Power, decentralization and fathers – A conversation with Esther Dyson

December 8, 2005 in It is what it is - opinion column | Comments (0)


One of the things I like best about my variegated professional path is the incredibly fascinating pool of individuals with whom I have had a chance to speak.

Esther Dyson fits into that category.

Listed by Vanity Fair on several occasions as one of the New Establishment power players, seen as technology pundit and thought leader, Esther graciously met me over early morning coffee during one of her recent trips to the Bay Area.

Right now figuring out how to post the audio but in the mean time, this is the detailed transcript of that conversation.

Esther Dyson:
It’s just a peculiarly American … and this is what people don’t like … It’s an American thing to say that Vancouver (Canada) is remote. For a lot of people, Vancouver is a normal place to be. Or Tunis. Or, where have they had it (ICANN) … Yokohama or whatever. This is the whole point … It shouldn’t be, ‘Oh, well, Boston is normal and the rest of the world is remote.’ …
CB: It’s a very American-centric view.
Esther Dyson: Yes. And of course most of ICANN’s critics are American. Then there’s a fair amount of other … There are a lot of other critics as well with reason who are in other parts of the world who see it (ICANN) as too American centric but really the most vicious, harshest, most persistent criticism comes from precisely that center, if you like … the people on the edges are often … they’re often incited to criticize. And they want to be more part of it. But then, the fact that you started out with the criticism that ICANN goes to remote places to me is very telling.
The challenge is that there is no … the whole point of this is not to be in the center, because it’s supposed to be run from the edge.
Why don’t I let you ask some questions now (said with a smile).
CB: Well now just to give some context here … I’m sitting here with Esther Dyson … of … So many … your resume is too long to list it all but certainly known as one of the more influential people in the technology industry … a visionary …
Esther Dyson: I’m a decentralized person.
CB: A decentralized person … (laughs) speaking to the point that we were just discussing about ICANN. One of the things that I wanted to talk with you about today, which is a little outside of technology, per se, is the idea of power. One of the things about ICANN as we were talking about control and keeping things decentralized is the point but … Power is an interesting thing. Absolute power corrupts absolutely … what are your thoughts … what does power mean to you?
Esther Dyson: Well, to start with, power does corrupt, but it also seduces. It’s so alluring before you get corrupted you think often in a very nice way, ‘If I had this power I could make things much better.’ Most of ICANN’s critics see it as a locus of power that they could use to better effect than they think it’s being used now. The safest thing for ICANN, I believe is to have very little power so that it will seduce less, corrupt less and just not interfere.
Any kind of central power makes people behave badly. So you want to try and reduce the amount of power over others in the world in general and you want to increase the amount of power to, the power to do things as opposed to the power over others to make them do things. Fortunately ICANN doesn’t actually have a lot of power but people perceive it as potentially having that power.
CB: Why do you think that is?
Esther Dyson: Because it’s global, and so they immediately think if it’s global it must have global power where actually it’s global and distributed with very little power. But the notion is well if we made this thing legitimate, because right now a lot of people consider it illegitimate and that is, again, to my mind good because …

CB: Talking about ICANN and talking about power certainly there is that power aspect to it … In some of our email exchanges you’ve talked about how you think the organization is well set up the way it is as a decentralized organization …
Esther Dyson: It’s not ideal, it has a lot of problems, but the thing is … I think that it’s gradually getting better but the point is, if it were too good, it would be scary. The fact that it’s considered illegitimate, (that it) doesn’t have a lot of (power) … that’s good because strong power is inherently bad .
… strong well-organized power is too seductive it’s too alluring. I’d rather see kind of messy, inadequate, badly run power that its very inadequacy makes it much much less dangerous.

Thinking about power in general … I would say there are people who would call you a powerful person in the technology industry.

