"How [Esther] Dyson makes her living is hard to classify," Claudia Dreifus wrote recently in The New York Times Magazine. Actually, it is not. Dyson is a cyberguru--perhaps the only one who's matter-of-fact.
Dyson has advised the Clinton administration directly through the National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council and Gingrichite Republicans indirectly through the Progress and Freedom Foundation's various activities. She chairs the Electronic Frontier Foundation and sits on the board of the Santa Fe Institute. Most of the time, however, she's a knowledge entrepreneur: Customers pay a pretty penny for her thoughts on the implications of new technologies for business, law, and culture--and for her ability to bring together people whose ideas catalyze each other, creating yet more new inventions. She publishes an influential newsletter, holds high-priced conferences, and invests in Eastern European ventures.
But there is nothing grandiose about Dyson. She doesn't talk of "revolution" or call the Internet "the most important invention since fire." Eschewing grand theories, she prefers to reason from real-world developments and a few key observations: the economic value of time and attention, the inescapable fact of tradeoffs, the morality and productivity of freedom. The Times dubbed her "the most powerful woman in the 'Net-erati'," a back-handed compliment typical of our era. Dyson's achievements and insights have very little to do with her sex.
She travels constantly, at home anywhere there are interesting people and a swimming pool for her daily workout. REASON Editor Virginia Postrel caught up with her at her office in New York City for an interview in February, with follow-up questions after the first Russian elections in June.
Reason: How did you first get interested in Russia?
Esther Dyson: I had taken Russian in high school, but then I hadn't done anything with it. I'd always wanted to go to Russia but I was busy with my day job. Then [in 1989] the head of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility mentioned that he was going to Russia [in April]. I said, "Oh great! Can I come along and translate?" And he called my bluff. So I spent two days in intensive Russian training. The first thing I had to do was learn by heart a two-paragraph explanation of who I was, so I could say to anyone I met, "Good morning. My name is Esther Dyson. I publish a monthly newsletter." It was very clever.
We were invited by something called the International Computer Club, which was more like a trade organization of computer users--big Russian banks and ministries. After about three or four days, some delegation of genuine German businessmen showed up, so the Russians pretty much abandoned us. I had a few names of some programmers. One of them was the guy who wrote Tetris. So I called him up at home--and I was very nervous because he was so famous. He was very nervous because I was this foreign American lady. He didn't know who I was, but he was sure I was very important. We became quite good friends.
In the space of three weeks, I met a fair bunch of the guys who were just starting those little programmers' co-ops, and everybody was talking about starting businesses. One man said, "This is going to be great. The government is going to set free market prices." This was when everybody was not going to work, or at work they were watching the First Congress of People's Deputies on television. It was clear that within five or six months there would indeed be free market prices set by the government, there would be a democracy--it was just obvious that everything was going to work out. It was a time of wonderful optimism and illusion that was totally unfounded. And I came back and I wrote a piece for the newsletter, which I eventually rewrote for Forbes.
In October I got invited back. And again, it was very interesting. We went to Tallin, to St. Petersburg. It was a different bunch of people. Then again in December I got asked back. This was more of an official trip. It was just horrible--Soviet apparatchiks giving a speech, then the translator giving a speech. After the first day I just said I was sorry, I was sick, I couldn't go. And I called up some of the programmers I'd met and had a wonderful, wonderful time. I tacked on three days in Hungary over Christmas on my way back. That was the period during which the Ceausescus were executed in Romania. I realized I was homesick for Russia, which is bizarre, because I was supposed to be homesick for getting back to the U.S.
That was when I decided that I was going to keep doing this as half of what I was doing--just somehow try to foster Silicon Valley in Eastern Europe. Having seen a non-market economy, I suddenly understood much better what I liked about a market economy.
Reason: Which was?
Dyson: Number one, that it works. Number two, that it's moral. Not always, and not everybody in it is moral, but the system is, I think, a moral one.
Dyson: In the sense that people who produce things and work get rewarded, statistically. You don't get rewarded precisely for your effort, but in Russia you got rewarded for being alive, but not very well rewarded. A worker's paradise is a consumer's hell. People were beaten down. Everybody drank too much. Everything was hostile and dysfunctional. It was a good education about why the U.S. was a better place.
So I started thinking about all this kind of stuff, and complex adaptive systems. I joined the board of the Santa Fe Institute. I became a real free market fanatic. I'm probably less so now than even two or three years ago.