beyond winners and losers

beyond winners and losers

a review of Release 2.0
by Esther Dyson

First-rate pundits find news and insight in unexpected places; "Pay attention!", they say, to trends and ideas you would easily overlook. Second-rate pundits discover that powerful people make mistakes: they tell you about winners and losers, about the genius of this CEO or the stupidity of that Fortune 500 company. Many of the best-known commentators in the new media and computer press are, at best, second-rate.

Esther Dyson, founder of the Release 1.0 newsletter, has long been a refreshing exception. Release 1.0 has always been distinguished by its emphasis on real ideas and real technologies. Where so much of the industry press babbles about short-term financials and gossips about corporate positioning, Release 1.0 has persisted in seeking out important technologies wherever they are found -- in corporate R&D, in tiny startups, in academic labs.

Release 1.0 is meant for corporate strategists (and priced accordingly), but Dyson's new book, Release 2.0, addresses a broader audience: people interested in the Net and the way it is changing their personal and corporate lives. Dyson's view is neither the rosy-glassed technophilia of Wired nor the reactionary ignorance of The Gutenberg Elegies; Dyson examines how the Net and the Web have already transformed the ways we live and work, and extrapolates future changes from what we can see today. For example, when many observers were predicting that ads and push would render the Web "just like television", Dyson observes that advertising makes the Web even less like broadcasting.

Simply posting a banner or broadcasting a commercial can be done more cheaply on a television screen, a billboard, or a bus shelter.... The Internet as a commercial or social concept is a two-way medium for interaction. Simply advertising yourself on a mass basis over the Net is a waste when you could be delivering actual value to the customer, finding more about him or her, or doing something more useful.

Dyson's most interesting and unexpected assertion is that intellectual property is losing value, that conventional ideas of ownership are becoming harder and harder to defend morally, economically, or technologically. It is refreshing to see a serious discussion of morality and intellectual property, one that goes beyond a blanket condemnation of capitalism or a tirade against software piracy, a discussion that does not assume that Elizabethan law, the basis of our current copyright system, is necessarily right because it is old. Dyson suggests that ubiquitous copying will make intellectual property itself indefensible, but that attention -- the ability, sometimes conveyed by intellectual property, to deliver an audience -- will remain immensely valuable. It's an intriguing and original argument, one that contradicts today's consensus but might shape tomorrow's.

the Web reduces the importance of capital in the distribution of ideas

Equally interesting is Dyson's analysis of the economics of writing and publishing. It is well known that the Web reduces the importance of capital in the distribution of ideas, making it possible for anyone to publish. Many have assumed this will prove a transient state, that corporate publishers will recapture the Net. Dyson observes, without much fuss, that small organizations are more efficient at creating content -- at original writing -- than large corporations: not only can a teenager create a stunning Web site, she can do it faster, at less expense, than a Fortune 500 corporation. Big Business needs formal plans, committees, managers, legal reviews; small organizations can just do the job. The struggle of the big Web magazines -- a struggle that has grown more dire since Release 2.0 was written -- may not be the oft-proclaimed 'death of content' but its displacement to organizations -- like small presses -- better equipped for the job.

Hypertext veterans will find less new material in other sections of Release 2.0. I found the chapter on education less interesting than Landow's Hypertext 2.0, and the chapter on communities doesn't seem to address either the intellectual collapse of Usenet news groups or the role of character (or assumed identity) in public spaces such as MUDs and MOOs (for which see Janet Murray's Hamlet on The Holodeck, Espen Aarseth's Cybertext, or Sherry Turkle's Life On The Screen) .

Dyson's chapter on content filtering avoids joining the Internet pornography witch hunt, but still seems more conventional and less deeply considered than other chapters. A diversity of ratings and rating services, Dyson hopes, will let readers filter content without explicit regulation. The unconsidered problem, though, is that the rating criteria themselves deform what we can say and what we can hear; making something filterable insinuates that it is immoral.

Dyson advocates realistic idealism, an idealism based on sound business principles and real technological ideas

Boston Globe movie reviews, for example, warn people about smoking, drinking, and partially-exposed breasts -- the latter, notably, through cryptic euphemisms that seem to change from week to week. The list of what might be controversial comes to define the movie and suggests that all sorts of behaviors-- taking medication, talking back your elders -- are of dubious morality.

In an example from my own experience, I recently spoke at length with a teacher at a Catholic high school interested in introducing his students to a wide range of hypertext fiction. His school, he explained, was comfortable with the language and subject matter of contemporary fiction, but very averse to naughty pictures.

As it happens, few Eastgate titles have many pictures of any sort. In discussing Shelley Jackson's wonderful drawings in Patchwork Girl, however, it never occurred to me to point out that the iconography of Patchwork Girl is itself drawn from Medieval paintings of saints and martyrs: concentrating on body parts, both he and I lost all historical perspective. Ratings and filters, however voluntary, oddly skew our world if ideas.

But these are minor objections and peripheral debates -- exactly the sort of issues that a book like Release 2.0 ought to raise. Dyson closes with an ambitious outline, a Web-inspired "Design For Living", that may well prove the book's lasting legacy:

Dyson advocates realistic idealism, an idealism based on sound business principles and real technological ideas. It seems an obvious idea but, like many of the arguments in this fine book, it invites thought and reflection.

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