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Under The Microscope

RELEASE 2.0 -- A DESIGN FOR LIVING IN THE DIGITAL AGE by Esther Dyson; Penguin Books, 1997; 307 pages; $34.95 hardback.

Reviewed by Craig Webster

In this book, Dyson presents us with her view of how society will be changed by the power of computers, the Internet and the ubiquitous information they offer. Distance is of no consequence to on-line communities, neither are time differences. Everyone's just a mouse-click away and so, to some extent, hierarchies are flattened and decision-making tends to be more distributed and communal. Wielding influence over others by controlling the information they have access to is also more difficult in a networked world.

For example, in many industries (particularly the rapidly changing networked ones in which Dyson circulates), an unhappy employee can more easily put out the word that they are looking for a new job without giving the fact away to their present boss. The Internet also makes it harder for governments to censure information coming into their country and to control information leaving it about undesirable government activities such as human-rights violations (one reason why China remains wary of the Internet).

I found some of the book a little self-satisfied -- Dyson drops the names of a lot of important people she knows without always making the relevance of this obvious. Also some of her enthusiasm for free markets and how they are transforming the Russian economy seems a little overstated considering Russian economics is now even more corrupt and dysfunctional than it was under communism.

Dyson's discussion of education also makes it plain that she is a wealthy American -- you can learn a lot from the Internet as long as you have a computer to plug into it; right now the vast majority of the world's population do not. A computer also has a higher unit cost than a book and needs to be replaced more often to be useful, which makes on-going Internet access relatively expensive. Increasingly large chunks of school and university budgets are now spent on continually upgrading computers rather than on books and staff which remain the most reliable source of education.

These criticisms aside, Dyson is at her best when discussing issues of privacy, intellectual property, anonymity, encryption, communication and advertising, and how these will be changed and challenged by widespread Internet access. Her discussion in these chapters makes reading the book worthwhile and introduces many fascinating ideas which may become standard features of Internet communication in the future.

E-cash may allow advertisers to pay you to read their unsolicited e-mail advertising thus controlling today's indiscriminate junk e-mail. Such a system will also allow you to specify how much an advertiser has to pay before their advertising will be brought to your attention by your e-mail sorting agent rather than being deleted automatically. Collaborative rating schemes and more advanced internet protocols may soon allow Internet content to be more usefully labelled, greatly assisting search engines in finding the treasure amongst the trash. Users' attention has become a commodity which companies vie for, but they must do so by negotiating with increasingly empowered individual users. The future of the Internet then seems likely to be tailored to the wants of individuals rather than being a mass media.

Craig Webster is currently a clinical researcher in the Anaesthetics Department at Auckland's Green Lane Hospital.