Digerati - Chapter 9

Digerati - Chapter 9

Esther Dyson [10.1.96]

Chapter 9


Esther Dyson

THE COYOTE (John Perry Barlow): Esther is the smartest woman I know. She would rather have me say she is one of the five smartest humans I know, which I could also say. But I'll stick with calling her the smartest woman I know because there is something about the combination of that kind of intelligence and femininity which is still too rare in the computer field. There is a quality to her insight that is not masculine and is incredibly powerful as a result.

Esther Dyson is president of EDventure Holdings and editor of Release 1.0. Her PC Forum conference is an annual industry event.

In Esther Dyson's vision of the Internet, people will do the same things they've always done, with some major differences. There will be a new structure of communication: today we talk one-on-one on the telephone or passively receive television and radio. Tomorrow, on the Internet, we will operate more like a radio station and broadcast to the world, and people will talk back as yet more listen‹more like talk radio than newspaper or magazine publishing. We will use our new ability to shift time. With email, we can copy messages to more people. We will all have extenders to our fingers that can manipulate communications much more easily. Esther cautions against developing businesses based on selling copies of intellectual property. You need to create intellectual property and then figure out creative ways to exploit it‹as a service, as a performance, as a process. She favors, instead, approaches that emphasize the talents of people who can deal with process. The future on the Internet belongs to those who can conceive of, and act upon, the idea of the Internet as a performance art space.

Esther has published the monthly Release 1.0 since 1982. It is the computer industry's most intellectual newsletter and deals with the future of the information and communications industries. Esther and Jerry Michalski, Release's managing editor, attempt to be the first to discover and explain the new companies, new technologies, new ideas, and new business models that are changing the direction of these industries. They are the people to read for expert and timely pattern recognition, to find how people will use new technology and how companies can make a profit from it.

Esther runs her own venture capital firm, chairs the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and occasionally writes for other magazines and newspapers. She also runs PC Forum, one of the industry conferences of consequence. Through these activities, and her interactions with industry bigwigs, she sees many demos and business plans at an early stage and has a comprehensive understanding of what's going on in digital technology. She also has a sense of social responsibility and an awareness of social consequence, which make her a powerful force for positive change. Yet she is light and she is playful.

Esther and the electronic digital computer shared a few years of childhood in the early 1950s at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where Esther's parents met in 1948. John von Neumann and Julian Bigelow occupied an outbuilding at the edge of the institute's woods, cooking up a 40-bit parallel-arithmetic processor, with one thousand words of high-speed memory. From these beginnings, the computer industry soon sprang. Esther's father, Freeman Dyson, a mathematical physicist and one of the principal architects of quantum electrodynamics, and her mother, Verena Huber-Dyson, a mathematical logician, represented the two fields whose intersection brought the computer revolution to life. At the time, both were working in group theory‹the study of transformations, relations, and invariances, whether in mathematical physics, number theory, or social institutions‹which is exactly what Esther excels at, with keenness and discipline that allow no pattern, however subtle, to escape. Esther Dyson is "The Pattern-Recognizer."

One evening in 1990, I gave a dinner for Freeman Dyson; his daughter Mia, who is a nurse living in Maine; and his son George, who for many years lived in a tree house perched ninety-five feet off the ground in a Douglas fir in the British Columbia rain forest. The occasion was George's talk before the Reality Club, to be held later in the evening at the Metropolitan Club, hosted by Hugh Downs. The fascinating relationship between Freeman and George, a Baidarka builder who is redeveloping the Aleut kayak, was portrayed in 1978 by Kenneth Brower in his classic book, The Starship and the Canoe. What an evening it was! The conversation, the ideas, seemingly moved through the air across the table like invisible electrical circuits instantaneously connecting three brilliant lightbulbs.

And where was Esther? She was out of town. George pointed out that the family hadn't had dinner together since 1965, except for rare distracting affairs at Esther's conferences and an occasional large social event. "What is so remarkable," he said, "is that with essentially no personal or even intellectual contact, our paths are still somehow cohered."

I don't see Esther as often as I used to or would like to. In the last five or six years, she's spent a lot of time in Russia and Eastern Europe. Fluent in Russian, she is a regular keynote speaker at conferences such as annual Comtek, International Computer Forum,Windows Expo, and CERF in Bucharest. In 1990 she organized the annual East-West High-Tech Forum, which has played a key role in defining and developing the commercial computer markets of Central and Eastern Europe. Modeled on the PC Forum and designed to encourage long-term business relationships, the forum is not another conference about the market; it is the market. Meetings have been held in Budapest; Prague; Warsaw; Bratislava, Slovakia; and Bled, Yugoslavia.

These activities in Russia and Eastern Europe have great meaning for her. "Look," Esther said to me recently, "If I were a maid, I would prefer a messy room to a tidy room. Eastern Europe is a great mess, especially Russia." As George Dyson explains, "She believes that the decentralization of personal computers, and computer-mediated communications, could undo some of the damage done by the attempt to centralize the economy over seventy years."

