From a New Media Prophetess,A Staid Old Media Product

Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age , by Esther Dyson. Broadway Books, 307 pages, $25.

If living in the digital future is anything like reading Esther Dyson’s book about it, I don’t think I’ll be able to stay awake for the experience. Ms. Dyson owns a company, Edventure Holdings Inc., that publishes a newsletter ( Release 1.0 ) about technology trends and puts on conferences for high-tech movers and shakers, including the exclusive PC Forum. She’s part of a relatively new breed of pundit promising to give nervous businessmen a handle on the unpredictable, swiftly evolving, mandarin world of high technology. The less people understand about a powerful force, the more likely they are to manufacture cults of personality around those who seem to have an inside line, which is how Nicholas Negroponte managed to sell so many copies of his pompous and silly book, Being Digital , and why Ms. Dyson got an advance of more than a million dollars for this soporific Design for Living in the Digital Age .

In her introduction to Release 2.0 , Ms. Dyson writes that the intent of her book is “to help us think about the Internet and our roles as citizens, rule-makers and community members.” The Net, she explains, “is a potential home for all of us … a place where people meet, talk, do business, find out things, form committees, and pass on rumors.” For the rest of the book’s 307 pages, Ms. Dyson continues, in this bland and measured tone, to weigh in on various Internet quandaries–pornography, spam (junk e-mail), intellectual property rights and, especially, electronic commerce. She’s a moderate libertarian who believes that “markets will do a lot of the design if we let them, but we need a foundation of both traditional, or terrestrial, and Net-based rules to make the markets work properly.” Few of her positions seem likely to provoke the kind of flaming debate for which the Net is notorious, and when she does prescribe something drastic–like the death of copyright–she does it in the mild, reasonable voice of technocrat managers everywhere.

In a way, Ms. Dyson is an example of the curse inherent in getting what you wished for. The first prophets of the digital future were early adapters, mostly former hippies, and were prone to the grandiosity and “revolutionary” junk rhetoric of the 60′s counterculture. They talked a lot of nonsense about the death of literature, the hive-mind and screenagers, got brain-trust jobs at Wired magazine and discovered that the more outlandish their predictions and pontifications, the more easily they could scare corporate managers into paying them hefty consulting fees for their goofy pronouncements. To be fair, they did foster one industry–a minor boom of inner-Luddite authors who wrote long, earnest, hand-wringing treatises on how the Internet spells the end of civilization as we know it. Another former hippie, Kirkpatrick Sale, even took his Cassandra act on the road, smashing computers with a baseball bat during public appearances and reaffirming that his is the Generation That Knows No Shame when it comes to the pursuit of media attention. Meanwhile, the press went wild with horror stories about the child molesters, hackers, sexual harassers and other sociopaths supposedly lurking in every dark recess of the Net.

In short, it’s been a three-ring circus, and I remember how most of the people who early on had found the Net interesting, fun and useful would yearn for a less inflammatory public discussion of its potential. Now comes Esther Dyson to make us rue the day we did. The bonanza mentality that once prevailed in the corporate world’s attitude toward the Net has been tempered with skepticism, and their tolerance for wild-eyed visionaries has been exhausted. They prefer now to hear about the future from one of their own (Ms. Dyson was once a securities analyst and used to work at Forbes ), in the language and terms that make them comfortable, a soothing vocabulary–composed of words like “innovation,” “productivity” and “outsourcing”–that can cloak the most ruthless strategies and appalling events in a mantle of placid euphemism. Compared to the Net’s early champions and critics, Ms. Dyson sounds like the voice of reason, but she’s also depressingly lacking in passion. Release 2.0 has all the pizzazz and sense of adventure of an in-flight magazine.

The book offers a series of scenarios–entitled “Communities,” “Work,” “Education,” “Governance” and so on–illustrating how Ms. Dyson expects the Net will reshape various areas of our lives. It’s a vision of the world common in libertarians, in which all students are industrious, all employers judicious, all consumers well informed and every citizen exercises his or her freedom of choice and speech with the rationality of a Vulcan–as long as the noxious forces of centralized government and excessive regulation are kept at bay.

Well, actually, there may still be a few hate groups and con men and slanderers and unsocialized wackos out there, but a complex, grass-roots system of social and commercial shunning will, Ms. Dyson assures us, keep them from running amok. Individuals and companies will thrive or fail on the basis of reputation. “Better communications, Net versions of best-10 lists, consumer ratings and overall visibility will cause investors, managers, employees, and customers to gravitate to good companies; they will flee from bad or ineffective ones.” How simple–unless you’re one of the unfortunate pioneers who discovers first-hand that an unregulated meatpacking plant or automobile manufacturer has been cutting corners, in which case I suppose you could take comfort in knowing that your personal loss will eventually become the free market’s gain.

Release 2.0 suffers from such idiocies because Ms. Dyson, like many of the so-called “digerati,” is too deeply embedded in the high-tech sub-economy to understand that much of the rest of the world doesn’t work that way and never will. “Just as the pace at which you live your individual work life will speed up,” she chirps blithely, “so will the pace at which companies are created, grow, and disappear … The good news is that this ‘Darwinism’ applies more to companies than to people. Bad companies die or get absorbed, but with luck their employees learn something and move on to better companies.” So far, that’s been true in Silicon Valley, where the workers in question are highly skilled, well paid and still fairly young. It’s an acceptable way for the software industry to run, but try translating Ms. Dyson’s model to agriculture, or mining, or the manufacturing of durable goods. It just doesn’t compute.

Her editors (no doubt thinking of the kind of sales needed to recoup that advance) probably urged her to make Release 2.0 accessible. As a result, people in the technology industry will find the book too elementary to be of any real use, while the unwired will wind up bewildered by it. But, while Broadway Books may wind up stung in this deal, Ms. Dyson probably won’t. A recent Vanity Fair profile of her quotes her father, the physicist Freeman Dyson, dismissing her monthly newsletter thus: “I’m always surprised that people pay so much for so little.” Beyond displaying the kind of parenting that helped make his daughter the automatonlike workaholic depicted in the profile, Mr. Dyson misses the point. A $695-per-year subscription to Release 1.0 provides access to PC Forum, an event where talent connects with money and vice versa. Ms. Dyson’s real skill lies in hooking people up, not in her ideas, so don’t expect anyone in the industry to publicly confess to the widespread opinion that Release 2.0 is stale and vague. Chances are they’re indebted to Ms. Dyson for a past introduction, or hoping for an advantageous one in the future.