Bill's Bookshelf by Bill Rosenblatt

Esther Dyson's "just society" online

Pundit's unique take on cyber issues well worth the read

January  1998
[Next story]
[Table of Contents]
Sun's Site

For those of you who can't afford the $700 annual subscription fee to her influential Release 1.0 newsletter, the words of Esther Dyson can now be had for just $25.00. In her first book, Release 2.0, she describes her idea of a "just society" in the online world. She offers a free market, libertarian prescription for a set of communities that will, as she sees it, inevitably take over some of the functions of government in the real world. Now is the time to act, Dyson says, if we want to set up solid frameworks for the management of tomorrow's cyberspace communities. (2,400 words)

Mail this
article to
a friend
Here's a prediction: In January 2001, when Albert Gore takes over the White House, he will create a new Cabinet position, secretary of the National Information Infrastructure. This job will be created with one specific person in mind -- arguably the only person truly qualified for it: Esther Dyson. Dyson's first book, Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, could be her blueprint for that office.

Esther Dyson is, of course, nearly a legend in the information technology field, but she does not fit any of the existing molds. She is not a super rich entrepreneur like Bill Gates or Larry Ellison. She is a venture capitalist, but bet placers like John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins or Ann Winblad of Hummer Winblad are better known in this field. She is a pundit, but not of the same type as John Dvorak or Dave Winer; an analyst, but not as newspaper quote happy as Richard Shaffer or George Gilder. She is...well, she's Esther Dyson.

Dyson is a prodigy who has carved out a unique career. She was born and raised in the rarified academic community of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, the daughter of eminent astrophysicist Freeman Dyson. She graduated from high school at age 15, attended Harvard. She became interested in writing rather than science or mathematics (her parents' fields) and covered the high-tech industry, first as a journalist for Forbes magazine, then as a Wall Street securities analyst. She then began working for an unknown industry newsletter, which she eventually took over, renaming it Release 1.0. And the rest, as they say, is history. Since then, she has served on countless think tanks, helped Eastern Europe grow its own software industry, and, in general, become one of the most influential people in the high tech world.

For one year, I was lucky enough to have company-paid subscription to Release 1.0. I was even invited to attend her conference, PC Forum, the most exclusive conference in the industry. One of the dumbest career decisions I have ever made was not to go. (My excuse: I had accepted another job and did not think it was right to charge the several-thousand-dollar fee to my soon-to-be ex-employer.)


Sound byte-free thinking
Although Dyson was no longer writing the newsletter by the time I got to it, I could see her imprimatur, as well as her father's unique combination of scientific insight and creative imagination, all over it. Each issue confines itself to one topic, talks about the topic's present state, and extrapolates it out a few years, conducting incisively reasoned gedankenexperiments to adduce what it will become and what effect it will have. There are no soundbites for the mass media, nor any Gartner Group-style faux-statistical predictions of what corporate America will be doing about the matter in the next year; just clear, scientific thinking about the possibilities inherent in technology. Dyson named her book Release 2.0 as a way of indicating that, as with a major new software release, the book represents a revision of her thinking. In addition to the scientifically-minded orientation of Release 1.0, Release 2.0 shows Dyson the political theorist -- an outgrowth of her work with think tanks and advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the organization founded by Mitch Kapor and John Perry Barlow (of Lotus 1-2-3 and Grateful Dead fame, respectively), which she ended up chairing a few years ago.

Release 2.0 has three layers to it. The least interesting of these is her rather banal explorations of how the 'Net can change certain major aspects of our lives, such as work and education, for the better. This is all fairly obvious and seems to be intended for the uninitiated.

Free market libertarianism
The second layer contains Dyson's prescriptions for what cyberspace should become. Her approach can be summed up as "free market libertarianism." Her theories are built on two entirely reasonable axioms: (1) online communities have no physical constraints, and (2) no one really depends on them (yet) for necessities of life like food, medical care, or education. As a result, online communities exist only through the will of participants. They can be created, changed, and destroyed easily and instantaneously. If an online community suffers from inferior technology, a lack of interesting content, or overly onerous regulation, it will wither and die. The same will happen if it is excessively regulated, whether by a commercial entity or a government.