Unique Esther is, living without a telephone at home, refusing to drive a car, spending much of her life in transit, on airplanes, in hotels, and in swimming pools, carrying around her world in canvas tote bags. During the '80s I attended a number of conferences where Esther could be seen before sunrise in the pool, swimming back and forth, back and forth, hour after hour, still a daily regimen. Sometimes up early, I would sit and watch her swim, wondering to myself, What is she thinking about? What is she swimming toward, or away from?

THE PATTERN-RECOGNIZER (Esther Dyson): The Net is becoming less and less a thing and more and more an environment. It's going to be all over the place. People are going to do things in it, instead of keeping it in boxes, like packaged software. Imagine that suddenly water showed up in a world where we had drinking water‹but before we had rivers, oceans, swimming pools, et cetera‹and suddenly water changed from being this little thing in a glass or in a bottle, and suddenly it started being all over the world, and you could travel on it, you could fly over it, you could fish out of it, and you could grow things in it.

The key to thinking about the Internet is this: the Internet changes the economies of scale in favor of the little guy. It used to be only big guys could send stuff, only big guys could advertise, only big guys could have newspapers. Suddenly everybody can reach the audience they deserve, more or less for free. They won't necessarily get a mass audience, because they may not be good enough, or they may not be worth listening to, but everybody can distribute their information pretty much as widely as they want, almost without cost.

But people can get overexcited. We're still not talking about telepathy. We're talking about the traditional boundary between me and you. I still need to put things into words. I can show you pictures, but there's still a distinction between me and somebody else. However, the channel between us has changed: it has become much more efficient, broader, and cheaper. What's happened also concerns the whole notion of interactivity. The fact that you can send as easily as you can receive makes a huge difference.

If you're the head of a telephone company, a cable company, or an entertainment conglomerate, and you don't make a billion dollars, doing business on the Internet is not interesting. But if you're five guys, you can make enough money for ten guys. If you're twenty guys, you can make enough money for forty guys. The economies of scale don't favor the big guys. They favor the small guys. You get a return for your effort, not for your huge investment capital. That's why it's such a decentralized, fragmented business. The individuals, instead of the big corporate owners, get what's coming to them. That's why it's a very moral culture.

TV people no longer have it so easy‹they've got a lot more competition. They're still in the business of either buying or developing content that's supposed to attract audiences. There's going to be so much more content out there, some of it really crappy, some of it not. It's going to be a lot harder to get people's attention, and there will no longer be a premium on their distribution mechanism, which was based on the shortage of channels. Suddenly there are millions and millions of channels, just the way there are millions and millions of phone lines.

On the other hand, people are cynical and sensitive to quality. There's going to be a lot of junk, so the brand name, for example, of The New York Times is still going to be valuable, if The New York Times does it right. People still don't want everything tailored for them; they want to watch what everyone else watches. They want to watch Jay Leno and David Letterman and laugh at their jokes. They want to be part of that broad community.

The "convergence" companies are all trying to vertically integrate. They think they should be in every part of the business. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The reason is that good content wants to and will go everywhere. Because every channel wants it, good content doesn't need to be stuck to one distribution mechanism. In the same way, any carrier, any distribution system, wants to be free to get all the content, the best content; it doesn't want to be tied to one source of content. Consumers are not going to want to be restricted in the content they can receive. If I had a telephone that could call only France or Germany and not Russia or the western United States, I'd get rid of it pretty fast.

I've been cast as some fanatic, radical, anticopyright crackpot. What I'm really saying is that this is not an issue of law, and it's not an issue of morality. Copyright is entirely justified; I should have the right to control what I produce. There is going to be a strong movement toward proper attribution and maintenance of the integrity of one's work. There will be a profusion of content, because it's easy to produce and almost costless to distribute on the Internet. The price of content, not necessarily the intrinsic "value" of content, will go down. The people who produce content are going to have to think of new models for getting paid. It may be charging for a performance or for consulting, or it may be paying Stephen King to read one of his books. There are different kinds of models, and people have to understand that simply putting content into a box and selling it will probably be the least effective way of exploiting it.

Electronic commerce is exciting, but people are overexcited about what it's going to do. Digital cash is going to make the world vastly more efficient, but what the Net does to social and interpersonal relationships and the balance of power is much more important than what it's going to do to commerce. What's magical is how it's going to affect people and relationships.

A new kind of community, not a culture, is coming. The difference between a culture and a community is that a culture is one-way‹you can absorb it by reading it, by watching it‹but you have to invest back in a community. Absent this return investment, it's not really a community. People will be investing in sharing content and sending messages to each other, in spending time together, and, in part, that's what builds these communities.

People talk a lot about the expansion of democratic government with the fall of the Soviet Bloc. The real issue isn't democracy versus tyranny. It's individual choice versus control imposed by big forces, whether it's big government or mass media. Quite simply, democracy is the tyranny of the majority over the minority. In more and more spheres of life, ranging from your choice of breakfast cereal to the school where you send your children, to the books you read or what you see on your screen, we're moving to a fragmented individual-choice world. It's not between democracy and tyranny. It's decentralization. More and more things are chosen individually. It's the primacy of the small unit. You can now be as efficient in a small unit as you are in a big unit.

