Philosopher to the digital age Author: Internet guru Esther Dyson has the ear of high tech's biggest moguls. Her new book describes responsibilities for the Internet citizen.

Sun Journal

March 03, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- She doesn't bother with a phone at home. She has never voted. She doesn't own a car, and wears shoes only when she must. When prime-time television is on, she is often fast asleep.

Esther Dyson is a creature of the Internet. And while her name is unknown to the average American, Dyson's thinking is closely watched by the leaders of software and new-media companies, as well as by the government officials who seek to regulate them.

Dyson publishes Release 1.0, a tech-industry newsletter obscure enough to have just 2,000 subscribers and important enough to command $695 a year for the subscription. She hosts the exclusive PC Forum, an annual round table-like meeting of the white knights of the computer business. She was one of only three women at Bill Gates' 100-person CEO summit.

All this for someone who doesn't design software or create Internet content.

"Her value is as a thinker," says Ira Magaziner, a White House adviser on the Internet and electronic commerce. "She is one of the premier philosophers of the digital age."

It was something of a shock to those in the tech-know when Dyson decided to jettison her home medium and write a book. Of course, "Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age" hardly resembles a book. How many books include the author's e-mail address -- -- and web site -- -- and ask readers to contribute comments for inclusion in future editions?

The book is part intellectual autobiography, part history of the Internet, and part philosophical treatise on the modern world and its technological future. "Release 2.0" is also something of a political book, an unusual online melding of Bill Clinton's and Ronald Reagan's greatest rhetorical hits.

Like Reagan, Dyson distrusts the government and argues for market-oriented solutions to such online problems as privacy, security and protecting people from Internet junk mail, called spam.

The Internet, she argues, will promote decentralization and make it difficult for national governments to enforce laws, from gambling statutes to intellectual-property claims.

Like Clinton, she sees great potential in community action. Individuals and companies can bring order and respectability to the Web by working together to establish standards backed by seals of approval for Web pages from responsible businesses and organizations.

"The Net gives awesome power to individuals -- the ability to be heard across the world, the ability to find information," Dyson writes. "But with this greater ability to exercise their rights, or abuse them, individuals will need to exercise greater responsibility for their own actions and for the world they are creating."

Dyson foresees great changes in the relationship between individuals and companies. People may be unable to sell their ideas in a world where information passes so quickly and widely through the Net, because any idea will be immediately copied and borrowed.

So people will rent out their brains. You might give away your ideas, Dyson writes, or an author might give away her book, so that a company might hire you for a project, or a college might pay the author to give a speech.

In person, Dyson seems more like a young professor than an up-and-coming media titan. She keeps her hair short, schedules appointments around her daily swim, and dresses casually for work. She bounces around an office where there is little protocol; sometimes, it seems her assistants are in charge of her.

With an interviewer, she speaks passionately about the Internet, skipping easily -- and with the speed of the best Web browser -- between topics from physics to gossip about her personal life. (One writer speculated that she might be a spy).

Self-denial, say both friends and critics of her work, is part of Dyson lore. The image carries a certain credibility in the Internet world: She is one of the guys, overworked and undersexed.

Every second of her time is scheduled, including the holidays. She gets up at 4: 30 a.m. Relaxation is a hard, hourlong daily swim. She works from an office that, even after a recent cleaning, is impressively cluttered. She has never been married and has no children. She is Internet diva as messy, globe-trotting nun.

"I have this Calvinist streak that makes me want to work all the time, and stay here in New York, and ride the subway," she says.

Still, for a careful planner, her life has taken many unexpected turns. A 1971 Harvard graduate with a degree in economics, she started as a writer at Forbes magazine.

In 1977 she tired of journalism and became a Wall Street securities analyst who followed high-technology stocks. That led her to buy an industry newsletter in 1982 and rename it Release 1.0. One of her first articles in the newsletter was about a start-up company called Microsoft; she wrote that it needed to "lose some of its charm" to succeed.

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