Esther Dyson’s Internet utopia.

Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age
By Esther Dyson
Broadway Books; 224 pages; $25

If you grew up in the 1950s, as I did, it’s nearly impossible to watch the rise of the Internet without thinking back to the rise of television, way back when. A powerful new technology occasioned an enormous amount of hyperventilation about the new medium’s potential as an agent of change–change (it almost goes without saying) that would demonstrably improve the society. Television would be the greatest educational force ever created. It would not just entertain but also enlighten. High-mindedness would reign. Et cetera, et cetera.

Some five decades have passed, and we know all about television now. We know, for instance, that while television’s effect on society has been large, it hasn’t been especially high-minded. Television has come to be much more about sweeps week than about uplifting the culture. It seems fair to say that, in part as a result of our experience with television, we tend to shy away from making grandiose claims for new technologies anymore. We’ve become warier. It’s been a long time since we’ve fallen for the grand promise of a new technological marvel.

Which is why the hoopla surrounding the Internet is so bewildering. Where is all that hard-won cynicism that now marks the American character? It vanishes as soon as the subject turns to the Internet and its alleged power to transform our lives. Suddenly, we are innocents again, just as in the 1950s, willing to believe just about any claim about the Internet’s promise. Not only can the Internet help free citizens from the tyranny of oppressive governments, not only can it make investors wealthier and citizens more active and students more eager to learn, but it can also enhance the experience of watching a ballgame by allowing you to interact with a commentator while the game is still going on! (I’m still trying to figure out why anybody would want to do that.)

More surprising yet, Internet proselytizing is often led by actual smart people–people like Esther Dyson. Dyson is, without question, one of the computer industry’s Really Big Thinkers. She’s on a first-name basis with all the computer moguls. (In her acknowledgments she coyly thanks “all the Bills I have known.”) Her industry confabs drip with cachet. And her newsletter, Release 1.0, may well be the single most indispensable publication in all of technologydom, full of insightful analysis and trend-spotting in the best sense of the word. Her profile is high enough that the publisher felt justified in putting her face on the cover of her new book, which is titled Release 2.0. (Dyson says that the paperback edition, when it comes out, will be called Release 2.1. Cute.)

Unfortunately, the sharpness that characterizes her newsletter is nowhere to be found in her book. “I live on the Net,” writes Dyson–and it shows. For one thing, her prose more closely resembles a series of e-mail missives than a rigorous argument. All that e-mailing she does appears to have caused her to forget how to write more than four consecutive paragraphs at a time. More crucially, her “design for living in the digital age,” as the subtitle puts it, comes across as a cross between New Age philosophy and 1950s hyperbole. Critical thinking has been replaced by wishful thinking.

What Dyson essentially believes is that if we would just embrace the Net, we could make the world a better place. Really. For instance, the Net will help create wonderful communities of like-minded people whose interactions are spirited but always fair-minded–just like Dyson’s interactions with the Net communities she’s involved in. This will happen because people will gravitate toward communities where they share interests and respect the views of others in the community. (Dyson never quite gets around to explaining what happens to those who tend to disrupt those nurturing Net communities.) She believes the Net will allow “those who want freedom [to] be able to work on their own terms without sacrificing as much as they must today.” In other words, the Net will free people from the need to work for large organizations in order to make a decent living. In Dyson’s view, this will be particularly good for obnoxious people. “People who aren’t much fun to work with will be able to become more independent,” is how she phrases it.

And on and on. The Net will foster truth-telling and fuller disclosure in all sorts of areas. It will allow people to be anonymous when it suits them and to be themselves when that suits them. If people’s secrets are somehow revealed on the Net, well, that could be good too. (“At the same time, we may all become more tolerant if everyone’s flaws are more visible.”) And, my personal favorite, Dyson believes that the explosion of Internet content will somehow “bring back new respect for people, for personal attention, for service, and for human interaction.”

Underlying all her prognostications on work, security, privacy, and so on is one central, and rather circular, idea. If the Internet is going to live up to its potential, says Dyson, we need to be nicer to each other. As she puts it, “One purpose of this book is to encourage people to make the mainstream of cyberspace nice enough that people will want to live their social lives there.” But she also seems to believe that if we would start spending more of our social lives on the Net, that would help make us nicer, since the culture of the Internet will inevitably foster “niceness.”

N iceness, in fact, permeates this book–everything Dyson says, she tries to say as nicely as possible. This is true even when she’s conceding that not everyone in cyberspace is as nice as she is. “It may not be nice to say it,” she writes at one point, “but people are not all always nice, and therefore a little social pressure can be a good thing.” See how nice that was?

There are two problems with this emphasis on niceness, one small and one large. The small problem is that as virtues go, niceness is wildly overrated. Nice books, for instance, are usually bland books–as this one is. More to the point, for people who are trying to get something done, too much niceness is likely to get in the way. Very few of Dyson’s Silicon Valley CEO friends are “nice,” except maybe to her.

The larger problem is that the Internet is simply not going to make us nicer people–nor are we going to become nicer just because we want to see the Internet reach its full potential. The notion is ludicrous on the face of it. No matter how much information gets loaded into it, the Internet is never going to transform the dynamics of human behavior. At least not for the better. In fact, the evidence thus far is quite depressing in this regard. As anyone who has spent any time in a chat room knows, the bad tends to drive out the good. Which, when you think about it, is pretty much the way it happens in the offline world.

My own bet is that by 2004–a year in which Dyson places many of her predictions–books like hers will seem like artifacts from a more gullible age. We won’t be making extravagant claims for the Internet anymore, but will accept that it’s just a tool–sometimes extremely useful, sometimes not. Some of what is on it will be very good, a lot of it will be junk. It’ll be just like television. And no one will be nicer.