In other words, online communities will succeed only if they represent the desires of their participants. Contrast this with physical communities and structures -- i.e., buildings (you have to construct them or tear them down); borders (they can be closed); and supply lines for essential goods and services (they can be regulated) -- which sometimes outlive their utility, in whole or in part, due to outside or pre-existing constraints. According to Dyson, online community participants will eventually get the technology they want, and they will regulate content according to their own desires. Those who disagree with the prevailing order can simply leave and form new communities.

Are AOL chat room
participants or WebTV
subscribers really
going to decide policies
for such intricate
issues as privacy,
security, and intellectual
property in cyberspace?

Different communities can (and will) have completely different rules regarding technology and information. For example, where some may agree to rigorously protect the sanctity of intellectual property, others may agree not to have "property" at all -- thus allowing all community members access to and creative license with each other's contributions. While some communities will be rigorously anti-censorship, others might agree to ban certain types of content, like pornography, anti-religion, or "spam." The point is that as new technology develops (i.e., content-filtering protocols like PICS -- The World Wide Web Consortium's Platform for Internet Content Selection, which Dyson describes in great detail -- or 3D graphic "avatars") its popularity will depend on whether people want it. Attempts to regulate any of this externally -- as totalitarian regimes have done throughout history, and as the U.S. almost did with last year's ridiculous Communications Decency Act -- are doomed to failure. The free flow of information goes hand in glove with free markets and free choice.

These are Dyson's conclusions, based on the aforementioned axioms. They are okay as far as they go, but they depend on two additional axioms: (1) that community members want to be involved with actively shaping their communities, and (2) that they have the intelligence to make lucid decisions about abstruse matters.

Here's where Dyson's theories start to lose their allure. In the early days of e-mail, Usenet, and the Web, when most users were pioneering technology types, at least the first of these assumptions might have held true. But let's be realistic: Are AOL chat room participants or WebTV subscribers really going to decide policies for such intricate issues as privacy, security, and intellectual property in cyberspace? And at the risk of sounding elitist, do we really want them to?

An online community might make instant, localized democracy possible, but that doesn't insure that people have the time, desire, or mental capacity to participate in democratic processes about the complex issues that will face online communities -- and face them on a continual basis as technology evolves. Most people won't; they will simply take whatever they get, and find themselves more annoyed than liberated by an overabundance of choices. That's human nature, and it's not bound to change just because people are empowered with a Web browser. Dyson offers various scenarios in which a hypothetical user is asked to divulge personal information and answer questions (i.e., about security) while making purchases on the Web or responding to e-mail. I believe most of us will have to change a great deal before we will see this kind of choice as anything but a nuisance.

Justice = involvement
Yet Dyson feels that such dedicated involvement is the only way to guarantee (her version of) a just society online. In her last chapter, "The Design for Living," she exhorts readers to become active participants in their online communities. One could argue that we're still in the early days of Internet communities and the technological framework by which they will be defined is barely in place, so now is the time to make sure we get the architecture right. I say that the technology is constantly evolving, and we will be in the "early days" until online services become necessary (mission critical) to the everyday lives of most people. When online services support primary-school education for a critical mass of our children, those who control such services -- like those who control today's essential services -- will have enough power over enough lives that they will be able to significantly alter the current structures.

The political element to Release 2.0 is intriguing, if somewhat idealistic. It should be remembered that Dyson has recently spent time in the former Soviet bloc. In the light of that experience, the Internet truly is an instrument of revolution, and one can see where it's easy to get dewy eyed about its potential to transform society.

Information about information about information
The third layer of the book, and ultimately the most satisfying, is Dyson's incisive analysis of issues affecting human intercourse, like identity, privacy, security, and intellectual property, and how those concepts can (or cannot) be supported online.

Think about it: Human intercourse today is the result of centuries of limitation. In written media, it's fairly easy to conceal one's identity, say, when sending a message (anonymity); fairly hard for that message to be intercepted (security); fairly hard to misrepresent the creator of the message (authentication); and pretty hard to make unauthorized copies which are impossible to differentiate from the original (intellectual property protection). Social and legal expectations have long been based on these realities. Yet such expectations are being shattered online, meaning that people must take significant steps to preserve anonymity, security, et al.

