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Promoting the possible

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue February, February 1 - February 28, 2001 | BY John Gehl 

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Esther Dyson is the chairman of EDventure Holdings, which publishes an influential monthly computer-industry newsletter and sponsors two high-profile technology conferences. She was founding chairman of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the international agency charged with setting policy for the Internet's core infrastructure (technical standards and the Domain Name System) independent of government control.

UBIQUITY: How might you explain who you are to somebody you met on an airplane?

ESTHER DYSON: It would depend on the day of the week. And on who the person was and what country we were flying to. I would probably mention computers in there, somewhere. To some people, I'm a journalist. To others, I'm a writer. To others, I'm a venture capitalist. To others, I'm an industry analyst. It really does vary.

UBIQUITY: Do all those things interweave?

DYSON: Yes, they interweave. I'm somebody who still likes to figure out what's going on, and still likes to look out the window of the airplane -- metaphorically and actually.

UBIQUITY: In the note about you on your Web site, it says: "She has devoted her life to discovering the inevitable, and promoting the possible." That's a nice phrasing.

DYSON: Thanks! I made it up myself.

UBIQUITY: Tell us more about the inevitable. What is inevitable?

DYSON: You can figure out an awful lot about the future just by understanding the present. What are people actually doing? Does what seems to be going on make sense? Last year, for example, I thought the stock market was too high. It didn't make sense. I was wrong on the timing, because I thought it was too high for about two years before it finally went down; still, its sharp decline was clearly inevitable to anyone used to asking the right questions, the kinds of questions you learn to ask as a journalist. You can sit there and listen to somebody who can tell you all this great stuff: how brilliant he is, and how brilliant his company is, and how they're going to do this, that, and the other thing. But then, when you go back home to write it up, you think, "Does this make sense?" And a lot of the time you say, "No, it doesn't." That sort of skepticism helps you get at the truth. What makes sense? What would you feel comfortable asserting to somebody else?

UBIQUITY: Have you personally been wrong about anything in a way that has caught your attention?

DYSON: I was overly optimistic on privacy issues. I expected that people would be more interested in understanding what was going on, and in being active, in terms of managing their own privacy. I still don't think government regulation is the answer, but I have been disappointed in what individuals in the market have done. I think one of the important components there is having the financial community -- both insurance companies and investors -- pay more attention. Unlike individuals, they have the time and resources devoted to finding out more about companies' privacy policies, and of course also have the financial incentives to do so. If the U.S. government wants to do something about the protection of individual privacy, I think it should limit itself to disclosure requirements.

UBIQUITY: You think that people aren't interested enough in their own privacy?

DYSON: They're interested, but they just don't think straight. They're concerned, but they don't know what to do about it.

UBIQUITY: What's an example of that?

DYSON: Okay. I mentioned that someone registered "estherdyson.com" and someone else said to me about that: "So they've invaded your privacy!" I said, "No, they haven't invaded my privacy. They're just using my name. They're not publishing information about me." People are paranoid about privacy, but don't really think about things enough to fix them. Just today, for example, I read an editorial saying we should have a privacy button to protect personal data, and that's a fine idea, but most of the privacy issues are not about whether you give out the data; they're about your being able to control what people do with the data you give them. You want your bank to know how much money you have, and you want the airline to know where you flew -- but you want control over who else they give or sell that information to. You can't manage that by denying them the information. You want them to have it; you just don't want them to sell it to someone else. Or you may have preferences: they can give it to this group but not to that group. Privacy is not like automobile safety, where a car crash is a car crash; in the case of privacy, different people have different preferences for what happens to their data and who has access to it, and it extends beyond the people they deal with directly.

UBIQUITY: Though, as you say, it's not a privacy issue, the registration by someone else of "estherdyson.com" presumably caught your attention.

DYSON: Well, he sent me a letter, and offered to sell it to me for $1 million.

UBIQUITY: And you didn't take it?

DYSON: I said I was very flattered at the price.

UBIQUITY: Describe yourself philosophically, in a few words.

DYSON: "Curious. Tries very hard to be open-minded."

UBIQUITY: Are you an idealist or a pragmatist?

