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strategy and business
 / Summer 2009 / Issue 55(originally published by Booz & Company)


Esther Dyson: The Thought Leader Interview

S+B: How long is the trip to space?
DYSON: The “tourists,” as they call us commercial guys, go up to the International Space Station for about 12 days. I’m a backup to [software innovator and former Microsoft executive] Charles Simonyi, who has already gone to space once. I’m not likely to actually go on the flight, unless I get very lucky. [Simonyi ultimately made the flight in the spring.]

There are a lot of things to learn, about dealing with authority and not being in control, and about space travel itself. I’ve been investing in this area for years; I’ve gone on weightless flights. But my knowledge was mostly abstract. You can’t really read a book to learn French; you have to go to Paris and absorb it. Now I understand atmospheric pressure and life support from the point of view of an actual participant in space flight.

One of the coolest moments so far happened while I was learning the radio system. I had to pretend to call the Japanese module and say, “Vladimir, I have a problem. Can you come help me?”

Vladimir said, “Sure, I’ll fly right over.” That’s how they get around on the station, of course; they fly.

S+B: In the global economic meltdown, one of the most troubled industries seems to be media. Why is that?
DYSON: The online and media worlds are dealing with a crumbling economy across almost all sectors. Advertising revenue is going down; venture capitalists are getting nervous. And separately, there is a change in the way people spend their time and buy things, as a result of being online, that has begun to affect all marketing and media enterprises.

A lot of marketers call the Internet an “attention economy.” They are looking for consumers who will pay attention to their product, and they try to calculate consumers’ propensity to purchase. They think that attention means intention. But it doesn’t. (I credit Michael Goldhaber for that point, which he made very eloquently in a 1992 article in Release 1.0 on the “attention society.”) The reality is, people don’t go online to give attention, but to get it. They don’t want to be part of the audience. They want to perform and to be heard, to be present. It’s an almost biological urge, like the urge to spread our genes and keep the species alive.

This is one of two big phenomena defining the Internet right now. Humanity never had the ability to present itself to people so broadly before, but the social media of the last few years — YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr,, LinkedIn, and so forth — make it possible. You can say, “Well, this isn’t that new; people always had family scrapbooks.” But it was never possible to share them so easily or widely. It’s interesting to see how strong the drive is. All these services let you post your news all over; you may be sleeping, but your image and news are on Fred’s Facebook News Feed when he is awake.

That’s why digital media are replacing old media so rapidly — and why this new era is so difficult for marketers. They need to learn to join the conversation rather than interrupt it.

S+B: What’s the other phenomenon?
DYSON: It’s the quantification of everything. Not just marketing data — everything. Five years ago you’d read about diabetics who had to take their blood sugar readings or about these weirdos who put on pedometers when they walked. Now, that kind of measurement is everywhere. Web sites that seem at first glance like entertainment or service media are really devoted to managing and interpreting customers’ data about themselves. Mint and Wesabe track your banking data and financial transactions. Skydeck organizes cell-phone records; you can see whom you call most frequently or whom you used to call but haven’t called recently. You can compare your phone call patterns against other people’s. 23andMe does the same thing for genomes. The most fascinating thing in the world is a mirror.

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