With interests spanning healthcare, genetics and private space travel, Esther Dyson is one of the world’s leading polymaths, philanthropists and investors. Here, she shares her mental inbox: 10 trends, ideas and projects that are capturing her attention right now.
With the advent of open data (including school attendance and grades, health measures, traffic and infrastructure conditions, energy use per capita, employment and crime rates), it’s easier than ever for a community to quantify itself – especially if a local news organisation teams up with citizens to collect and analyse the data.
Online social networks give individuals a sense of dignity that they often lack under an autocratic government. These are places where citizens can be disappeared. But once you’re on a social network – in full view of all your friends – you develop both an identity that cannot be so easily erased and courage reinforced by the visibility of others you know.
I don’t drive a car, so in the Bay Area I often use the San Francisco subway system (BART) and CalTrain. But on my last visit, my niece told me about the #5 bus. Checking it out on my iPhone, I discovered a whole new world of mass transit crisscrossing San Francisco, with real-time updates that make it a viable option for getting around. How many other things will our mobile phones reveal if we only take the trouble to look?
There are three ‘health’ markets: the well-known one of doctors, clinics and medicine. Then there’s ‘bad‘ health: recreational drugs, cigarettes, alcohol. Finally, there’s the market for health itself, enabled by new tools and devices for self-monitoring, and also social apps that use game dynamics and other psychosocial insights to encourage healthy behaviour. In the long run, I’d rather pay for people to be healthy than pay for the social costs of poor health.
One of the best books I’ve ever read is Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. It points out the emotional downside of freedom. People with no choice can always blame others for their situation, whereas those with choices face the possibility of regret. Being free is not just an opportunity; it’s also a challenge. Not everyone lives up to it.
Within 100 years, there’s about a 50 percent chance of an asteroid impact on Earth more devastating than the one that struck Tunguska with the energy of about 700 Hiroshima bombs in 1908. It’s now possible to detect them in advance, but there’s no budget to do so. And yet if we did detect one, governments would quickly pool their resources and change its course. That’s why former NASA astronaut Ed Lu formed the B612 Foundation (I am in its Founders’ Circle). For the price of a medium-size hospital wing, we are launching a space mission to detect and map half a million asteroids and, potentially, save humankind.
Despite the hype/fear about genes predicting your future, they are simply symbols pointing to conditions you may have. People who have their genes sequenced now are often benefactors rather than beneficiaries. In the end, the probabilities of all the different ways you can die still add up to only 100 percent – or slightly less if you believe in life extension!
In the developing world, cell phones are ‘capital equipment’ (something that’s used to make a product or provide a service), allowing millions of individuals to become producers without an employer. For example, farmers can get the necessary information to buy seeds and sell crops at optimal prices; while unemployed youths can become market researchers, defining their own jobs and, ultimately, their own lives.
While the Chinese laid on a tightly choreographed visual techno-feast with thousands of people in perfect synchronisation, Danny Boyle created an amazing jazz-like celebration in which thousands of people, mostly volunteers, moved about freely as individuals in self-organising harmony, mirroring the UK’s actual history of free agents creating great art, music and lasting institutions.
Lots of start-ups today are focused on personalisation and curation. Who does that leave to produce real, enterprise news where a smart reporter gets an angle targeted at a specific community? One of my favourite examples: Hotel/Motel Weekly covered the OJ Simpson trial by interviewing the manager of the hotel where the jury was sequestered, offering a unique spin on a well-covered story.