DYSON: I flatter myself that I'm an idealistic pragmatist. I want things to be better, but I'm pretty realistic about things. I have no illusions that I can fix the world; I just think it's worth trying to do what I can in the parts of the world I'm involved in. Some people think about the enormity of the world's problems, and then just give up. I'm optimistic because I am accomplishing small things in some places. I believe in working from the bottom up, and doing what you can. I don't think you've failed if you haven't fixed the entire world before you die.

UBIQUITY: Expand a little on your comment about what the government ought not to do. Did you say it ought not to overreach in terms of privacy enforcement?

DYSON: I don't know what "privacy enforcement" is. You can enforce contracts concerning people's control of their data, but the word "privacy" has a different meaning for each person using it. If someone promises to do X with your data, and then does Y, they've broken their promise. If it's a legally broken promise like a contract or a statement on a Web site, then they can be sued for breaking it. So, and again, to the extent that the government requires something, they should require disclosure, and disclosure that's clear enough that people can understand it.

UBIQUITY: Continuing for a moment on the question of the role of government, a statement on your Web site says: "Indeed, one reason Russia's press is so unreliable, i.e., biased, is that most of it relies on government support." How would you expand on that, in terms of what government ought to do, or not do, in the U.S. as far as the press -- or as far as the Web -- is concerned?

DYSON: The government should leave the press alone. That's it. I think the government should also leave most of the Web alone, but the press (online or offline) is even more special, and I think should be even more free. If you start having the government paying for the press or even subsidizing it -- as in content for schools, for example, well, you know the saying, "He who pays for lunch gets to choose the menu." First they say they'll pay for it, and then they make you use a filter.

UBIQUITY: Let's go back to your point about making a difference wherever you can. You're very knowledgeable about Russia and the Eastern European countries. What have you learned from those countries?

DYSON: I've learned a lot from them -- but not just about them -- simply because they've made me look closely at everything we take for granted in the U.S. Such as: What does a free market mean? What does growing up knowing you're going to have to fend for yourself, pick your own job, mean? What does assuming you're free to say what you believe, mean? I've also learned a lot about the intricacies of privatization, and stuff like that, which came in handy with ICANN.

UBIQUITY: Are you optimistic about the future of Russia and the Eastern European countries?

DYSON: Well, they're very different. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are easy to be optimistic about. Things are getting better at different rates, with different issues continuing, but fundamentally, they're on their way to flourishing.

In contrast, Russia is much more troubled, though I'm optimistic about some of the things I do there. I'm optimistic about people I know in the computer industry, who are different from your typical big business, which in Russia was somehow "acquired" from government hands, because the government owned everything until recently. Whereas, the computer companies, especially the software companies, were all created out of somebody's own head and own work -- so that the computer guys tend to be honest, and to have the dignity and self-esteem that comes from actually having created something. They are, by-and-large, great guys, and smart, hardworking, and courageous. These parts of the economy are expanding faster than the rest of Russia, and that's good. In Russia there's still a big shortage of commercial and technical talent, and project management skills are in short supply.

UBIQUITY: Is there still much corruption in Russia?

DYSON: It's everywhere, and if you are not talking about the computer industry, there's a lot of it. Wherever somebody controls too much, and isn't really responsible for it, and doesn't own it -- in other words, when you have government officials or business managers who aren't compensated for results, and who can make money by giving favors -- you have corruption.

UBIQUITY: Do you see that on a day-to-day basis?

DYSON: I personally see very little of it, because I hang out with computer people. Also, I don't drive, so I don't even get stopped by the traffic cops. But I'm well aware of it. You see it every day in the Russian press.

UBIQUITY: You're heavily invested in those countries? Does the corruption there concern you?

DYSON: No. I invest in people I know and trust. I've never been cheated in Russia -- except maybe in a restaurant. It's like investing anywhere. I do VC-direct investing. I know the people I invest in, whether it's here or in other countries. That's why I think I can do better than somebody just investing in the stock market who doesn't know the managements of the companies. Some people can do that, but I'm not very good it. I prefer to make people judgments.

UBIQUITY: Did you start out as an economist?

DYSON: No. I started out as a student who didn't go to economics classes, at Harvard.

UBIQUITY: You didn't go to classes?

