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Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age.

Of the few hundred speeches I wrote while working for Vice President Al Gore, the last one may have been the most significant. I didn't know it at the time. But Esther Dyson did.

Back in july, the president and vice president convened several dozen high-tech luminaries in the White House East Room to announce the administration's policy governing commerce on the Internet. "A Framework for Global Electronic Commerce" declared that government's proper course of action was inaction: that the way to protect the public interest was to let private interests battle it out. In the vice president's remarks that afternoon, I gave him the following line, which he delivered with typical flair. "Our approach to electronic commerce," he said, "must be guided by a digital Hippocratic Oath: "First, do no harm."' The assembled crowd of computer geeks and digerati applauded lustily, and the vice president soaked up the approval of his fellow cybertravelers. Then he ad-libbed, "I'm not surprised that Esther Dyson is leading the applause'

Dyson had a seat in that audience thanks to her reputation as one of cyberspace's sharpest thinkers (and one of the few women to achieve influence in that male-dominated world). Her newsletter on the computer and Internet industries, Release 1.0, is must reading for the digital elite. Her annual conference, the P.C. Forum, is a greenhouse of new products, hot deals, and fresh gossip. That afternoon, Dyson understood instantly what I realized only later: The public philosophy she embodies, evangelizes, and helped create had triumphed in spectacular fashion.

A Democratic president and vice president -- and a commission headed by Ira Magaziner, late of the Clinton health care plan -- had studied the Internet and declared "hands off." They concluded that this massive network of networks -- the most powerful social and economic phenomenon to emerge in several decades -- was best regulated not by well-intentioned government officials, but by profit-seeking engineers and entrepreneurs. Never before had government evaluated something so fundamental to America's economic and social foundation -- think railroads, highways, or television -- and announced its intention to do pretty much nothing.

Score one for the libertarians.

In Release 2. 0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, Dyson's attempt to decode the Net, she advances the idea that private markets and self-organizing individuals can fashion the Internet's rules and boundaries far better than any centralized, or even democratic, authority. This notion -- Dyson would call it a "meme," an idea that evolves like a species and infects like a virus -- pervades every chapter and leads to some provocative conclusions.

Take intellectual property. Seriously, take it. That's what Dyson advises. "Computers and the Internet that connects them make it easy and almost cost-free to reproduce content and send or retrieve it anywhere in the world. The Net makes light work of what used to be tedious and slow," she explains. Consequently, Dyson questions whether government should bother vigorously enforcing copyright laws that prohibit unauthorized duplication. Since bits move at the speed of light and law enforcement does not, such a tactic would likely fail. But more important, she says, companies don't need strict enforcement because intellectual property now abides by a new set of economic rules. As Dyson smartly puts it, "The source of commercial value will be people's attention, not the content that consumes their attention." Thus, it will be harder to make money merely selling copies. The real action will come from unique, customized products and services bundled with or connected to the copies' content. Dyson figures savvy companies will actually give away lots of content for free -- not for moral or democratic reasons, but as a new business model.

Here's an example of what she means. Suppose a few people decide to e-mail scads of copies of Washington Monthly articles all over the planet or to post 30 years of issues on their website -- in both cases, likely violations of copyright law. The smart move is not to shut down these folks. instead, watch them with a wary eye, but let them proceed. Their work could make money for this magazine by encouraging people to buy subscriptions, attend conferences sponsored by the Monthly, or pay to hear its editors speak before their group.

The general rule applies to other areas, too. Instead of fighting technology with old laws, we should embrace it with the marketplace's new logic. For foul behavior by individuals online, Dyson says that commercial Internet service providers ought to be the first line of defense. Don't call the cops or write your congressman; tell America Online to kick the person out of your virtual community or you'll sign up with Prodigy. For relations among nations and businesses, Dyson suggests "pushing as much of world governance as possible into the realm of commerce, since commercial law arouses much less emotion than other kinds. The more you can make things a matter of contracts and market bargaining, the less government -- and the less agreement among governments -- you need in the first place"

What's as noteworthy as Dyson's arguments is how widely they are now accepted. Present the libertarian position on governing the Internet to just about anyone on the traditional right, left, or in between, and he or she'd probably agree. I do. On this, President Clinton and Newt Gingrich hold almost identical views. And that presidential report issued in July -- most of which spells out things government should refrain from doing -- affirms this remarkable libertarian consensus.

