Esther Dyson interview at MIMC
Scott Kirsner interviewed Esther Dyson at the MIMC Fireside Chat on September 18, 2003, at the Harvard Faculty Club, sponsored by Novell and Hoovers Online. There was also an extensive Q&A session. This is a report of some of what she said to get an idea of what it was like. (My notes are incomplete and I couldn't read all my scribbles, but Esther commented on a draft and her additions fit with my memory of what she said...)
Larry Weber, MIMC Chairman, starting the meeting; Will Zachmann of Canopus Research was in the audience
Scott started with a question about how Esther got to where she was starting with her undergraduate days at Harvard. She told us stories of working at the Harvard Crimson, and how she still has nightmares where she wakes up and it's exam time and she doesn't remember which courses she signed up for (since she spent more time at the Crimson then at classes...). So she's always had a background in writing.
Scott interviewing Esther in front of the fireplace
She told how she ended up working for Forbes Magazine and then doing research on Wall Street. On visiting "real companies": "There's nothing like forklifts". She thought Wall Street was kind of sleazy. The people there were all interested in stock prices while she was interested in the companies themselves. When she was first looking for a job, she had it narrowed down to Variety and Forbes. More people wanted to work for Variety, so given supply and demand, she ended up at Forbes.
Scott asked about how she deals with the conflicts she has being on boards, investing, writing, ICANN, etc. She said, recognizing the irony with a smile, that she describes it less as "conflicts" than as "synergy". She deals with it by being totally open with disclosure so people can decide for themselves. This was the beginning of a theme that ran through lots of her answers: The value of transparency.
On her feelings about Meetup.com, whose board she is on: She told of her previous connections to the founder, and how she views it as a service to users, paid for by places that want to act as venues for the meetings. (Kind of like selling excess inventory -- an early use of the Internet, I guess -- the eBay of meeting space.) Is it becoming too associated with Dean and the Democratic party? "Arnold uses it, too."
About her longtime involvement with companies in Eastern Europe: She's spent enough time in Eastern Europe and the USA to learn to be realistic, but she's still idealistic enough to spend a lot of time there. She's not involved there to get richer faster, but rather to have more of an impact than she could here. There's a huge vacuum over there, and she is less redundant than she would be doing her work here.
In Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, which only became heavily "influenced" by the Soviet Union after WWII, the people trying to learn to deal with the transition from a centralized to a market economy have memories of their grandparents as models for running businesses, etc. Russia has no such models, and is lagging in doing the transition.
In India, with a billion people, outsourcing is a tiny thing. Talent is being used to serve outside of the country, with no direct benefit to the general population. They know how to market their talents to the world. The Russians are terrible at marketing, but 90% of what they do is for customers in Russia. There is more of a sense of building for the future now then there was.
The Russians have little understanding nor experience of what a market economy and US-style governance are like. In Russia, it used to be just You, Your Family, and The State. She expressed worry, given how things worked out in Russia over these long years since Gorbachev and how we approached that, with how things are going in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Some of the Q&A:
I asked her to comment on Verisign's recent move to trap all undefined ".com" DNS references. She said she felt that what they were doing was ethically wrong. They are a regulated monopoly and nobody else can do what they did. (She distinguished it from MSN and others' auto-search, since those aren't monopolies.) The moment you start half-regulating you have problems when there is a dominant position.
A question about the rise and importance of standards brought a response (relating to something she recently wrote, she said) about the value of Registries. She mentioned ENUM and RFID/EPC. She said that APIs and protocols are not enough, you need common things registered in a registry to do them to. The DNS and other registries are basically for pointing to things, not for storing data about them.
Her favorite author? Orwell. Not because she likes his visions, but because he shows the importance of transparency. She talked about not just freedom of speech, but also freedom after speech.
She sees all the computer viruses and spam, in the end, as good -- people will learn from all that and fix the problems. She is basically a positive person, she says. Whatever happens, you have to figure out how to go on.
The intimate audience packed in listened to questions and answers
When asked about the Internet, WiFi, et al, and the developing world: She reminds us of "lower technology" that is very valuable, such as sewing machines and water pumps. Cell phones are more immediately and locally important than the Internet because of cost and accessibility, which is more relevant for now than WiFi, but she noted that the best underlying backbone for communications is the Internet. It is important to know the price of cotton, which you can do via SMS -- you don't need a web page with fancy graphics. What it all does is change the balance of power. Those in power, and especially those abusing power, tend not to like transparency. Usually bad governments create poverty; poor people don't create it.
Asked what she would recommend if she consulted to the music industry: "Resign is my advice." The distribution business is the buggy whip business. The people left in the recording industry should consult to artists, helping them with publicity, marketing, career management, etc. That's a viable business, but out of line with the current cost structure. Another example of transparency: Understanding what you bring to the party and what you don't. Need to transfer to a new model. Don't piss off your customers while switching. Now way too late. People want to have music on their PC immediately. Add value not transportation. A lot will have to find new jobs. The movie industry: They should look to product placement and licensing. With luck, they won't do what the music industry did.
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