DYSON: No. I went to a lot of movies and I wrote for the Harvard Crimson. Then, I really started my business education as a reporter for Forbes, which was the equivalent of going to business school, except you got to interview the principals. It was doing case studies, but producing articles instead of term papers. It was a lot of fun and I learned a bunch. I also learned fact-checking. Again, a very valuable tool. You go back, and you say, "This doesn't make sense. Where is the evidence?" before you print something. That's something that few publications do any more, which is really sad.

UBIQUITY: Your own publication, Release 1.0, thrives. Can you say something about that?

DYSON: I own and edit it. It's written by Kevin Werbach, and the best way to describe it is that it is to software reviews what literary criticism is to book reviews. In other words, our focus is not on questions of "Should you buy a particular software product?" but rather on "What are the overall trends? What are these new companies an example of? What are the new business models? What is the new technology?" My column, Release 3.0, is written for a broad non-techie audience. It's more international in spirit, in the computer realm. It's also about new ideas, but in a much less techie way, with, ideally, concrete examples.

UBIQUITY: You say that at Harvard you spent more of your time going to movies than to economics classes. Were you disappointed with Harvard?

DYSON: No, I loved it! I just was lazy in those years. But once I eventually started working at something I thought was relevant, I became very hard-working.

UBIQUITY: So what did you learn from all those movies?

DYSON: A ton about human nature. Of course, somewhat fictionalized human behavior. But it was a valuable part of growing up, and Harvard was where I grew up.

UBIQUITY: Growing up there, did you find it strange to be the daughter of such prominent people?

DYSON: No. For one thing, nobody knew who my father was. Though he's "famous," his name is known only within a small circle of people. At home, we never felt we were the kids of a famous scientist. We were kids who were expected to do well in school, but our parents were really great. They were not always talking about Einstein. They were always very interested in what happened in the third grade, or whatever. We had a very unpretentious upbringing.

UBIQUITY: You enjoyed Harvard?

DYSON: Oh, I loved it. It was a great place to be a kid, at that time. I did actually go to a few classes and had some very good teachers. I probably had other very good teachers I didn't know about.

UBIQUITY: Were you ever tempted to go to graduate school?

DYSON: No. In fact, I was even tempted not to go back to Harvard to finish my undergraduate degree, after taking two half-years off. As I said, I was really lazy in college because I didn't think what I was doing was very useful. Once I found something to do that I thought was useful, I loved working. With all due respect, I never thought of grad school as being very useful. I mean, it's certainly educational, and it produces great research, but I wanted to get out into the world, plus, I needed to make some money.

UBIQUITY: Did your early interest in movie-going lead to an eventual interest in investing in media?

DYSON: I don't think media is a terribly profitable place to be. I did invest in Feed [now part of Plastic.com], and I'm an investor in a company called Internet Publishing Group. But frankly, most media ventures are fairly big, or at least needy, at this point and I don't have that much money to play with. I'm invested in a couple of others that are also media-related but I do not invest, by-and-large, in content Web sites because I don't see much financial prospect for that. There is one called Newspaper Direct that prints out newspapers from PDF files and distributes them to hotels and corporate customers, and on cruise ships (and we hope someday on airplanes), so you have a physical, paper newspaper, often days faster than it could be delivered. Then, there's one called Pressflex, which is an application software provider for newspapers to be online. And by the way, it's worth noting the distinction between "media," which these days mostly means entertainment, and the press, or journalism, which I still hold in some awe.

UBIQUITY: What makes a good press venture?

DYSON: The most important thing to say on that point is that the best press has to be commercial. If it can't support itself, somebody can always shut it down. There's no reason to say that freedom of speech and being commercial should not go together. Even something like the Internet Publishing Group, which publishes trade newslettersŠ. It's very valuable to have a trade newsletter that tells the truth about the products and the people. The press isn't only about politics. There are lots of other spheres that need good information and disclosure.

UBIQUITY: Are you an enormous fan of any particular set of publications?

DYSON: George Orwell's books. I'm a fan of Kay Graham's. I'm a big fan of the Wall Street Journal.

UBIQUITY: Anything else?

DYSON: Well, yes, for different purposes. It's sort of like your friends. Nobody's perfect, but you love them all. I read a lot of things. I read The Industry Standard. I read the New York Times, obviously, and the Financial Times. None of them is perfect. But unfortunately, neither am I or my friends.

