21st: E.D., phone home!

Scott Rosenberg interviews Esther Dyson on Microsoft, intellectual property, the future of Russia -- and why she banished her telephone.

Published December 9, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Esther Dyson -- conference impresario, Net pundit and high-tech emissary to Russia -- arrives in a flurry at the Salon office for an early-morning interview. She needs to receive a fax from London -- what's our number? Her laptop needs recharging; is there an outlet nearby? Then she props herself up on a chair, crosses her legs beneath her and fixes an intent stare on her interviewer as she talks about the predictions and conclusions in her new book, "Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age."

A lot of people see humanism and faith in technology as opposites, but you've clearly tried to combine them in "Release 2.0." What's your response to the humanist critique of the Internet offered by books like "Data Smog" -- that the Net is corroding the quality of our daily lives?

I think second-hand smoke is a legitimate concept; second-hand data is not. You really don't need to look at other people's data if you don't want to. People have to grow up and make their own decisions about how much time they want to spend on the Net. The fact that I don't have a home phone is not a statement -- but it is an example.

A rare one!

Yes. People think it's really weird, but that's what suits me. People just have to do what suits them.

Did you get rid of your phone once e-mail became popular?

No, it was long ago, the late '70s. I don't have e-mail at home either. I had this big black rotary dial phone a year after Harvard. Sometimes it would stop working for a day or two. And then I started getting billed because someone was tapping my line to call Jamaica (the island, not Queens), and the phone company wouldn't reverse the charges. So finally I said, this is ridiculous -- I don't want this thing and I don't use it. I asked them to take it out. And I've never missed it.

But you were constantly on the phone at work, presumably.

Yes, and so I had no interest in doing that at home. I mean, also, I spend most of the weekend at the office -- it's not that I'm sitting at home with no phone for days on end!

This, I guess, is what you mean in "Release 2.0" when you talk about how the Net erodes the separation between work lives and personal lives.

It's not just a matter of time. You know, when you're in a steel mill, you make steel and you leave and that's it. But when you're online, if someone meets you downtown or someone e-mails you, let's face it, if you're a jerk, it affects Salon, in a way that it wouldn't if you were making steel. This is a big social issue; again, the problem here is people.

You can't be paternalistic and get upset if your employee goes drinking Saturday night, but at the same time, now, your company consists of the people. They're much more visible. And so what do you do if your employee not only goes drinking Saturday night but says your company sucks on his private e-mail account?

Even when you try to keep a healthy separation between work and personal time, the technology of the Net encourages people to expect that you're available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In addition to that, it's pretty sad if you're working for a company doing intellectual work and you don't identify with the company. Which is why I'm so cheerful about the notion of smaller companies. One way or another people are there by choice, and there's more personality.

A lot of companies keep getting bigger, though. "Release 2.0" argues that the Net is a great decentralizing force, yet today we're seeing more power concentrated in the hands of companies like Microsoft and WorldCom.

These big things are getting more and more stuff, and obviously hardware is different from content. So yes, with hardware or the infrastructure or Microsoft -- there are benefits there to size and economies of scale. But in content, in intellectual work, there are really disadvantages of scale. So you see these divergent trends. But I think the value is increasingly at the edges, even if the physical bulk is in the middle.

You mean, one reason the physical assets of the network get collected is that they're worth less?

To some extent. They are commodities. WorldCom will tell you, "Our customer service makes us unique." I'm just not sure about that.

So where do small companies fit in?

I don't know the statistics, but if you took all the insects on the earth and weighed them, they'd weigh a lot more than all the people.

You've taken a lot of flak for your predictions about intellectual property -- your argument that the value of content is declining, and that creative people are going to have to make their money doing consulting, personal appearances and so on.

Well, it's calmed down a lot, first of all. It used to be, you just couldn't even raise the topic without being accused of being a socialist by Bill Gates. Or, "We've already heard that, we don't need to talk about that anymore." But there's still a lot more to explore. I think people are beginning to realize it's happening. And books, God bless them, are going to be one of the laggards in all this.

Obviously in this case you're still selling books, and yet you're talking to me for free.

Right. It's the other way around. Again, I'm not doctrinaire -- if the old model works, use it. I could have written the book and put it on the Net, but it would not have been read by the people I wanted to have read it. And I don't think right now the Net is the ideal medium for books: First, it doesn't reach the broad masses; second, you really want someone to sit down and make a commitment to read it and not just glance at it on screen; third, in addition to the money they're paying me and the expense it takes to produce this nice physical object, they're spending another $50,000 to send me around the country talking to you for free.

And every time I get on some television show, hundreds of thousands of people see this not-very-scary-looking woman who doesn't have a pocket protector -- yeah, she may be weird and not have any kids, but she's not very scary-looking -- say nice things about the Net, that it gives them opportunities, it's not a haven for child molesters. So the book publishing process gets the message even further than the book itself does.

It's an interesting process of alienation, because in some ways I identify more with what I write on the Net and in other media. This is now a product, and so if someone wants to take silly pictures of me swimming, I say, OK, calm down, it's selling the book. Because I'm really not about swimming -- I swim every day the way I take a shower. It's of no interest.

But it's a photo op.

Yes, and it gets above the fold. And of course all the things you know abstractly about publicity, you get to experience. The commentary about you by people who don't know you, about fantasies of who you are -- which of course we've all seen happen to Bill Gates. Bill Gates is much more a figment of the viewer's imagination than he is a reality in most of what's said about him.

Isn't that a function of the sheer volume of money he's accumulated?

No, it's a function of the sheer volume of obsession with him. It's
their obsession with him, it's not him.

At the same time that the Net is reducing the value of intellectual
property there's a counter-move to lock it up: Gates acquiring the rights
to thousands of images for his company Corbis, or the entertainment
industry trying to stop the recording of music CDs.