People think that being rich means having power. If you sell a million copies of Windows, you get a lot of money, but you don't control what people see through Windows, and that's the fundamental difference. There are lots of large companies, and they're going to make a lot of money, but they won't control as much of consumers' lives as they used to. Consumers will be able to move from one supplier to another. The balance of power between the large employer and the individual employee is also going to change. Employees are going to be more visible; they're going to have more ability to move; they're going to be more aware of their rights.

The real issue regarding the Net is going to be people's ability to use it, their education, and their literacy. The world will definitely favor the educated. It was easy enough to take the land and redistribute it to the peasants if you wanted to. It was easy enough to take the money and the capital and redistribute them to the workers of the world, as the Soviets showed, even though it wasn't terribly successful. But you can't take knowledge and just give it to people. They have to take the knowledge. They have to learn. We're becoming a society in which people who don't contribute really don't get anything, and you can't redress that imbalance. Individually, people have to learn that they must contribute.

It's not strange to me that some people don't understand these new ideas concerning the Internet and the communications revolution. When Copernicus was around, people thought he was a crackpot. Most ideas go through a cycle. The first time people hear an idea, they don't even pay enough attention to disagree. The idea just slips by. The second time, they say , "That's really stupid. If that were true, we'd know it already." The third time, they seem to get it vaguely and say, "Hmm, you know...." The fourth time, they say, "Oh yeah, well, everybody knows that. That's boring."

THE SCRIBE (John Markoff): Esther is the First Lady of Cyberspace. She has also earned the right to be called the First Lady of Personal Computing, and before that the First Lady of the Semiconductor Industry. There's a homeless quality about her that I've never been able to define; she can't really find her niche. She's had the ability to stay outside the groove of the industry. She's always been one standard deviation off, which is foresighted.

THE SAINT (Kevin Kelly): I am in awe of Esther. Her brilliance is almost intimidating, and she has the unusual and enviable knack of being able to absorb very complex, complicated technical information and cut right through it. I rely on Esther to tell me what's real and what's hype. She's the best B.S. filter I know, because she understands it. Unlike most of us, she actually knows what's going on.

THE STATESMAN (Steve Case): Very insightful. Some of the topics she's spent a lot of time exploring in the last decade have been over my head in terms of the possibilities of technology in an increasingly global society. I've always been struck by her ability to move across very different worlds. One day she's in Poland, creating online services and hosting conferences, and the next day she's attending Comdex in Las Vegas. Maybe it's a genetic thing, given the intellectual curiosity of her family.

THE THINKER (Doug Carlston): Esther is the smartest person in the computer industry and the most cogent observer of the whole technology area. Often her writing looks too far out into the future for people to fully understand its value. An interesting exercise is to read what she wrote two or three years ago and see how utterly germane it seems today.

THE IDEALIST (Denise Caruso): Esther has persisted and persisted and pushed into new areas, and her intellectual curiosity is just amazing to me. I disagree with her at least 50 percent of the time, and it's completely okay. I can't say that about very many people I disagree with.

THE LOVER (Dave Winer): Esther swims, Esther's a dreamer. She's cool. In many ways, she's superficial. I'm not sure she really gets the stuff that she writes about. But on the whole I'm delighted that she's been as influential as she has been. I read a thing by Max Frankel in The New York Times recently that was entirely about Esther. I would love to talk to Frankel about that and tell him why he shouldn't be scared.

THE MARKETER (Ted Leonsis): Esther Dyson is truly an amazing woman. I thought at the TED conference there was a new Esther. She had become a fully realized human being. She was talking about love, about relationships, about quality of life issues. Here's a person who's dealt with the industry and her life on her own terms. Most of the people who have had the opportunity to travel with her as I have, and spend time with her, have come to admire her. She's onto causes all the time; now it's privacy and Eastern Europe. She's very spiritually deep.

THE JUDGE (David R. Johnson): Esther is the embodiment of the optimal way to construct your network of communication in the world. She personally bridges the cultures of East and West, or the cultures of business and digital. She has always been a very significant voice in support of the need to think through policies in the context in which they're occurring, and to develop creative and thoughtful decisions, in addition to standing firm to protect basic rights.

THE SOFTWARE DEVELOPER (Bill Gates): Esther has been kind of a high-IQ intellectual observer of our business for a long time. She's written a lot of smart things.

THE CYBERANALYST (Sherry Turkle): Esther Dyson's great strength is that she approaches her work not only with energy and passion but with discipline and perseverence. She learns by immersion‹her knowledge is concrete and can be trusted.

THE IMPRESARIO (Richard Saul Wurman): Somewhat without ready humor and always intimidating. As she speaks, I never think "Why didn't I say that?" because I never would have thought of that. Great genes, great intellect. I want a blood transfusion, or, perhaps better, a brain transplant.

THE GENIUS (W. Daniel Hillis): Esther's invented herself from whole cloth. The wonderful thing about Esther is that she's not just in the computer business for the business; she cares about the people that she works with. She has been a catalyst for the industry, because she's always hooking people up, connecting people that ought to know each other and be connected. She's fantastic at that, because she has a deep understanding of what's going on.

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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.