UBIQUITY: Let's talk about ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. You were the founding chairman.

DYSON: Right, but I'm no longer officially involved. If they have new at-large registration, I will become an at-large member.

UBIQUITY: What were the inner workings of that group like? Was it a completely harmonious group? Certainly, various outsiders criticized it for different reasons.

DYSON: Well, it was criticized for a lot of things, some of which were valid, and some of which weren't. It was not quite as mysterious as people said it was. It did have its board meetings in the open. It was not always entirely harmonious, but the people got along reasonably well. There were some people with fairly different points of view. We began with closed board meetings, which was a mistake, so we changed to open board meetings, and you could see how we thought and how we interacted.

UBIQUITY: What were the basic philosophical differences within the group?

DYSON: Oh, I was probably more free-market than quite a few people on there, and those kinds of things. Also, the Americans were quite different from the non-Americans, in reality and also in perception. There were also personality things. I'm more used to being a public person than quite a few people on the board, and that was one reason they were less accustomed to the glare and the criticism. Mostly I didn't take it personally, though some of what was said about us was pretty nasty. Again, some of it was justifiable. But a lot wasn't.

UBIQUITY: Give an example of something that was justified and an example of something that wasn't.

DYSON: Well, originally, it was justified that we should have our meetings in the open. Later on, it was not justified, because we did. There were also, for example, some accusations that I was getting rich off ICANN -- but those were only from a few people, and they applied to most of the board, though I got the greatest visibility. Believe me, if I wanted to get rich, I know better ways to do that (and for what it's worth, better ways than to invest in Eastern Europe). But getting rich is not what drives me.

UBIQUITY: Why in the world did they think you were getting rich off of ICANN?

DYSON: I can't tell you why they thought so, but probably they just thought it ought to be true. For example, I appeared in an IBM commercial once and they thought that must be some kind of deal. There were similar charges against other people and there was also just unpleasant stuff. But you could dismiss that because it was so blatantly -- how should we say? -- fantasy.

UBIQUITY: You must be glad to be out of it.

DYSON: I am, but I'm also very glad I did it. I think it was worthwhile, and I still take an interest in it. I don't want to just walk away from all this. I think it's important that ICANN work, and it's also important that it do what it's supposed to do, and not expand. I have a lot of strong opinions about freedom of speech and privacy, which are not ICANN issues.

UBIQUITY: Do you foresee that ICANN will become increasingly important?

DYSON: Well, it's important, but in some sense, it should matter less and less, because its purpose is to leave more and more to the market, and to interacting organizations. The more registrars you have, the less power each one of them has. In the same way, when a government privatizes and fosters the creation of five telecom companies, the less power each telecom has, and the less power the government has. So ICANN's job is to keep reducing its power and decentralizing it, not by giving it to someone else, but by creating a marketplace where there are lots of competing actors. If you don't like NSI's policies, go to some other registry. ICANN should set only the minimum policies.

UBIQUITY: Can we pause for a moment to consider a narrower question that seems confusing: what is the difference between the .biz and .com domains?

DYSON: Indeed, that's a troubling question. I'm not sure what the value of .biz is if it's just going to duplicate .com.

UBIQUITY: Presumably, Amazon.com would have to protect itself by getting the rights to Amazon.biz?

DYSON: You just hope that not everybody's going to do that, because otherwise you haven't created a new space, you've duplicated the old one. There was huge demand to do it, and to some extent, ICANN reflects the consensus. I think things like .aero and .coop in the long run will be much more useful. That's why I personally love things like .md, and .tv. I want diversity and variety, not duplication.

UBIQUITY: I guess we probably should conclude with some more general thoughts on the maturity -- if that's the right word -- of the Internet. Do you feel that it's reached a certain kind of maturity, now?

DYSON: No. What is the Internet itself? The interesting part is the people on it and their interactions. There's billions more people waiting to come on it, so I'd say it's pretty early. Things like ICANN are just the beginning. Creating just seven new top-level domains is a pitifully small start. There's a long way to go. We need a lot more social infrastructure. Not necessarily regulation, but affordances, directories, reputation systems, mapping systems, better search tools, better ideas for avoiding spam without abridging senders' rights to freedom of speech, and so forth. There's a lot of very useful and important and interesting work still to be done.


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