As information technology spreads more widely into every aspect of society via the Internet, the captains behind the ivy-clad walls of traditional power are increasingly eager to hear the ruminations of their counterparts in technology. Thus, no less a technology personage than Intel chairman Andrew Grove was invited to speak last week at a Harvard University conference on the Internet and society in Cambridge, Mass.
Grove was in no way bowed by Harvard's august surroundings, and he wasn't reluctant to chide the university on its status as a nonprofit organization, and to question the business value of a lot of e-commerce efforts.
As a number of dot-coms roll over and die, a phenomenon duly noted in several somewhat sluggish sessions at the conference, Grove noted that, while this is a fantastic era for wealth creation, the real value of what is being created should probably be questioned. "This is a great period of wealth creation -- but are we creating value?" he asked.
At the outset, Grove said he had specific messages to deliver to the various Internet constituencies represented at the conference. He first singled out the government. "For government," he said, mimicking the Hippocratic oath, "the message is: 'First, do no harm.'"
He called for adherence to democratic principles as a general recipe for dealing with the tumult of Internet-engendered change, and pointed to the open source software movement as a useful example of how a type of chaotic democracy can eventually achieve a useful consensus. He said the future will be as much about what the government doesn't do as what it does regarding Internet regulation in the areas of intellectual property rights, privacy, and commerce.
The government has avoided pitfalls so far, he said, lauding the fact that we don't have a Department of the Internet, Federal Internet Commission, or bit tax.
During a question-and-answer period following his speech, he demurred from addressing the highly public federal litigation against Microsoft, which centers to a great extent on Internet browser software.
Grove is becoming as famed for his conceptualization of the inflection point (a change so powerful that it fundamentally alters the way business is done) as for his management of microprocessor powerhouse Intel. The Internet is only the greatest inflection point Intel has encountered in the last 10 years, he observed, and not the biggest the company has seen in its history. Yet he noted that the Internet has ushered in changes of a great magnitude in a very brief time.
"Embrace that which confounds you most," he said, addressing both government, academic, and traditional business leaders who must confront the Internet inflection point.
Increasingly, privacy and property are contentious -- and related -- issues on the Internet. For Grove, the issue is relatively straightforward. "The data gathered 'at Web sites' about people is an asset for a company. It is property. I don't think that property that's made out of bits should ultimately be treated differently than property made of atoms," he said.
Soon after his Harvard appearance, Grove headed to Washington D. C. to appear before a U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee on high technology. There he repeated some of his comments on property and atoms, and surprised some senators and many colleagues when he said that an Internet sales tax was, in his opinion, something worthy of consideration.