BOOK REVIEW: ESTHER DYSON'S UNCONVINCING TECHNO-UTOPIA
Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age
By Esther Dyson
Esther Dyson is smart. Really smart. And busy, too. She not only runs her own company, EDventure Holdings, which publishes a top-dollar computer industry newsletter (Release 1.0), she also hosts a top-notch computer-industry schmoozefest (the invitation-only PC Forum). And she makes time to influence national information technology policy (via the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which she chairs) as well as to think up Big Ideas. Even her hobbies, such as shepherding all of Eastern Europe into the digital age, are smart. And yes, it's true: She aced the SATs a few times when she was younger.
One thing that she doesn't have much time to do, apparently, is write a book. In a recent Vanity Fair interview she confessed that with just weeks left before her publisher's deadline, she hadn't written a page. With the date looming, she secreted herself in her midtown Manhattan office and pounded out Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age.
Braininess aside, the strain unfortunately shows. That's not to say that Release 2.0 isn't interesting; it's just a little thin. The book's stated purpose is a noble one: To "help us think about the Internet and our roles as citizens, rule-makers, and community members." And along the way, Dyson addresses a few megabytes worth of hot-button topics, for Netheads at least. Those include encryption (she's all for it, with no government intervention, of course), Net communities (she sees them as shaping the future of society), privacy (it's essential online, she argues), and that new animal, "content." As more and more of what used to be called information accumulates on the Net, she predicts, publishers will have to find new business models as they compete for audience attention.
As impressive as that spectrum of topics sounds, however, something is missing. Though Dyson's agenda for negotiating this new world sounds compelling, she neglects to provide a blueprint -- or many details, for that matter -- for how humankind will arrive at the electronic Utopia she foresees ahead. It isn't surprising, then, that she glosses over the obstacles that lie in the way of achieving it. The result is to leave the reader with the feeling that many of her ideas are a bit naive. And for those who are less than enthralled with the topic to begin with, it makes the book a far from essential read.
For Dyson, the essence of the Net is simple but far-reaching: "Its impact -- the widespread availability of two-way electronic communication -- will change our lives." Unfettered communication, she feels, will allow the Net to become a Great Equalizer, altering the power relationships that govern today's non-Internet-based world. In Dyson's view, the Net has "given awesome power to individuals -- the ability to be heard across the world, the ability to find information about almost anything." Indeed, the "greatest structural impact of the Net is decentralization; things and people no longer depend on a center to be connected." Thus the technology "undermines central authorities, whether they are good or bad, and it helps dispersed forces act together, whether they are good or bad."
Assuming that's all true, Dyson posits that the Net will radically change the business landscape as well, pushing smaller, more flexible companies to the forefront, by "removing many economies of scale and valuing diversity over uniformity." The relationship between employer and employee is recast, in her scenario, as the Net's informational flow makes employees "better able to find jobs," thus forcing employers to make the work environment more enticing. Mass media will have to reevaluate itself, once it finds that it has an audience "who can now not only talk back, but talk among themselves." And merchants could find themselves facing the same dilemma, as customers debate their merits on the Net. Both the media and business will find themselves under the gun as individuals gain "the tools to become small-scale producers themselves." If this sounds somewhat familiar, it hearkens back to the free-market mindset of the Silicon Valley orthodoxy, with which Dyson is intimately acquainted.
The power of the people, in Dyson's new world, will reside in the communities they form. Extraordinarily polite and committed communities. For example, Dyson details the "ways we should behave even if no one forces us to." She envisions "a culture of honesty, openness, accountability, and persistent reputations," in which devotion to the common good is enforced by the obvious fact that members of the group must follow the community's rules to remain in good standing -- or face expulsion. It's such a simple concept, it's a shame no one has thought of it before.
What is it about the Net that will repeal the laws of human nature? Apparently that's a good question, because it never gets answered. Caught up in her heady rush of ideas, Dyson sidesteps the challenges that will face this new global community, preferring to simply implore her readers to will it into existence. "[O]ur common task is to do a better job with the Net than we have done so far in the physical world," she writes. "Realistic idealism," she calls the concept, without quite explaining what's realistic about it. It will be obvious to most readers that expulsion from a community can be an effective deterrent only for those who want to belong. What about those who could care less? Especially in the cloying final chapter, Dyson descends from the high role of visionary to the relatively more common one of inspirational speaker. Go forth and do good, she urges. Have a nice day!
Even Dyson knows, down deep, that life in the electronic age will be a lot more complicated than that. In recounting the chaos that arises when a group of her normally well-mannered friends engage in an anonymous online conference, Dyson seems to undercut her own argument. She notes that when "nice" people are no longer held accountable for their actions, they can manifest all sorts of questionable behavior. What she leaves unsaid is that the Net attracts plenty of individuals and organizations who are mischevious or worse, and who may not hold themselves accountable for their actions, anonymous or not. While Dyson may not encounter such people in her heady intellectual circles, plenty of them will surely pop up in the global online community.
What then? "It's up to you to figure it out and make it happen," declares Dyson. Right. If you're interested in the intellectual meanderings of one of the most influential observers of America's high-tech culture, read this book. If what you really want is to "figure it out and make it happen," you might just as well take a long walk.
By Patrick Lambert in New York
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Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.