Network: The digital life of Esther Dyson

She can't remember the last time she went on holiday and only goes home to sleep. So does that make `the most powerful woman in cyberspace' a lonely workaholic? Far from it. Melanie McGrath finds she's a woman madly in love... with ideas

Melanie McGrath
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:46

I think of who I am as what I've done," says Esther Dyson. It is 11am and the woman The New York Times described as "the most influential woman in all the computer world" has already conducted a breakfast meeting, given a press interview, answered a few dozen e-mails, ploughed the hotel swimming pool and been mistaken for Jenny Seagrove by a passing film journalist.

Dyson doesn't like to waste time. It is a relief, she says, to realise that she "doesn't have to do everything". But then, she's already made millions and become a successful venture capitalist, publisher, technological consultant and "one of the 50 most influential people in the New Establishment", according to Vanity Fair. Her company, EDventure Holdings, publishes the acclaimed hi-tech newsletter Release 1.0 and runs PC Forum, the industry's brightest talkshop. Her venture capital fund, EDventure Ventures, nurtures hi-tech start-ups in Eastern Europe and she sits on the boards of organisations as diverse as the Eurasia Foundation and the Russian Centre for Internet Technologies. She has the ear of both Bills - Gates and Clinton - and her first book about the Net, Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, (recently revised and published in paperback as Release 2.1) cornered her a $1m advance and The New York Times's encomium as "the most powerful woman in the Net-erati". Dyson herself is not particularly keen on the epithet. She agrees that it is probably true, "though unfortunately that's not saying much".

At 47, Esther Dyson still looks remarkably girlish. Her hair is cut an impish crop, bleached a weird orange-brown by her daily swim, she fidgets on her seat and she is dressed in a disconcerting mess of tweedy jacket, shapeless pink jumper and mangy jeans, suggestive both of effort and unworldliness.

After the publication of Release 2.0, Dyson was criticised for being unrealistic about the Net's prospects, but she insists that her optimism is reserved not for the Net itself, "which is just a medium", but for the people using it.

"If you give individuals more power, they'll probably do more good things than bad things and so I'm in favour of giving individuals power and responsibility and respect," she says. "My power isn't making people do things, which is what Bill Gates can do, it's making people see things. I can only explain to people why they should do something. They'll do it if I make sense."

Fortunately, she generally succeeds. Only a year on from its first publication, many of the innovations Dyson advocated in Release 2.0 - such as anti- spam measures and better tools for privacy - are already being introduced into Net commerce. "I won't say I was wholly responsible, but I was certainly instrumental in some of those things," Dyson remarks.

It is this unbending faith in her own ability to affect things that explains part of Dyson's success. Touted as one of the Net's visionaries, Dyson's greatest talents lie more accurately in analysis, strategy and policy- making. It is for these that the US government has recently appointed her chairwoman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), the international organisation that has been set up to oversee the privatisation of the Net's complex addressing system.

Dyson has other avenues of influence, too. It was Dyson who suggested to Bill Gates that Microsoft invest more heavily in her beloved Russia. And though there's no way of knowing whether Gates acted directly on her advice, she's quick to point out that Microsoft has increased its Russian presence.

Gates was once a regular at Dyson's PC Forum and has been quoted as saying "What [Esther Dyson] writes about is what I'm interested in". And though the association seems to have cooled of late, Dyson still appears to be faintly obsessed by the B-word. Gates, she notes, "has become an object, and people project a lot of things on to him - `the richest man in America' - and I'm an object, too, so people project their own fantasies - `the most powerful woman on the Net' - on to me."

There are other, less welcome byproducts of Dyson's Net celebrity status. At 47, unmarried and famously driven, the woman who cannot remember when she last went on holiday and only goes back to her apartment "to sleep and sometimes to read" is often portrayed as a lonely workaholic in need of a life, "the theory being that I'm so intellectual and arid and brittle and digital that I have no human feelings". This, she insists, is simply not true.

If anything, Dyson wears her heart on her sleeve. It's just that her heart is already taken up. The greatest loves of her life are and always have been ideas.

Everything in her background suggested a career in academe. At 14, she was fluent in French and German and already learning Russian because "my father had been to Russia a couple of times so we knew that Russians were good even though the Soviets were bad and I thought, why not?" The daughter of a prominent mathematician and a famous scientist, Dyson spent her childhood surrounded by intellectuals and their concerns. At 16, she was studying economics at Harvard. It was a heady existence. "My younger brother and I were expected to be clever, everyone was clever - my parents, the other kids at school, the Nobel Prize winners who would come to our house for dinner," she has said.

When Dyson was five, her mother, the Swiss mathematician Verna Huber- Dyson, took a lover, quit the family and moved to California. Dyson has herself claimed - rather implausibly - that she was unaffected by her mother's departure. Her father, the eminent British astrophysicist, Freeman Dyson, remembers the five-year-old Esther exclaiming: "Who needs a mother once the milk has gone?"

