Postrel interviews Dyson (10 years ago, but still)

sat9dec2006—49w343d93%— 01h58m00s—0utc

Techguru Esther Dyson^ WP, EDGE ^ (who, I just learned, is Freeman Dyson WP’s daughter) on freedom under communist Russia (and why it was, bizarrely, like bestiality), online smut, intellectual property (long live intellectual process!), failure, and changing the world in a 1996 interview with Virginia Postrel for Reason mag.

Dyson:..what made the [Russian Communist] system so devastating was that it was your neighbors, the factory where you worked — your entire life was circumscribed by people who were similarly under the yoke. It’s a very interesting, strange thing. I have a lot of close Russian friends who are open. And I keep trying to ask them, “What was it like growing as a child? What did your parents tell you? When did you know the system was bad?” You never get a clear, American answer. The answer I actually came up with is — I tried this before and it works — how much do you think about bestiality?

Reason: Me? It does not really cross my mind, except vis à vis Internet censorship.

Dyson: But you don’t think about not thinking about bestiality. You don’t remember your parents telling you that this was disgusting and you shouldn’t think of it. It wasn’t something that if you were a normal kid you thought about a lot. And as a grownup you don’t remember not thinking about it.

And if you said to a Russian 10 or 15 years ago, “So how often do you think about making a profit?,” the answer would be sort of the same: “I don’t think about making a profit except when you talk about the bad American system. But why would I think about it? It’s not that I remember my parents telling me that it was bad. I just sort of knew growing up it just wasn’t something you discussed. People weren’t supposed to want to make a profit.”

So it’s very hard, even now — there is so much fuzziness in how Russians think about most of the world. It wasn’t bestiality, it was making a profit. It was freedom. It was being able to talk about things. It was that the police were always on the take and you couldn’t say it. There was so much that you just weren’t supposed to think about. A lot of our traditions of thinking clearly about things and resolving conflicts just aren’t part of the normal psyche there. And that’s why you go to Russia and they expect the government to set free market prices.

Reason: [What do you think about this newspaper article,] “No Sure-Fire Way to Shield Children from Online Smut.” This basically argues that neither the law nor the various kinds of software screens that are out there can be a surefire way to shield children.

Dyson: Just as rules about bookstores and the age of children going into movies aren’t enough to shield them from film smut or book smut or buying cigarettes. The world is imperfect. Part of the problem is when we bring in a new technology we expect it to be perfect in a way that we don’t expect the world that we’re familiar with to be perfect.

Reason: Some people, such as EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow, have suggested that copyright is obsolete, that we should do away with protection for intellectual property.

Dyson: I have a more complicated point of view. I think copyright is moral, proper. I think a creator has the right to control the disposition of his or her works — I actually believe that the financial issue is less important than the integrity of the work, the attribution, that kind of stuff. But I also feel that often anyone who attempts to enforce that too fiercely ends up being shunted aside, because the best way to get your works known is to give them away for free. I think that the use of copyright is going to change dramatically. Part of it is economics. There is just going to be so much content out there — there’s a scarcity of attention. Information consumes attention, and there’s too much information. The notion is simply that attempting to make money off copies of things is usually not the right business strategy. It is an entirely moral and proper approach, but it’s rarely going to be effective.

Reason: So what kind of strategies do you foresee?

Dyson: From the business point of view — not to overstate it — intellectual property is dead; long live intellectual process. Long live service; long live performance. The intellectual assets should be distributed for free, and then you should use them as advertising to charge for speaking, consulting, for software support — for T-shirts. The Lion King is great advertising for T-shirts, baseball caps, lunch boxes. To me Java [software] is advertising for Sun Microsystems.. people are much less likely to pay for one copy. They will pay for a stream, for a performance, an experience.

Dyson: I had a lot of successes, but what really made me fearless was my complete failure at Ziff-Davis [where she was hired to start a newspaper, which flopped]. Once you’ve lived through that, you know you can survive, and you’re not as scared. Everybody should have a real failure, ideally when they are pretty young, that gives them a sense of confidence. I think that was one of Steve Jobs’s problems. He was successful for way too long before it finally hit him. There’s nothing to build confidence like real achievement, but also like real failure.

Reason: Bouncing back from real failure.

Dyson: Genuine achievement gives you a sense that you can do stuff. And genuine failure gives you a sense that you can survive being imperfect. Because the delusion that you’re perfect — or that if you just do the right thing, things will always work out OK — makes you resistant to change and fearful of failure. Again, you’d rather not discover that you’re imperfect, that maybe what you were doing was wrong. The more people can go through those discoveries the better.

Reason: Why do you want to change the world?

Dyson: It’s more fun than not changing the world. I’ve said this so many times, but if I were a maid, I’d like a dirty room. I like building things. But again, I’d rather be a gardener than in construction. I’d rather go out and water the plants and clear the path for the sun to shine and have them grow themselves. You can grow a lot more plants than you can ever build individual things. The plants do their own work. You just help them.

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