Esther Dyson

Age: 51

Claim to fame: What Dyson thinks about technology has mattered for more than two decades. She was one of the most influential people -- and the first important woman -- in the early days of the PC industry. Equally comfortable in the worlds of technology, business and politics (though she has never voted), she stands today as a trenchant shaper of the Internet, having chaired both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

Her newsletter, "Release 1.0," which she took over from venture capitalist Ben Rosen in 1983, was a make-or-break for companies in the early days of the PC business. It continues to influence technology leaders, as does her PC Forum. Starting in 1989, she became heavily involved in developing an IT sector in Eastern Europe, and now she also runs High-Tech Forum in Europe. She has become an active venture capitalist, as well.

In her book Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age (1997, hardcover, out of print); and its revision, Release 2.1: A Design for Living in the Digital Age (1998, paperback, available), Dyson explains how technology affects society, now and in the future.

What she's doing now: Chairman of EDventure Holdings Inc. in New York

There are times when you've seemed bored with IT. Are you bored now? No, now I'm excited again. We're getting to a really interesting point with digital identity. The reason I went to Russia in 1989 is because IT was getting boring. Software was turning into a distribution business; groupware I'd written about. Now we've created this big virtual world full of data, but it's not terribly connected to the real world, and we're trying to actually integrate the two.

What do you think is going to matter, as you look at the digital-identification world? What's interesting now is sort of the lack of ephemerality. Everything that ever happened, everything you ever said, any place you ever were is now searchable. So I think you'll have less privacy, but you'll also expect less. If you talk to kids now, they know they're leaving a slime trail everywhere.

Slime trail. Very interesting. And that'll be sort of a cultural shift, that we're all going to say OK to this? It's interesting because you can embarrass anyone. In the past, you had to be important to be embarrassable. So I think we've become somehow less sensitive to it.

Is there technology coming that will change business the way the PC or groupware did? They're all extensions of each other. I mean, let's make groupware more usable, etc. In terms of really big things, it's going to be biotech, nothing to do with computers. And I think we all know that. But I'm not giving up on IT.

So what are the big advances in IT in the next five to 10 years? In general terms, ubiquity. Wherever you go, you'll be online. It'll be a thing we just take for granted. All this knowledge management stuff will be much more effective. We'll be more effective in communications. We'll have much better tools for keeping track of what you're doing. All these things will have collaboration tools. We'll still have monitors, because they're nice to look at. But we'll also have monitors that are like roll-up sheets. I saw a keyboard like that recently, that we put on a bar in London. It shines the image of a keyboard onto a flat surface and has a little camera that picks up where you type.

Has the IT business crested? No. If you've dealt with an airline or a bank, you know they haven't finished building better systems. There's all the knowledge management stuff -- so much to know and keep track of. It's painful to sit and put records into a database, so more and more of that will be automatically selected from e-mail. In good companies, your privacy will be protected.

But, also, there are incredibly stupid design errors with technology. Companies can be so unintelligent, and unfortunately, it's not necessarily a question of better technology; it's a question of better designers using the tools that are there. I do think we'll make some progress, but I don't think everyone will be a great designer.

So there's a long, long way to go, even in the U.S. And in the rest of the world, the opportunities are huge.

Fitzgerald is a freelance writer in Oakland, Calif. Contact him at mikelark@juno.com.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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