Perhaps as a result of that rather fundamental abandonment, Dyson grew up with a furious ambition to succeed. Like many children of famous parents, she had to struggle to make her mark. "The whole reason I went into the commercial world was in some sense to establish my own identity," she insists. Unsurprisingly, she identified more strongly with her father than her mother as a child and admits that even now she is drawn to "what are perceived as masculine values". Oddly, she claims not to be proud of her father. "I think he's a great guy, but how can I be proud of something that just happened to me?"

She is, she says, "glad to be a woman", but is anxious not to be seen to be a spokeswoman for her sex. "I have enough respect for women to know that they're all different and don't want the same things." Dyson's proclamations on her sex are clearly self-serving. "The moment you treat something as a women's issue, it's not considered to be serious," she says, though if she were to take up, say, the issue of ensuring women equal access to technology, it seems unlikely that her views would be ignored.

She says she values the traditionally "feminine" values of communication and collaboration that are at the heart of Net culture but does not see that as reason to be an advocate for women. "The greatest power I have is to show that a woman can be on the Net and be a person rather than a woman," she argues. "What people need is role models, not exhortations."

She rejects the idea that being a woman gives her responsibilities towards other women but claims that it has given her an affinity for "people who are ignored".

Which is where Russia comes in. Dyson is a frequent visitor and it is clear she takes her Russian interests very seriously. She recently sank the reported $1m advance for Release 2.0 into the Russian computer industry and intends to increase her investments there.

Dyson's almost fetishistic enthusiasm for the erstwhile evil empire seems to have little to do with personal enrichment. Money is rarely her primary motivation. Already a multimillionaire, she dresses uneventfully, takes the subway and has lived in the same Manhattan apartment for a quarter of a century. Her only indulgences appear to be first-class air travel and slick hotels.

Perhaps her love affair with Russia is easier to understand in the context of Dyson's own extraordinary restlessness. Russia is, if nothing else, a country in flux and by her own account Dyson loves change. "I thrive on newness and adapting to things and dealing with circumstances," she says. "I pride myself on my ability to ride change."

All of which makes her perfectly placed to be chair of Icann. The system, which allocates domain names and matches them with numerical addresses, was administered until autumn last year under US government contract by a private company, Network Solutions.

At Icann, Dyson's somewhat daunting task will be to rationalise the existing system and to create for it a genuinely international administrative architecture. The kinds of problems that Icann will have - literally - to address range from how to handle non-Western alphabets to disputes over who gets what name.

"I'm going to spend a lot of time going around talking to people, which is what I enjoy," says Dyson about her new role. The new set-up will effectively free the Internet from US government control, creating a series of naming protocols which fully reflect the Net's now well established international and commercial character.

"Clearly, what we are doing is important because it is a model for governance, and when your jurisdiction extends outside a single country, as it does with us, you have a lot of responsibility to do it right, which we won't. There will be a lot of trial and error."

Dyson seems vague about the details. "It will probably be `he who pays the most gets the name'," she shrugs, and a look of mild irritation spreads across her face when I ask how that will serve anyone but the big corporations. "I don't think anyone is going to be paying a huge amount for, say, my mother's name," she says. But what if your mother were called by Walt Disney because the name had already been "bought" by the entertainment giant? I suggest. "Well, maybe she'll have to call herself Walt X Disney on the Net," Dyson sighs. "It's not the world's greatest tragedy." Perhaps not, but it is a surprising response from the woman who claims to "represent the little guy".

It is those little guys who make up most of Dyson's flotilla of e-mail correspondents. She gets between 500 and 1,500 messages a day, and still answers most of them personally. Her capacity for work is legendary. It's the kind of life that most people would find rootless and wearisome, but Dyson adores it.

"Workaholism is what you do to escape your life," she insists, "but I'm telling you I'm happy. If I had nothing better to do I'd love to go to the theatre, read novels, play with my nieces, go to movies and sit on the beach, but the things I'm doing tend to be more interesting."

Does Dyson's emotional investment in her work serve to protect her from the ordinary disenchantments of everyday life, I wonder? She looks at me dryly. "You have your theories."

It is this contradictory aspect that makes Esther Dyson both beguiling and exhausting. While her personality is, by her own admission, almost spookily self-contained, she appears blessed with a genuinely unwavering appetite for new people and new ideas. A part of her is still innocent, still questing, still in the process of becoming.

A while ago the most influential woman in the computer world had a dream that has gripped her imagination. It was about the year 2030 in the dream. She was living in an old people's home, and her fellow companions were trying to persuade her to go out dancing with them. "But I didn't want to go. I realised I no longer found the world interesting. I knew that I was ready to die," she recalls.

However, her face lights up as she tells the tale. She thanks the photographer and checks her watch for the next appointment. "And you know what?" she continues. "It was a really happy feeling."

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