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


Esther Dyson: The Thought Leader Interview

Sunlight is funding or starting a variety of open-government information projects: posting information about bills under consideration; lists of earmarks; tools for collecting, manipulating, and visualizing data from all kinds of public records. It’s God’s work.

S+B: Is it a global project?
DYSON: Right now it’s focused on the United States. But we would love to see clones all over the world. The tools we fund are open source; you can use them on Russian data as easily as on U.S. data. But, as you can imagine, it’s not that easy to get the data here in the U.S. — and it’s even harder elsewhere.

S+B: Are people ready to manage this level of detail?
DYSON: It can be confusing. One of the best books on this subject is Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less [Ecco, 2003]. He points out that it’s onerous to have too many choices. As many marketers know, it’s better to give people a simpler set of options — not just because it’s confusing to have more, but because that creates a feeling of too much responsibility for the outcome. You don’t want to make a mistake. There’s a similar paradox of choice in philanthropy: If you’re confronted with helping starving children in Romania versus raped women in Kenya versus earthquake sufferers in China, you feel overwhelmed and end up not helping anybody. Psychologically, we’re not equipped to handle knowing too much — including all the good things we passed up and the bad things we didn’t avert.

At the same time, we’re learning. If you had told people 10 years ago, “You’re going to be managing permissions and access controls to your online profiles for hundreds of people,” they would have said, “Oh, that’s way too complicated.” And now, everybody does it. You do it without even noticing, on Facebook and Dopplr and MySpace and the like. Different people have different rules for who they’ll interact with and different sets of friends and contacts. It turns out that people have an amazing ability to manage this stuff; teenagers, for instance, spend a lot of time doing it.

S+B: What’s your view of software moving online and the greater prevalence of cloud computing, wherein the computer becomes an inexpensive appliance and applications reside on the Web?
DYSON: It will absolutely happen. Two issues may slow it down. First, the rest of the world, outside the U.S. and western Europe and some parts of Asia, has computers, but connectivity is often terrible. You need to be persistently and reliably online for cloud computing to make sense. And many people are connected to the Internet through mobile phones rather than through PCs. They need more intelligence in the cloud because they have less locally. In the long run, yes, everything will be connected in real time.

Second, we need to get better at bringing economics into Internet security. It’s like fighting drugs: Focus on economics rather than a fruitless “war.” For instance, we need to deter spam at the source by charging individuals to send e-mail. It should be priced low and creatively — like making the first 100 e-mails per day free — because we don’t want to penalize villagers in India or kids with no budget.

As for people whose computer has been taken over by zombies or hackers, the best way to make the Net secure is to get the Internet service providers (ISPs) involved. They have a direct relationship with the users that no one else has, including the computer manufacturers. The ISPs should somehow be liable for abuse and be able to pass on the costs of protection to their customers. Someone who doesn’t want the ISP’s security or restrictions could opt out, but then they would have to post a bond with the ISP — kind of like drivers’ liability insurance. ISPs could compete on the basis of their security services. Until the costs of abuse are assigned to entities capable of stopping the abuse, it’s not going to get much better. [See “Watching over the Web,” by Thomas Künstner, Manuel Kohnstamm, and Stephan Luiten, s+b, Spring 2009.]

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