Journalist and tech investor Esther Dyson on using tech to manipulate ourselves
"If you want to change anything, you've got to be optimistic despite the evidence"
The Ideaspace publishes weekly interviews with authors, artists, designers, economists, researchers, venture capitalists, political activists, and others working on the frontiers of what’s valuable and in our self-interest.
Interviewee: Esther Dyson
Background: Journalist, tech analyst and investor, executive founder of Wellville
Topic: Using tech to manipulate ourselves
“What I want is for people to use tech to manipulate themselves. To understand what is being done to them through technology and to take over that power to manipulate themselves.” — Esther Dyson
Sup y’all. Welcome to the Ideaspace.
In the twilight hours of the pre-COVID world, I accepted an invitation to be a chauffeur. I would be driving the tech journalist and investor Esther Dyson from Chicago to a rural county in Michigan (Muskegon County), where I would observe her work for Wellville, a decade-long project Esther created and leads that tries to improve the prospects of communities facing tough times.
Esther doesn’t drive (though she is a former cosmonaut, as you’ll learn more about) and I was interested in following her for a book I was working on about Bentoist projects in real life. Wellville even uses the same two-by-two chart to illustrate their goal of creating Future Us value:
Because of COVID the trip didn’t happen, but a friendship with Esther did. Last year she became a regular at Bento events, and someone I’m always eager to learn from. In this conversation Esther shares insights on effective measurement, why she’s ready for technology let helps us manipulate ourselves, and the single best thing you can do for your health.
This interview is part of the Ideaspace’s series on Data Is Fire and posted as a transcript.
YANCEY: What’s the story behind Wellville?
ESTHER: I'm a journalist and my training is to ask questions. I was interviewing this guy long ago, Charlie Silver, who had a website called RealAge, which is basically about your real age versus your chronological age. It asks you a whole bunch of questions: Do you have a pet? Are you living with someone you love? How do you eat? How much sleep do you get? All these lifestyle questions help figure out whether you're likely to be in good shape for your age or not, and give you your “RealAge” versus your chronological age. The business model was basically to sell vitamins and supplements.
What was so fascinating was whom he had sold his previous business to: Jiffy Lube. I thought, Oh I see! The first thing was about maintaining your car. People often spend more time and money on that than they do on maintaining their own bodies — an interesting insight about body repair versus maintenance. We should really start looking at maintenance, health, and resilience differently, I thought. The more I looked at health care, the more I had to ask why is it we spend so much money fixing people instead of keeping them healthy?
The original idea was to have a contest with five communities. The understanding was that there shouldn't be a business model as much as a long-term return on investment for society. People in some sense are a fundamental public good: our population, our infrastructure, our human capital, the employers, the tax base, the creativity. Everything depends on our people. As a country we need to pay upfront to keep us all healthy — instead of clumsily trying to fix things when it's too late. That comes back to the Bento box: We need to invest collectively to keep us all healthy even though some of us can't afford that. It's a long-term return.
YANCEY: Wellville is set up as a ten-year project. You say the end goal is that the communities are owning and sustaining the changes they’ve made over the course of the ten-year project on their own.
ESTHER: Exactly. They own it. We're just coaches. We don't give them fish; we don't even tell them how to fish. We help them to build their own fishing schools. The whole point of it is that they didn't really need us, but we hope we can be a little helpful. Our hope is other communities will look at the Wellville communities and say “Hey, those guys aren't all geniuses. They're regular people. We can do this too.” It helps to have role models and examples. That’s how we want to scale and spread — not by growing Wellville itself, but by the Wellville communities inspiring others.
YANCEY: When you’re speaking with these communities are you making humanist arguments for health, like it's better for your community to be healthy, or are you trying to talk about long-term ROI? What language have you found to be most effective?
ESTHER: It's subtle. It really is like being a coach. We don't have this playbook that we go and preach in each community. In order to talk to people you have to listen first. So, we find the people who first of all asked us in [in 2014], the people who seem to be interested in making these longer-term changes, and then it varies. A lot of what you and I are talking about is not something people will argue with. They will simply forget about it in the heat of the moment. We're not trying to persuade them; we’re trying to remind them, whatever it takes. Someone who builds an app will tell you to show a picture of a grandchild to make the user think longer-term. We don't walk around with pictures of grandchildren, but there is a certain amount of reminding people what they're trying to achieve. “What could you do to actually prevent the problem rather than just “address” it? We try to help them focus on those long-term interests rather than the short-term, more self-centered ones.
YANCEY: Do you have a central metric that you track?
ESTHER: A good proxy is what's happening in the real estate business. Are people moving into town? Word gets out this is a great place to live, the kids grow up healthy, the neighbors are nice, and there's this community spirit. So if you ask me as a Martian coming down, I’d look at that. But we also look at the County Health Rankings, which unfortunately are pretty delayed. We look at disparities — whatever outcome you have, the disparities within it between blacks and whites or Latinos in every community. There's always a bunch of people who aren't making as much money, don't have as good education outcomes, tend not to be as healthy, and so forth. Measurement is less about “you should be X number” and more that your numbers should be getting better and the numbers should reflect more equity - which means more improvement among those left behind.
