A virtual roundtable
Seven thought leaders sound off on how connectivity is changing the planet.

(FORTUNE Magazine) -- Thomas Malone MA Director, Center for Collective Intelligence MIT

In the 20th century we saw the success of the large, hierarchical, centralized corporation on an unprecedented scale. But our models of good management depend too much on the things that were successful in that historical era.

It's now possible to have the economic benefits of very large organizations, like economies of scale, and at the same time have the benefits of very small organizations: freedom, flexibility, motivation, creativity, and innovation. This is possible because cheap communication enabled by the Internet allows people in large organizations to have the information to make decisions themselves instead of just following orders from someone above them.

The phrase that crystallizes the technological and organizational opportunities on the horizon is "collective intelligence." It's about how we organize thousands of people and lots of computers to solve problems in as intelligent a way as possible.

Google (Charts) does it with a lot of computational power and some clever algorithms. Wikipedia is created by thousands of people who are not getting paid but who produced the world's biggest and arguably one of the best encyclopedias in less than five years.

Another example is InnoCentive, an Eli Lilly spinoff, where they make the world an R&D lab, harnessing scientists anywhere to solve scientific problems without knowing in advance who will work on what. These are evocative examples of collective intelligence, and they aren't the end of the story but the beginning.


Advancements in mobile technology will have the biggest effect on individual empowerment. This will gradually occur as mobile networks in the U.S. improve and handset functionality broadens. Watching the rapid convergence of online and wireless makes MySpace mobile a major initiative for us.

A user's profile is an online representation of his or her life. Essentially, people with profiles on MySpace are putting their lives online. With mobile access you're no longer limited to a static depiction of a user's personality but have a real-time representation of their lifestyle. We have really only seen the beginning of the mobile revolution.

Hung Huang CEO China Interactive Media Group

I always questioned the idea of connectivity in China because of the way the system worked. Media in China was more a propaganda machine than a source of information or entertainment. The government reached out to us and said, "This is what we think is right. This is what everybody should do." They were not looking for feedback, so we were not connected.

The epiphany for me has been writing my own blog, which is one of the most popular on web portal Sina, with 17 million hits since our February launch. Blogs allow people to group together by tastes and the way they think. I target the new urban Chinese - the top 10% to 15% of the population. This is basically the market for iLook, our women's luxury magazine.

Blogging changes the way Chinese people express themselves. Most of the feedback to what I write has been supportive. I've learned that Chinese women are frustrated by the pressures and by their status in China. But there's been a lot of negative feedback too.

One blogger said that I'm polluting Chinese women's minds. Another wrote, "You're ruining women for men in China." Because Chinese people haven't had a systematic way to express opinions, they now express opinions in a crude way. This got to me in the beginning. I thought, "Do I need this? I should close down the blog." But sociologically, it's so interesting. And it has been tremendously important for my media business - boosting awareness and circulation of the magazines.

Martin Sorrell CEO WPP Group

People are consuming media in a totally different way. They're multitasking - doing five things at once. You've got your BlackBerry (Charts) in your hand. You've got your iPod. You're on your PC or maybe watching television at the same time. But the amount of time we spend on the web is not matched by the amount of money our clients spend on web advertising.

We call it new media now, but that is the wrong way to think of it. It's all interlinked. If you look at the data in all the Western markets, traditional media like newspapers, magazines, and television are basically flat, and the web is up 50% or 60%. If Internet is growing at 55% and traditional media are flat, I want to be in that area. Are we moving quickly enough? The answer is no.

It's difficult for people from traditional media to absorb the new, individually created media like blogging. It's powerful, people creating their own content. It can be written, it can be video like on YouTube. Older people don't understand how powerful it is. They don't know what is out there. They would be amazed at some of the stuff they would read on certain subjects. And it's viral, so it spreads.

But it's dangerous if you think you can control it. These are independent thoughts. So if somebody were presenting a one-sided case against your company or product, you might be able to use blogs or sites that make your case. But you can't manipulate. If you try to manipulate, you run into lots of trouble. You can't change the point of view. You can only have different points of view.

Gary Flake Director, Live Labs Microsoft (Charts)

The changes the Internet is bringing about are every bit as profound as previous historic milestones in the evolution of society - like the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution. Barriers to participation are dropping across all sorts of domains.

Partly because of that, the exchange of knowledge, information, and ideas becomes far more liquid. New value is created in all those exchanges, and it helps further reduce the barriers to participation. This is the evolution of innovation itself.

It's even changing how we do science. The process for how a scientific discovery is communicated has been very official. A scientist made a discovery and wrote it up for publication in a journal. The editor distributed it for peer review, and eventually it may have seen print. In many journals that's a three-year process.

With the advent of the web, scientists started publishing technical reports before a journal article was accepted. This allows the exchange of scientific information to happen in hours or days rather than years, and the vetting process is opened up to a broader group of scientists. Instead of three peer reviews for the journal article, you might find thousands of people expressing an opinion on a paper. Some seminal papers have already had tremendous impact on different scientific communities by going through this more liquid exchange.

We're also using the community as an aggregate form of intelligence, so that individuals can make more sense of all that data that's out there.

In the music industry, for example, any garage band can upload MP3s to the web, so there's far more content than people know what to do with. But at the same time we dropped the barriers to entry for people to express their musical preferences. So they are uploading their playlists and mix lists. The community actually starts making recommendations for you.

Rebecca MacKinnon Co-founder Global Voices Online

With human rights advocacy, it used to be that if someone went to jail in China, Amnesty International would circulate pamphlets and there would be organizing on campuses. Now there's the Internet.

There's a blogger and filmmaker named Hao Wu who has been in jail for 90-plus days. His sister is writing about his situation in Chinese in a blog, and translators are putting it into English. The fact that people can speak out for themselves in ways that weren't possible before - and the fact that campaigns emerge on the Internet - is indeed very powerful.

We still don't know to what extent this will change the balance of power in any society. We need to be careful not to engage in what I call "cyber-utopianism." The Internet is not going to change human nature. There are times when you get Internet activists who want to do everything online instead of in the field. And fundamentally, social change and business change is about interacting with people. The Internet and connectivity is a tool to facilitate that communication. But ultimately it's not going to change the balance of good and evil in the world.

Azim Premji Chairman WIPRO

Offshoring has become possible because of increases in connectivity and the reduced cost of communication, which has resulted in the world becoming a global village. In the digital world, boundaries have been eliminated, and it is possible to work from any part of the globe.

This is creating a level playing field and making remunerative employment available to economically less developed countries. But it remains to be seen whether we will be able to use this as a tool to ensure a more equitable spread of wealth.

Interviews by Nadira A. Hira, David Kirkpatrick, Eugenia Levenson, Julie Schlosser and Patricia Sellers. Top of page