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Published: May 26, 2009

 
 

Esther Dyson: The Thought Leader Interview

A long-standing champion of high-tech innovation foresees a fundamental shift toward more transparent institutions and a more relationship-driven economy.


  
Photograph by Mikhail Galustov
 

The world of media is in upheaval. Newspapers struggle with massive debt while posting their articles free on the Web. Ad revenues shrink as advertisements leap from broadcast and print media to Google and Craigslist. Formerly passive television viewers now post videos on YouTube, one-liners on Twitter, and autobiographies on Facebook. Computer software gravitates from individual hard drives to remote servers. Marketing, publishing, and other media-related industries stagger under the weight of the financial crisis — and nobody, whether content creator, advertiser, politician, or business leader, seems to have a clear sense of what will happen next.

In such a time, perhaps one should turn to the person with the longest-lasting contrarian perspective. These days, that person is Esther Dyson. Dyson made her reputation in the 1980s as an industry insider with an outsider’s perspective. She hosted PC Forum,an annual IT-industry gathering founded by industry analyst Ben Rosen. Rosen went on to become a legendary venture capitalist and chairman of Compaq and Lotus, and Dyson bought his old firm, becoming the editor and publisher of Release 1.0, the premier venture-oriented newsletter about the personal computer industry. (She sold the company, EDventure Holdings Inc., to CNET Networks in 2004.)

Throughout her career, Dyson has been a pioneering commentator on (or, as she puts it, a “court jester” to) the computer and communications industries. She has championed a diversity of ideas, social networking, design quality, and the pragmatic involvement of business and technology experts in solving large-scale social problems. She has also been a notable participant in the evolution of these industries. She is on the board of the WPP Group PLC, the communications-services group founded by Sir Martin Sorrell; she has been or is a board member of several well-known research- or innovation-related nonprofits, including the Santa Fe Institute, the Long Now Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Sunlight Foundation. In 1998, she became the founding chairman of the board of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which oversees the distribution of Web addresses and is the closest thing the Internet has to a governing administration. She served in that capacity till 2000.

And in both eastern Europe and the U.S., she has been an angel investor or board member for many influential startups, including several mentioned in this interview: Flickr and del.icio.us (sites for sharing photos and bookmarks, respectively, both since acquired by Yahoo), Medstory (a health information site acquired by Microsoft), Meetup (a Web-based service that helps people organize local face-to-face groups, known for its use by both major U.S. political parties), 23andMe (personal genomics), Wesabe (personal finance), Dopplr (travel), Yandex (Russian search engine), Airship Ventures (a zeppelin operator), Space Adventures (space tourism), and XCOR Aerospace (spacecraft). Her connections to space science started with her family. Her father, physicist Freeman Dyson, developed the concept of the “Dyson sphere,” a structure that would allow a highly advanced civilization to use satellites to capture energy directly from its planet’s local star.

Dyson sat down with strategy+business in New York in January. A few days later, she left to resume training as a backup cosmonaut in Star City, Russia (training organized by Space Adventures); her blog on the subject is at www.huffingtonpost.com/esther-dyson.

S+B: Let’s start with your decision to become a cosmonaut.
DYSON: When Space Adventures asked me if I wanted to do the training, I said I would love to...someday. But they said, “No, we mean now.” I wanted very much to do it, but I was too busy. Then my sister had a double mastectomy; she’s fine now, or I wouldn’t tell this story. A few weeks later, as I was juggling my schedule, I found myself thinking, “Now, if I just had a double mastectomy, I could get out of these commitments.” Oops! I realized I would always be too busy, unless I just stopped. I said yes to Space Adventures and pretty much put everything on hold until April 2009. Amazingly, they’re all carrying on without me!

 
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