Esther Dyson:
CB: So, what does that word mean to you? When you hear something like that. How does that …
Esther Dyson: I’ll tell you actually what’s true is that I have a lot of power to make people see things. I have very little power to make them do things that they don’t see for themselves. And so what I can do is help open people’s eyes to what’s really there. And then they will behave according to their own motivations. And I think that’s, you know that’s really good power. That’s the power of transparency, that’s the power of insight and enlightenment. The bad power is making them do what they don’t see as being in their self-interest because you’ll do something bad to them if they don’t do it. As one guy told me about the Soviet art of management it’s making people do things they think are stupid. And what I want to do is make people get smarter and then do things they think are smart. So that they do them of their own volition once they understand the world better. And I flatter myself that I can help them understand the world better but beyond that I can’t force them to do anything, I can only make them see what they want to do more clearly.
Which may mean funding a company or designing a new product or deciding to invest in a certain market but that’s kind of … or ideally see that there’s a real need for personal health information and here’s different things that different people can do. The whole point of a lot of this is there are some things I’m good at doing, there are a lot of other things that a lot of other people are good at doing and people often say ‘I want to get into the health market what should I do?’ It’s, for me, a really dumb question. Because the first question is: What are you good at doing? And then: How is what you are good at doing relevant to the health market? So, for each individual player there is a different “best” strategy, the view of the world might be the same, but then the question is how do I fit into this world what is it that I can bring to it. So I try and get people to see the whole picture and they can for themselves figure out what’s my part in this picture.
CB: My guess is that knowing your history and certainly the genetic lineage … Looking at … you come from a very intellectual, academic, well dialed in to the bigger picture of things family. What impact did that have on how you see the world?
Esther Dyson: Well whatever impact it had, of course, I didn’t notice (smiles).
CB: (laughing) Of course …
Esther Dyson: But sort of just taking it for granted that it’s important to understand things. Taking it for granted that playing with ideas is fun, that it’s creative. There’s nothing like … it’s like the last four days (I’ve had here in California) … is what I love doing … and it’s what I’ve just done … I came up with this idea and people said ‘Well, who gave you that idea?’ Well, it came. It emerged.
(The idea) is that time and timing are really important – that’s not a new insight but that we haven’t really focused on them in the software world … in the way that right now everybody is talking about maps and geo and location based services and all this. Time is so intrinsic we don’t even notice it. There’s certainly a bunch of people doing calendars and scheduling but beyond that … so I decided, well, I’m going to look at time. I’ve now refined it into two sections because you can think in the big picture and then you sort of say well how am I … what am I doing to do with this? With me I turn it into an event, or a workshop and I turn it into a newsletter.
There’s two parts – first there’s adding value to time, how do you make calendars and schedulers and event managers and so forth more valuable which turns out right now adding a lot of social network functionality to it and richness and make the objects within a calendar into representable data so that you can put a contact into your calendar and then you can go look at your contact list and see … ‘Well how many times did I meet with this guy and when over the last 29 years.’ – which of course is very useful if you’re in a lawsuit (smiles) but it’s also useful if you’re trying to understand how did we make this deal happen or how can I write to him and say ‘
‘Remember the time we did X …’
CB: And from a sales perspective … as someone who has worked in sales, being able to see historically how interactions have taken place.
Esther Dyson: Yes. Right. Or if I’m a manager how much time did Fred spend on this project versus that. And the second is adding value with time so you take a non-time application …
… and you say how can time make this richer? In social networks they haven’t done any of it but they need to …
Will you be my friend? It’s like, well you know I’m getting to be your friend but if you ask me that I’m going to back off a little bit … I’m writing to you every three days, before it was once a week, now we’re doing this little thing together so I’ve written to you fifteen times in the last three days but it was mostly about 8:30 or 9:30 and blah blah blah … and so … relationships build and decay and they may build and decay again and go up and down … If you’re in the marketing business, intention to purchase is tremendously important and it’s somewhat time dependent but it’s also sequence dependent. You get interested in a product, you do research, you check out the competition then you buy. That’s both duration of time, but the duration may really vary, the sequence usually is stable. One challenge as a marketer is, well, where is he in the sequence? He may have decided not to do anything because he knows he going to go to a car showroom next week so the duration will be fairly long or it may be very short we don’t know. But that’s extremely interesting.
In search, relevance, I just … I really don’t really know, I don’t really care, if I’m trying to find out more about you … if I’m really doing a historical survey, yes I’m interested what you were doing in 1988 but chances are I want the most recent bio. I don’t want the quote you gave five years ago when you were in another job. Google doesn’t do that. I mean it was okay when Google started because there wasn’t much stuff on the Web. But now there’s huge amounts of stuff that’s 10 years old and they still don’t have any … There’s the very slow decay because old things are less linked to, but you find that blogs are getting more and more relevant because they’re timely versus the Web is relatively static. It’s sort of like the average age of stuff on the Web is going up whereas the average age of stuff in the blogosphere is always … it can’t get any younger but it’s staying young. So the disparity between the age of stuff in the blogosphere and the age of stuff on the Web is getting worse. So that’s a really important time thing.
Anyway, so that is what I do. Now I’m sitting here … I knew there was some interesting stuff, I didn’t know what it was. I kind of had a vague notion of … well who should I go talk to … I should talk to people in the blogs. I should talk to people in behavioral targeting. I should talk to the calendar people.
It’s like climbing a new mountain every time. You’ve climbed the mountain before. You don’t know the path of this mountain but you know you’re pretty good at finding the footholds and then you get … right now I’m maybe a third of the way up the mountain but I’ve climbed a bunch and I know this is going to be a good mountain and it’s tremendously exciting. So that’s what I do.
CB: … and the view’s going to be great from the next plateau.
Esther Dyson: The view’s going to be great and it feels both new and exciting in terms of what I’m finding out, but old and familiar and comfortable in terms of the process. And that’s what I love. It’s sort of this instinct for knowing where to go to discover stuff or find a mountain and that’s where I am now. So now on the plane I’m going to spend six hours trying to turn some of this into slightly more defined territory.
CB: You talked with one of my favorite people, Mitch Kapor.
Esther Dyson: Yes.
CB: He and his wife … Our dogs play together in the park. We live in the same neighborhood so I know the furry kids … And he’s actually one of the topics (people) that is of interest … evolving …
Esther Dyson: Yes. Chandler.
CB: Yes about Chandler and this idea of time … how people interact with each other and the fundamental difference in the way that people are now needing to engage with information and with each other as opposed to being passive recipients of data that’s just kind of flowing over them … and the fundamental behavioral shift that people are just … People’s minds can change but people’s behaviors change a little more slowly.
Esther Dyson: Yes.
CB: When you look at this world of social media, and this world of engaging with information as opposed to just …