One innovative aspect of Dyson's book is that she considers it, like computer software, a work in progress, subject to innumerable upgrades. The paperback edition of her book will be called Release 2.1, because it will incorporate "comments, criticisms, examples, arguments, whatever" that readers have e-mailed to her ( or posted on her Web site ( That's a good thing, because this papyrus-based software could use some de-bugging.

As a book -- the mother of all meme vessels -- release 2.0 is somewhat disappointing. It's often difficult to follow, in part because readers confront a new subheading on just about every page. In fact, in many ways Release 2.0 is written more in the rhythm of a newsletter than a book -- subheading, paragraph, paragraph, paragraph ... subheading, paragraph, paragraph, paragraph. The result is that the whole of its 289 pages is less than the sum of its 200 parts.

And much of what's on these pages is pedestrian. Here's Dyson on geopolitics: "As long as the world contains people, it will have conflicts" On cultural anthropology: "Many social norms differ from community to community." On management: "As change becomes constant, leaders must have the flexibility and vision to handle it' " On human nature: "Child or adult, we are all special compared with machinery."

She also has a tendency to try to accomplish with punctuation what she cannot with words. To portray exuberance or irony or just about any other emotion, she deploys exclamation points. Lots of exclamation points. For example, in her design rules for digital life -- her advice for how individuals can navigate the digital world -- the exclamation points outnumber the pages. So some editorial advice for Release 2.1: Get rid of the exclamation points! They do nothing to sharpen your argaments!! (And while you're at it, kill half your parenthetical asides. They mostly contain afterthoughts.)

I'd also have preferred to read much more about Dyson's own life and less about her sometimes unremarkable thoughts on cyberspace. Dyson is an intriguing woman, and the sections of the book-usually just a few sentences -- in which she discusses her own life can be captivating. She is the daughter of renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, "raised in the academic hothouse around Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, with Nobel laureates as dinner guests" She wrote for the Harvard Crimson in the late 1960s and Forbes in the 1970s. As a Wall Street securities analyst a decade later, she was one of the first people to discover a fledgling company called Federal Express, where she became fast friends with FedEx chief information officer Jim Barksdale, now CEO of a not-so fledgling company called Netscape.

She quickly became the Wayne Gretzky of high-tech -- someone with an uncanny talent for skating to where the puck will be. By 1983, she had taken over a newsletter that covered the computer industry -- just as that industry was on the brink of exploding. Early this decade, she recast her newsletter to cover the Internet -- again just as that industry was about to catch fire. Her latest venture is investing in computer companies in the young democracies of Russia and Eastern Europe. I wanted to know more about her experiences.

One personal detail Dyson does reveal, however, illuminates much about her philosophy. Forty-something years old, well-educated, adviser to corporate titans and government leaders, Dyson has never voted. "Voting does not make a real democracy, any more than taxes are an expression of philanthropy," she writes. She says she very recently registered, but has yet to cast a ballot.

Maybe by deciding to vote, she's once again onto the next big thing. For now, though, her book is further proof that computers and the Internet have secured -- and perhaps validated-libcertarianism's ascendance in America's public philosophy at the end of the century. And Dyson, to her credit, is Hippocratic in her views without being hypocritical in her actions. Unlike many liberals -- those, for instance, who celebrate public schools but send their kids to private ones -- she lives by the credos she asserts. Since free copies are a sound business model, and governments can't and shouldn't waste their time enforcing outdated intellectual property laws, Dyson is posting large sections of Release 2.0 on her website for anyone, anywhere to read -- gratis.

In a world of $695 newsletters and $25 hardcovers, we should applaud Esther Dyson for giving away some memes for free.

Daniel H. Pink, chief speech writer to Vice President Al Gore from 1995 to 1997, is a freelance journalist and speechwriter in Washington, D. C
COPYRIGHT 1997 Washington Monthly Company
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Pink, Daniel H.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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