The Inforati Files
By Tim Devaney and Tom Stein
Esther Dyson certainly knows how to handle large volumes of information. Her résumé shows her to be a consummate multitasker. She is a board member of approximately 20 foundations, corporations, and associations. She's a limited partner in the Mayfield Software Fund and the chair of EDventure Holdings, which she started. Recently, she has taken an interest in private space flight.
Meanwhile, Dyson remains one of the premier sources for analysis of information technology and its impact. We reached her at her office in New York City.
When did you first recognize the power of information?
My brother and I were always trying to one-up each other, and the most devastating thing I could say was that I already knew something he told me.
You were in on the ground floor of the information explosion. Will information continue to grow so rapidly in importance?
That's like asking if energy will continue to grow in importance. It's so true that it's not a very useful statement.
What about the role of information in the economy? Will information be more commodified in the future?
Some information will. But the value always lies in the information that's not commodified. That's what a fluid economy is: Things lose value and the new things have value, so you need to keep creating new things with new information. The decay time is getting shorter and shorter.
Do you think people ever feel overwhelmed by information?
Not just information but choice. It used to be you lived your life, and there were three girls you could marry or three boys you could marry and two careers you could have, and you lived in the city you were born in. You might have a good life or a bad life, but you dealt with it. Now everything is possible. If you don't find the putative perfect person, you can go online and choose from hundreds of thousands. So if you make a bad match, it must be your fault. If you don't have the perfect career when all these career options are open, it's your fault. People both are and feel much more accountable: If their lives aren't perfect, they can feel it's their fault. That's a heavy burden.
How do you manage information?
I have my PC and my cellphone, which now gets e-mail. I don't have a phone at home. I threw out my landline 20 years ago, not because I was replacing it with a cellphone but because I didn't want to be called at home. The message here is: Don't let these things run you. You can always unplug your phone.
But we hate to feel we're missing something. And now there's so much more to miss.
People are trying to make you feel you're missing something. That's called marketing.
What are your top information sources?
E-mail and talking to people. Most of what I want to know isn't posted yet.
Do you have any information heroes?
Larry Lessig is one, although I don't agree with everything he says. George Orwell. I'm concerned about this belief that information will set you free. Information will set you free only if you have the courage to use it and act on it.
Is there a piece of information you'd like to get your hands on?
I'm a research subject for geneticist George Church's personal genome project. There are 10 of us. We've had our genomes sequenced and we're going to put our genomes, along with all of our medical records, up on the Internet. There's value in having this information available. People can study it, produce better drugs, and understand genetic tendencies. It's also going to raise a whole lot of legal, ethical, and political questions that need to be raised.
So the information I would really like to have right now is all my medical records—that's the test line. They are on paper; they are distributed all over the world; and the people who have them don't send them to me because they are scared they are going to break privacy regulations.
You're involved in space exploration.
Yes, space exploration and space tourism—the privatization and decentralization of air and space, which is unleashing huge amounts of commercial energy and innovation. Entrepreneurs and venture capital will make space travel move much faster and increase the chances that I'll get into space before I die.