YANCEY: Are there things that you would recommend communities do for these changes to happen?
ESTHER: It’s people willing to do the extra work to collaborate rather than compete. Most people are well-meaning. They just need to be reminded to be thoughtful. It’s very specific. It’s more like raising a child or cultivating a garden than constructing a cabinet to meet a spec. You need to let the community fulfill its own potential. [Esther notes in an email follow-up: “h/t Alison Gopnik’s book”]
YANCEY: I really love a 2008 article you wrote called “The Quantification of Everything.” You highlight your love of measurement along with, quoting you, “the fact that the very act of measurement cheapens things.” Do you still think that's the case?
ESTHER: Cheapen is an interesting word. Measurement leaves out some of the things that matter. As long as you remember those things you're not measuring, measurement is very useful. But there's so many ways measurement can lead you astray, because most measures are just proxies for something that matters. They’re not the thing that matters itself. That's a problem for running a business or a country or a health and resilience program. Losing weight is great, but there are good ways to lose weight and bad ways. Getting a high grade on a test is great, but maybe if you memorize everything you don't really understand the concepts and it's not so great after all. On the other hand, if you don't measure something you just get lost. Because you can't see the change and you can't persuade people that whatever you're doing is valuable.
YANCEY: Right now there's a lot of skepticism of tech companies and data. There's fear of manipulation. What do you feel?
ESTHER: What I want is for people to understand and learn the ability to manipulate themselves. To understand what is being done to them and to say I want to do that for myself — for my own goals. I understand that if I go to the grocery store when I'm hungry I'm probably going to buy too much stuff. If I go to the grocery store today to buy my food for the week, I'll probably make better choices. There's this wonderful study done by Deborah Estrin at Cornell. If you plan and decide in advance what you’re going to eat and watch, the food you select and the video you watch will be different. Your video is likely to be slightly more intellectual and challenging, and your food is likely to be healthier for you. When you do it in advance it’s your planning self instead of your immediate-gratification self. That's why all these apps and websites are trying to get you to buy now when you see the thing. You feel that sudden hit of dopamine which isn’t about pleasure, it's about anticipation of pleasure and relief of anxiety. “1-click” is probably the unhealthiest invention of the last few decades, up there with opioids. We need a bit of friction to think right.
There's another study I love where they were trying to get kids to eat healthier. Of course you can give people information all the time about what's good for you, but they found the best way to get teenage boys to eat healthier was to tell them that the man was trying to make them unhealthy. If they want to be healthy they should make their own choices to eat healthy foods. That was more successful. Give people a reason, a goal, and tools to manipulate themselves and they'll take advantage of that.
YANCEY: Do you feel optimistic about the future?
ESTHER: I'm a journalist and a cynic and I know all the things that are wrong. It's my job to understand people's devious motives and see behind the bullshit. But at the same time I'm an optimist. If you want to change anything, you've got to be optimistic despite the evidence. If you're pessimistic and you don't do anything, clearly good things won’t happen. If you're optimistic and you try, sometimes you succeed. And it's just more fun to be an optimist. I certainly enjoy the intellectual stimulation of cynicism, but I want to live my life as an optimist.
YANCEY: You trained to be a cosmonaut. What stands out to you about that experience today?
ESTHER: I forget the amount, but I had to pay on the order of $100,000 for an insurance policy, and I wasn't even likely to go into space. The guy who I was understudying for presumably paid more. Four months before the launch, he was bitten on the training campus by a rabid dog. He ended up having the requisite fourteen shots, and then he went into space and everything was fine. But it was ironic: everybody was so scared of dying in space and the real threat was a rabid dog.
Another thing I remember more fondly: When we went out to the launch site in Baikonur in Kazakhstan, it was the two actual American astronauts, one cosmonaut, and then the three backups. I was one of the backups. There were these three ladies who cooked food for us. They brought it out themselves with such pleasure. The context was “this may be your last meal on Earth — we want you to enjoy it.” They cooked and delivered the food with love and purpose. That was so amazing and just delicious.
YANCEY: You've been coming to Bento events for a while. What draws you to it?
ESTHER: I love the way you think. It’s both useful for me and Wellville in what I'm thinking about, and in meeting other people similarly inclined. We all agree that to build a better world you need to think across boundaries and over time. Things don't happen immediately.
YANCEY: Last question is a fill in the blank. “The best thing you can do for your health is:___”
ESTHER: The best thing you can do for your health is to have purpose. Having purpose makes you happy. It gives you a reason to stay healthy and not go out and do stupid things, because you want to be useful and have the capacity to meet people. Over this last year you and I have been privileged with purpose. We are both lucky and happy — and useful! — because we have something useful to do and we have the capacity to do it. The answer is purpose.
Esther’s tech newsletter archive going back to the 1980s (recommended!)
The Ideaspace is published by The Bento Society, which hosts weekly events and supports projects exploring the frontiers of what's valuable and in our self-interest. A new experience called How to be a Bentoist starts February 10. Learn more here.
Thank you Esther for the wonderful conversation and for sharing your wisdom.
Peace and love my friends,