling it, that's a monopoly in that town usually. And I'm happy to see the library using it for kids. I'd like the library to say, "OK, if the parents want to use a different system for their kid, fine. But for adults, I agree--it shouldn't filter.

But what if I have a 13-year-old gay child and they can't get to the Lavender Youth Web site from the library because it uses a filter and in its zeal, or its own agenda, has blocked access to all gay sites? Isn't that a significant problem with filtering systems?
I think it's really sad, but I think the fault is with the parent.

For not buying their own computer?
No, I mean...The world is not a perfect place, and so I can't solve all the world's problems.

I'm saying that filtering can be harmful and not always in our control.
Yes it can be. Believe me, it can be. Everything, lots of things can be harmful. Filtering can be harmful. But net, I'd rather have it than not have it.

There's the criticism of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that they are tight-fisted, that they don't give enough. Do you think that's true?
Well, yes, it is true. One of the reasons for it I think is that they are You now have choices--it's up to you what you want to do. too busy. They don't spend enough time with their families; they don't spend enough time giving their money away because just throwing the money over the fence isn't as good as investing it for a nonfinancial return. To really give money well you need to do more than just write a check. You need to be involved in what happens to it--the governance of the organization or whatever. And so this medical Internet project [I'm involved in], it takes time--not just giving the money away, but organizing someone to design the project, selling it to George Soros. I hope that more of them will have kids and sort of think about the long term and so forth. But you're right--right now they are really a chintzy lot, most of them. Not all of them.

They're becoming more politically aware. And that's a start. They are having kids and they have begun to think about the world they're leaving behind. Maybe they've begun to remember all the dreams they had in college of a fairer world. The fact that Bill Gates gave $200 million to libraries--whatever his motivations were--God bless him because he's a role model and he's a role model in that, too.

These guys did it on their own. And it's sort of: "Well, why can't everybody else do it on their own?" The market has been very kind to them. They sort of expect it to do the same for everybody else.

Many of them came from nowhere financially, but they are intellectually favored and so they don't understand how tough life is for the rest of the world. They live in this green paradise which, for what it's worth, I carefully decided not to move here in the mid-80s when it was really an option. After I closed down my business with Ziff-Davis it would have been a perfect time to move to California. And I just knew that if I lived in California I would stay there and not travel and not see the rest of the world; whereas in New York I was always flying to California, but I was still taking the subway in the morning, encountering homeless people on the street, dealing with just much more of reality than you have in California. You live a really privileged life out here. You created all of this without the government and there's very much a sense of "Well gee, why can't everybody just be like us?"

These are not lazy people. They are working very, very hard and--I'd say this of me, too--their lives are unbalanced. But I actually work very, very hard on the nonprofit side as well as the for-profit side.