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Published: May 26, 2009

 
 

Esther Dyson: The Thought Leader Interview

Ten years ago that would have been impossible. But now, the online world is making everyday life in Russia so much more efficient and transparent. One popular site, www.apteka.ru, started as a list of which drugs were available in which drugstores — so you didn’t have to waste time going from one store to another. Now, it’s a regular e-commerce site. If you want to know the suburban train schedules, you can go to www.tutu.ru. (In Russian, trains go tutu instead of choo-choo.) In a country where many people still stand in line to pay their utility bills and where most people don’t know how to read maps because they were discouraged in the Soviet Union, sites like this are something of a miracle.

I first went to Star City in 1989, but I never knew where it was, just that it was northeast of Moscow somewhere. This year, I have been using a BlackBerry with GPS, and to be able to see where I am on a map in Russia is amazing. Without a map, you can’t see yourself in context, whether it’s physically in space or in relation to all the other people you know. These little changes make a great difference, and then people start asking themselves, “How could things be done better?”

In the West, we are further along. The same changes are happening in the corporate world, and physical objects are becoming full of information about themselves. The opaque institutions around us are becoming semitransparent, in ways that people care about.

Twenty years ago, if you bought a tube of toothpaste, it might have had the address of the manufacturer so you could write to it if you had questions. Then they added a toll-free number. Now it includes a Web site, and you can find out more about the ingredients. And there are third-party Web sites, like a project called Barcode Wikipedia, where information is posted that the manufacturer might not volunteer (until challenged): for example, where products are manufactured, and whether children are used in the factories. As an avid swimmer, my dream is that every pool in the world will have a sensor device linked up to a server that will report its temperature and post it online.

Promoting Open Governments

S+B: How do you see this type of transparency evolving?
DYSON: One early leader was Amazon. You could find out what books it had on a subject, when they would be delivered, what other people thought of them, and how the price compared to prices in other places. Next, third-party sites sprang up to help compare stores and dealers, and to rate the institutions of commerce. The same thing is starting to happen with insurance and financial services. And people are beginning to expect the same transparency from government.

I’m on the board of the Sunlight Foundation, which was founded in 2006 by Mike Klein and Ellen Miller, with the mission of making government more transparent. Our first challenge was simply to get the members of Congress to post their schedules. If they want to post that an hour is private, that’s fine. But if that hour was actually a lunch with a lobbyist, then they (and their aides) would have to lie to conceal it. There’s no way to enforce full disclosure, but by creating an explicit process and expectation, we reset the norms. If you met with a lobbyist and you’re not ashamed of it, simply say so. We can make our own judgments. And if you meet with many lobbyists, at the expense of other types of meetings, we can make judgments about that, too.

 
 
 
 
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