Esther Dyson:
… letting it flow over you …

Yes instead of taking information and letting it flow over you … how do you think this is going to change … this is kind of a broad brushstroke … how is it going to change the world? But how do you think it is going to change, fundamentally, how society evolves? Because I do think we’re at a great evolutionary crossroad right now.

Esther Dyson:
Yes. I think it will change society. The change in people may simply come through new generations who take stuff for granted that the old generations didn’t. Some people will manage to change their behavior but mostly they’ll just have kids with different behavior. Probably the most important thing is that people feel they have more choices, which is not always comfortable. Because if you can blame what happened to you on somebody else … That was really easy. If you were a woman, you had one mission was to find the right husband and then everything else that happened to you, you could blame on him. You could say ‘I got lucky, he’s great, I have a wonderful life,’ or ‘I got unlucky he’s horrible, I have a crummy life,’ but it was no longer your responsibility in some sense. It was your responsibility to deal with it but not … you weren’t responsible for that (sense of) free will I brought it upon myself, G-d gave me this life, gave me this husband and …
CB: I would say also … I hate carrying the … every now and then I say I hate carrying the “woman” flag. Because I think that a lot of women carry it inappropriately, but I think that statement you just made could also be played towards women not necessarily needing a husband per se but being able to blame the male dominated infrastructure for holding them down.

Esther Dyson:
True, that too. And … it’s … What your choices are is always a challenging topic in the first place because one could say well if you’re working in a nasty corporation that’s holding you down, go somewhere else. You always have that choice. In North Korea you have a choice to go be a dissident and protest and maybe get shot but maybe escape. So there’s a … It’s like what do you consider a real choice and what do you consider simply a theoretical choice. A lot of that is in people’s heads, but if it was drilled into them from when they were three years old it’s not really appropriate to say …
CB: That would make it a little hard to get away from.

Esther Dyson:
So, yes … it’s … but certainly I think everybody has much more sense that they have many more choices and that they can’t simply blame it on the big corporation or male dominated society or being stuck in the Soviet Union or being black you really now, you’re much more responsible for the consequences.
CB: Responsibility another aspect of this social media world … engaging … transparency …
Esther Dyson: You get a reputation and you become accountable. And that’s the obverse side. As I said it can be very comfortable not having a lot of power because you do your best and you can carve yourself out an easy or at least an untroubled life. Having responsibility means … you’re going to make mistakes and the greatest courage is to make mistakes … especially to make … for example … this is a very teeny but sort of interesting example … and there are no facts associated with it …
There was some issue of somebody in Texas putting some people’s medical records on-line … This is after Hurricane Katrina and it really doesn’t matter what the facts are. Somebody did. It’s not clear to me whether they were completely public or public to certain clinical people who may or may not have had appropriate credentials or whatever … and somebody there, surely conscious of the issue, said: ‘You know there’s a privacy issue here, these are private medical records of people who’d been displaced by Hurricane Katrina and I can put these records up and I can save some of their lives and I can also potentially breach their privacy whether it’s breaching it to the public or breaching it to people who may or may not actually be clinicians.’ And this person made this decision ‘I’m going to put these records up because I think the greater good comes from doing this.’ … I don’t know who that person was or what his thought process was but that took a certain amount of moral courage unless the guy was completely blind but assuming he knew what he was doing … and the world needs more of those … That’s a tough decision to make. It’s much easier to say I’m not authorized I won’t do it, and that is perhaps the legally safe thing to do but it’s not the morally safe thing to do. Yet, then you are then making mistakes you are capable of being, you are putting yourself out for criticism and you are responsible for the person whose privacy you did breach – because you made a decision. Making no decision is much easier. So it’s a world in which more people are going to be making more decisions and being held accountable for them.
CB: It’s the accountability part I like.
Esther Dyson: Yes.
CB: I was raised to be accountable for my actions. Don’t take things that don’t belong to you … share with other people … do unto others and all those basic precepts …
Esther Dyson: Would you want to hold a fund-raiser for Hillary (Clinton)? This is a totally different question …
CB: Um … that’s … um … yeah …
Esther Dyson: She’s coming out to (Silicon) Valley on December 17 and …
DISCLOSURE: I am a registered Democrat in San Francisco. I generally vote Democrat, though it’s not a party line that guides me – it’s a moral one. I am not, however, endorsing Hillary Clinton, nor could I say that I’d vote for her if that is who the Democrats put forward in 2008.

We spoke briefly about this event, and she followed up with an email introduction to the fellow organizing Hillary’s December 17, 2005 Bay Area appearance. I did not engage beyond that email thread. Nor did I attend the event.
Then we did a time check and talked about some logistics (her need to check out, departure time for airport, that sort of thing) …
Now back to the transcript …

CB: One more question. This is … Having had the pleasure of meeting your dad at a couple different … of your different conferences. He’s obviously a big supporter of you. You could see the pride in his face, as well as the pride in yours when he is speaking. Can you tell me just a little about the impact he has had. He seems to be a hero of yours, someone to whom you look for …

Esther Dyson:
Well, he’s my father. And we didn’t really think he was special. He was special because he was our father. He wasn’t special because other people thought he was special. In some sense he had no more or less impact than any reasonably good father has on their kids. That’s the person whose standards they adopt, whose judgment they revere, whose favor they curry. The kinds of things that won his favor were perhaps different. It certainly wasn’t prowess in sports it was … (Esther shrugged slightly and gestured outward, as if to take in everything around us and beyond.) It wasn’t just good grades it was learning and being curious and having our own opinions and stuff like that.
We were … like you … we grew up with a huge amount of freedom and the corollary of responsibility. I never had a curfew. I remember once, I would have been 15, and I went to some party. And stayed very very late, it was probably 1 or 2 (AM) when I came home. And as I said, I had no curfew, but I still felt … I knew I was out kind of late. So I came home and there was my father in the study reading and he said, “So, I hope you had a good time.” And I said “Wow you’re up late,” and he said, “Yeah I couldn’t sleep I was sitting here …” He clearly had stayed up late to see if I was going to come home and he clearly also did not want to say ‘You came in too late,’ because there was no rule … it was just … it was very much ‘There are no rules, I care about you.’ and at the same time … You know, I think we both thought, ‘Gee this is really really late.’ (but he also probably thought) ‘There are no rules and she wasn’t doing anything bad, and I’’m not going to say … ‘
CB: And you came home safe.
Esther Dyson: Yes, and he wasn’t going to say he was waiting up for me, but there he was. So that’s sort of an example …
Our parents were divorced so we traveled across the country on our own a lot … and just had the benefit really of two … both of my parents were academics but my father was more establishment than my mother. So we knew both the mathematicians with white socks and the mathematicians with no socks and sandals. And that was a great way to grow up.
CB: (laughing) and the truth lies somewhere in between.
Esther Dyson: Yes. Well, actually there’s also the people out there with loafers and dress socks but …
CB: I try not to think about those people.


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