Esther Dyson personifies the expression “mover and shaker” like no other. She keeps more figurative fingers in more pies than she has actual fingers on her hands: Russian, Central European as well as American start ups, multiple boards of directors, frequent flying, constant consulting (for the likes of the two Bills: Gates and Clinton, among countless others) and she still finds time to swim for one hour every single morning. One of the least interesting facts about her is that she’s the daughter of famous physicist Freeman Dyson.
In 1997, Esther published her first book, Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, and Release 2.1, the paperback upgrade, is now available.
Roy Christopher: From Release 2.0 and beyond, what do you feel are the most important points about the Web and its potential that most users miss/should get?
Esther Dyson: The single most important points:
It’s a two-way medium. It’s not a gift; it’s a challenge! You have to do some work to get the benefits. The information may be on the Net, but the knowledge won’t get into your head unless you pay attention and assimilate it.
The Net is a great medium for experimentation, and people should be careful not to tie it up with rules and regulations and accountability, yet there are real people out there; it’s not all a game. (Like most things about the Net, there’s a conflict/contradiction here.)
The golden rule of the Net: Do ask; don’t lie. By its very nature, this rule implies two-way communication between people, the essence of the Net. It is up to each individual to ask questions and to know enough to evaluate the answers: Who are you? Can I believe your promises? Do you know what you are talking about? And the other person may refuse to answer (I believe in privacy!), but he or she should not lie. On that basis, they can decide how to interact.
RC: Having been online longer than most, do you feel a loss with all the corporate interests now involved or does it bother you in the least?
ED: I don’t mind all the corporate interests, but I hope individuals will rise to the challenge of fostering lots of non-commercial activity. In some sense, the issue is not commercial vs. noncommercial as it is mass vs. particular/individual (and I do not mean mass-customized). In fact, the glory of the Net is that it allows individuals to express themselves — commercially as well as noncommercially. Now eBay may not represent the flowering of humanity, but at least it fosters individual activity. Suddenly individuals can be producers or vendors as well as consumers.
The Net can accommodate everything, so it’s up to noncommercial entities to be active, rather than complain about the prevalence of commercial (or big-government) interests. Obviously, commercial interests have the incentive to do things on the large scale that gives me unease; governments do too, of course, but are slower to pick up on things.
Yes, I do regret that more and more interactions are becoming explicit/commercial/quantified. Everything must be bought or traded, rather than given and received. Some of the online communities are in fact “gift circles,” and are trying very hard to resist the forces of commercialization. And some of these are funded by advertising or commerce even as their members exchange gifts. Long may they live; it’s a hybrid world!
RC: Did your father teach you Physics at an early age or did you have any such interest?
ED: No, my parents (my mother is a math professor) encouraged me to follow my own interests – which included quite a lot of math. I gave it up in college when I realized I would never approach the level of my parents. The most discrete effect of my parents is that my father went to Russia several times, and so I learned Russian in high school. I finally went to Russia ten years ago, and have been going almost every month or two since. Russia and Central Europe together are now a significant half of my life; I am involved with five or six start-ups there.
RC: Do you harbor any desire to take up teaching?
ED: One way or another science and scientific curiosity compel me. But I have never wanted to take up formal teaching, though much of what I do is “educational;” my primary student is myself, but I try to pass things along!
RC: Who do you admire writing about new technology right now?
ED: Paul Saffo, Denise Caruso, David Brin, Bruce Sterling, Steven Johnson, Neal Stephenson, Robert Seidman, Frank Fukuyama, David Johnson, Larry Lessig, John Holland, John Seely Brown, Dave Winer, [your name here], and many more. ….wish I had more time to read!
RC: Is there any aspect of your work or any new project you’re working on that you’d like to bring up?
ED: ICANN — how to design a lightweight structure to set policy for unique resources: A structure that is flexible but not flimsy, responsive but not subject to capture by any single interest, that is open and honest yet able to operate in the real (political) world, that represents everyone, even/especially those who are not particularly interested (and shouldn’t have to be, if we do our job right!). And if you don’t know what ICANN is, should you? In the fullness of time, probably yes. It’s the private organization that coordinates management of the Internets’ domain name system, IP address system, and the technical protocols that make it all work. I can’t imagine anything more exciting to design.