And owning the intellectual property isn't bad. The only question is,
how do you exploit it? And the way you exploit it sometimes is selling
copies of it or experiences of it, but a lot of the time it's other ways --
doing co-sponsorships with Burger King, or giving a book away for free so
you can jack up your consulting rates.

The point I'm trying to make is not that intellectual property is
valueless, but that the price of copies is going down dramatically, so you
need to think of other ways to exploit the content. And a creator is now in
a much better position than a publisher. The publisher's model is being
attacked -- on the one side by Amazon.com, which is making the whole book
business more efficient, and on the other by people who are creating
content that markets itself. While some people are spending big bucks in
marketing budgets to get people to buy content, other people are just
putting the content out and it markets itself -- and it takes people's time
away from the stuff that gets marketed to them.

One of the big principles you subscribe to in "Release 2.0" is the
importance of full disclosure. Markets need good information to work
properly. Yet you're working in an industry that uses "non-disclosure
agreements" as a routine legal tool. Now they're even an issue in the
Department of Justice's battle with Microsoft.

I sign NDAs and observe them because I think that's the honorable thing
to do. I don't think they're immoral; I think often they're stupid. Because
nine times out of 10 it's a much bigger problem getting people to take
your idea seriously than getting them not to steal it. But I also think
there's a difference between a small non-disclosure agreement and an NDA
about a contract with a large company that has huge market power. The
propriety of these things really does vary according to the market power of
the people involved.

Technology companies have a hybrid psychology, with vestiges of the
old macho corporate culture but also commitments to openness. Sometimes it
seems companies are stuck selling products they claim are all about
individual empowerment and open networks, and then they realize, wait, do
we have to do this stuff ourselves?

It's very easy to sit and talk about this. People are imperfect and they
don't like to be reminded of their flaws. But the Net forces you to
confront them more, and I think that's good.

How? Because you're on public display?

You know that habit some men have of combing their hair over their bald
spots? And everybody knows there's a bald spot there -- yet they think
they're hiding it. And so, in the same way, when people talk about you on
the Net, you can see it. When they talk about you at a cocktail party, you
can't. It's uncomfortable to get used to -- and there are gonna be some
people who won't ever look.

I screwed up on "Charlie Rose" last week -- there was a long silence when
I was asked after the smartest people I knew, what about women? and I
finally answered with the name of a businesswoman. And so there was an
"Esther Dyson pisses me off" party in New York last night, that I saw an
invitation to on the Net. No, it's not fun for me to see that -- but it's
probably better for me to see it than not to see it. You know, these little
eddies of contrary opinion become tangible -- and then they dissipate. But
they're there and they're useful, if you take heed. They're useful for
individuals, they're useful for companies.

Where do you come down in the Microsoft/Department of Justice

I have no problem with a browser being part of the operating system, I
think it makes sense technically. All these things happen over time. I do
have a problem with secret contracts when they're engaged in by people with
monumental market power -- and in this context the relevant market share
figure to look at is the 80 percent of the desktop Microsoft controls, not
the 36 percent of the browser market. I certainly think that Microsoft has
every right to put the browser in the operating system, but both OEM
customers [computer manufacturers] and end users have every right to take
it out. What that challenges people to do is to build components that can
flip in easily. Now that's where the world breaks down, and the promise of
"friction-free markets" doesn't quite work. Because let's face it, it's
easier if you're over the wall with the Microsoft developers to make your
thing work seamlessly.

Gates' response is that if computer manufacturers can take the
browser out, he can't guarantee everything will work together.

You know, if all of Microsoft's tools worked together perfectly in the
first place, that would be a more compelling argument. I'm having lots of
fun with my WinIP config file right now. Didn't even know it existed a
month ago, now it's an important part of my life.

In an interview a year or two ago you said you weren't using Windows

But I am now. We all progress. I used Word to write the book. The thing
that annoys me most is the smart formatting -- it keeps doing things that I
didn't ask it to do. That's when I get anthropomorphic about my software:
Stop it! Stop it! Don't be so smart. But for writing long texts it's pretty
good. There was one file that kept crashing the machine. I sent it to
[Microsoft chief technology officer] Nathan Myhrvold, and they couldn't
find anything wrong. I'd just open the file and it would crash. It was the
chapter on governance, for what it was worth.

With the Cold War over, most Americans seem to be paying no attention
at all to Russia, but you've dedicated much of your work to tracking and
helping build the high-tech industry there. What's happening in Russia that
we need to know about?

Right now, I'm optimistic about it, just as I'm optimistic about the Net
-- with perhaps not sufficient evidence to make the case. Russia really
hangs in the balance. It's not going to go back to communism, but it's
definitely not guaranteed that it's going to go forward to freedom,
democracy, open markets. And that's exactly why I'm there. If it were
decided, why bother? But if there's some question as to what will happen,
you've got to be there. Both the Internet and Russia are two of the biggest
questions for the future. And to the extent that I have influence on the
outcome, how could I go relax on a beach?

The interesting thing about Russia is that this small group of people in
the software community had intellectual assets of their own -- they never
had to acquire anything from the state through whatever means. They're
honest, they're to some extent globally minded, they see the Net as a
miracle that connects them to the rest of the world they so much want to be
part of, they're getting good salaries so they can afford to pay other
people and trickle a little down through the economy, they're educating
their children. They're this growing organism in basically a pile of
decaying machinery and dirt and scum.

Growing things tend to take garbage and turn it into healthy plant
tissue. And the Net is bringing in the sunshine to make this vegetable
matter grow healthy. That's what's happening in Russia. The question is,
is that process going to be able to continue?

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Intellectual Property Microsoft Russia