Dyson takes us through the nooks, crannies, and byways of each of these issues with her characteristic style of scenario-based thought experimentation (a research technique popular with many scientists). She imagines scenes in the everyday lives of people in the year 2004, extrapolating the use of technology being defined today. She comes out in favor of strong encryption standards, a free market in content filtering and Web site rating services, and support for anonymity a la The Internet Oracle (not the database company, but a Web site that lets people ask and answer questions, both anonymously).

To me, the most interesting chapter is the one on intellectual property. Here she offers the most succinct and comprehensive overview I've ever seen of business models for online content, including those in current use (subscriptions, advertising) and those contemplated (pay for performance, intellectual services). She also has two fairly radical ideas concerning commerce in information.

More free stuff
One of these ideas is that the value of static content (like books and articles) will decrease to practically zero -- a disturbing thought for traditional media companies. She predicts that, except in special cases, eventually people will not pay for static content; instead, content will be used to promote other revenue generating activity, such as those of advertisers and content providers' value-added services. The "friction free" nature of the Internet will result in a paradigm where those who have the most incentive for insuring that users see or hear a particular piece of content will pay for it. Users will pay for the information they require only in rare cases, e.g., a doctor who needs information on a new surgical procedure that will save a life may pay to acquire that information.

As a corollary, Dyson suggests that content creators will not be able to enjoy as much income from what they create; for example, those who now receive book royalties will, in the future, be compensated for time rather than output. I disagree with this. Although less users will explicitly pay for content, there will be more companies that want to purchase rights to good content, to use it for promoting something else. I am reminded of the time when Lee Iacocca offered Bruce Springsteen $11 million for the right to use the song "Born in the U.S.A." in an ad. Bruce told Lee to get lost.

Privacy is also for
sale in the free-market,
information-driven economy
-- thus widening the gap
even further between the
haves and the have-nots.

Dyson's other fairly radical idea is that electronic commerce sites will eventually compensate users who supply information about themselves, especially if they agree to let the e-comm company sell that information to other companies. For example, let's say you go to and buy a diamond-studded gold watch. The watch may cost $10,000 if you choose to buy it anonymously, $9,500 if you're willing to tell Rolex all about yourself, or $8,000 if you'll let Rolex sell your personal information to other luxury goods retailers who want to know who can afford such a price for a watch. In other words, privacy will also be up for sale in the free market, information driven economy -- thus widening the gap even further between those who have and those who have not. Apart from the expected libertarian themes, another idea runs through Release 2.0: That the only way to compete with the detrimental effects of information is to have more information.

Dyson wants to preserve free speech. She wants to fight objectionable content with meta-content, such as Web site monitoring and ratings. She wants you to provide information about whether you want to provide information about yourself. And so on. Given the way the industry has been growing, I have no doubt that the information explosion she implicitly predicts will come to pass.

While this endless upward spiral of information (and information processing) is great news for technology companies, who will constantly have opportunities to provide solutions to each new problem that arises, it seems to me that this situation must have a limit. Someday, somehow. It behooves us to try to understand what these limits are and how they will affect the average person. Dyson does not address this in Release 2.0. Nevertheless, she's compiled a thought provoking book, filled with illuminating scenarios, Ginsu-sharp analysis, and creative thought -- all of which befits one of the great minds and fascinating figures of our industry. Especially when compared to the price of her newsletter, this book is well worth the money.

[ Books] Title: Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age
Author: Esther Dyson
Publisher: Broadway Books
ISBN: 0767900111
List price: $25.00


About the author
[Bill Rosenblatt's photo] Bill Rosenblatt is market development manager for media and publishing industries at Sun Microsystems Inc. Reach Bill at

What did you think of this article?
-Very worth reading
-Worth reading
-Not worth reading
-Too long
-Just right
-Too short
-Too technical
-Just right
-Not technical enough

[Table of Contents]
Sun's Site
[Next story]
Sun's Site

[(c) Copyright  Web Publishing Inc., and IDG Communication company]

If you have technical problems with this magazine, contact

Last modified: