Release 2.1

social, moral, and political issues raised by the Internet

Esther Dyson is renowned for her digital savvy and is much syndicated as a sybil of cyberculture. She aims to bring us all out of the dark ages into the Brave New World of the digital age. This compilation is the hardback version of her electronic mailing list – Release 1.0. It’s a populist text aimed at the ‘beginner’ and the small businessman, which addresses general topics such as communities, work, education, Net governance, intellectual property rights, and privacy. Her purpose is to reveal how information technology is affecting all aspects of our lives.

Her approach is to pose questions – ‘What is the right size for a [Net] community?’ or ‘What kinds of investment can one make in a community?’ This appears to be a communicative and intelligent approach to discussing problems of the Net, but when you begin to think about it these are actually non-questions. What’s more they are followed by non-answers, and these in turn are followed by non-predictions. For instance, “Those who succeed will be those who are good at getting their new designs or themselves noticed”. When was this ever not the case, one wonders?

She poses too much of her argument as speculation and questions about what might be the case, what could be – not what is the case.

On the subject of employment she speaks of people working in ‘co-operative teams’ and paints an almost ridiculously rosy picture of commercial life – completely ignoring the nasty and competitive side of work, even though she’s part of it. At one point she gives something of the game away by casually mentioning that part of her brief is to advise companies on ‘which people to fire’.

It’s the same when it comes to education. She sets up Utopian notions of teachers emailing parents to discuss students’ progress – but then pulls them down again with finger-wagging paragraphs of caution. The result is dampening and very, very conservative. She warns us: ‘Kids can find one another, talk about their parents – or drugs or sex – in a medium inaccessible to many parents and teachers’. She assumes that this is a Bad Thing and ignores the fact that they could do this just by talking to each other, either on the telephone or even in the playground. On this score, she’s the Norman Rockwell of the Net:

Your English teacher does more than force you to read and discuss novels. He encourages you to think; you’re eager to win his approval and so you work a little harder, think a little longer…you kind of like him…and he’s … well, he’s a role model.

On Net governance she’s a little more objective, and less dewy-eyed, if rather descriptive. There’s not much here that most Net enthusiasts won’t already know. She deals interestingly with Spam – but it’s difficult to repress a sneaky suspicion that she doesn’t know much about the technicalities involved. In technical terms for instance, she doesn’t make any clear distinctions between email, the Web, newsgroups, mailing lists, and FTP – it’s all called ‘the Net’. Her generalizations look shallow compared with the impressive close-reading skills that are common amongst analysts of message headers in on-line groups.

A chapter on privacy deals with the right of consumers to protect themselves against cookies. She argues that consumers should have choice and be able to trade information about themselves with agencies who reveal up front what they will do with the information. On these issues she takes a reasonable and libertarian position, and the answer to all these issues that she offers is sensible: maximum transparency.

As we draw nearer to the world of business in the section on copyright she seems to be on firmer ground – but still doesn’t supply the sort of detailed evidence which would demonstrate intellectual rigour and make her suggestions more convincing. Unfortunately, it’s not long before the Net disappears more or less altogether and we’re in the world of advertising and PR consultancy where she obviously feels at home.

This compilation of market-speak reaches its nadir in a section on the organisation of conferences where people pay steep fees for the privilege of rubbing shoulders with self-elected experts. This might be where she makes her money, but it has very little to do with ‘living in the digital age’, and she seems unaware of the contradiction between assembling people at conference centres and preaching the advantages of digital technology.

She comes up with completely unconvincing arguments about ‘the need to be there’ at these events and even descends to enthusing about the marketing opportunities for spin-off T-shirts! Just imagine – all those keynote speeches could be zipped into a 50K text file and made available the day they were written. Instead, people traipse half way across a continent, dragging their atoms to a conference centre for two or three day’s expense-account junketing. But this is what keeps her in business.

There’s rather a lot of first person address which at times comes close to egomania: “Central and Eastern Europe needed me” and “a group of ‘big thinkers’ (including me)”. But for somebody who seems to be well connected in the commercial world and who drops hints about her investments, there is remarkably little here about hard finance. Her arguments are vague political wish-fulfilments peppered with occasional anecdotes [I met a man once who said…] and all the time, the really exhilarating developments on the Net go unexamined.

If you think this is a harsh judgement, remember that this is a woman who has founded a business empire and is syndicated world-wide as a futurist and guru of the digital world: and for someone offering advice on the bleeding edge of technological developments, it is a little disconcerting to see occasional practical examples pop up, only to be left behind, unexamined.

There is a reasonable index, only very rare references to sources, no bibliography, and a short list of URLs is not annotated in any way. All this suggest that she is not in the habit of scrutinising her claims carefully – and keep in mind that she makes her living by selling advice to other people. She might have an impressive track record as an investment analyst, but on the strength of this, I don’t think I would take her technological advice on which brand of floppy disk to buy.

© Roy Johnson 2000

Esther Dyson, Release 2.1: A design for living in the digital age, London: Viking, 1997, pp.307, ISBN: 0670876003

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