Life in a connected world
The Internet is old news. But its 700 million users are changing business and society so fast that it's sometimes hard to keep up. And the revolution is only just beginning.
By David Kirkpatrick FORTUNE senior editor

(FORTUNE Magazine) -- What is the Internet doing to us? Thirteen years after the invention of the web browser, are we any smarter? Are we creating more wealth? Or are we just watching more porn and getting more spam? How big a deal is it that the world is increasingly connected?

To help answer those questions, FORTUNE will host the 2006 Brainstorm conference in Aspen in late June in partnership with the Aspen Institute. The theme: life in a connected world.

Speakers as varied as Microsoft (Charts)chief software architect Ray Ozzie, Sen. John McCain, and Dutch Muslim feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali will join CEOs, venture capitalists, technologists, and nonprofit leaders as we collectively try to understand the changes taking place in a world connected by the Internet and mobile phones.

In the following pages, conference attendees venture their opinions on the ways connectedness is changing the world. Gary Flake, a top Microsoft technologist, doesn't mince words: "The changes the Internet is bringing about are every bit as profound as previous historic milestones in the evolution of of society - like the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution."

Think of it as the epoch of the empowered individual.

A ubiquitous network exists on which every device is roughly equal, no matter who owns it, whether a teenager or a big company. Every person can, in theory, be a creative artist and freely distribute work to millions.

That's both our Renaissance and our Industrial Revolution.

Google's (Charts) existence is a testament to the power of the individual in the connected age: an infinitely better research tool than the biggest corporation had ten years ago.

But there are other empowering tools, like Skype, which enable anyone to call anywhere free. Take that, telcos!

Being a big company isn't what it used to be.

Consumers and employees are bad-mouthing you on their blogs, tiny outfits on eBay are underpricing you with counterfeit or gray-market products, and competitors are appearing from nowhere and subverting your business model.

Web revolution

With the web has come an unnerving and growing transparency, and it's easier than ever to enter any business.

That new power is being felt in medicine, education, and politics, as well as in business.

You'd be crazy to buy a car today without first using the resources of the Net. One day we might say the same thing about trips to the doctor's office. As for politics, some of the most cutting-edge uses of technology can be found in places like Tanzania, where activists are working on a new constitution - using a wiki.

That's online software on which anyone can add a contribution. The idea is that citizens can collectively create a compelling enough document to force the nation's political powers to respond.

Some industries are already reeling.

With 77% of American adults online, up from 9% a decade ago, and teenagers using the Internet three hours a day - roughly the same amount of time they watch TV (often at the same time) - the entertainment industry is being transformed. Says Michael Wolf, president of MTV Networks: "Connectivity has converted a generation of people from passive watchers of television into very active users of communications."

Much of that youthful enthusiasm is focused on - not surprisingly - social life.

What's emerged as the most powerful online phenomenon in the last year or so are social networks, particularly MySpace. Rupert Murdoch's much-ridiculed decision to buy MySpace last year for about $580 million now looks like genius: The site could soon become the most trafficked destination in cyberspace.

But had his News Corp. tried to develop MySpace on its own, it surely would have failed.

Media and consumer companies have stumbled building their own online communities. MySpace, by contrast, started organically, with little strategic forethought, as a site for devotees of independent rock music in Los Angeles.

It had an authenticity that MTV or AOL lacked. But it also lacked revenue, despite its 86 million users. Its only income is from advertising, which is still relatively small. So there you have the perils for big companies in the era of social networking: It's nearly impossible to build a successful network, and when you do, it's hard to make money.

Value production

In the Internet Age economic value can be produced by more people in more places.

Programmers contribute to software projects whenever they feel like it. Businesses can go to SourceForge.net and choose among several thousand open-source software products - all of them free for the taking.

Even ordinary people can produce value by blogging a movie review, posting a vacation photo, or producing a Google "mash-up" map that might help humanitarian workers survey an earthquake zone.

Now we head toward the next phase, when the power of the Internet extends to mobile devices.

Though 700 million people are online worldwide, that's nothing compared with the 2.1 billion people with cellphones. Rich Templeton, CEO of Texas Instruments, which makes the chips at the core of most of the world's cellphones, predicts that four billion people will have them by 2010.

In a more connected world, people know where they stand in the economic pecking order. They can see how poor they are in relation to others - and how much richer others are.

Now strategies to create greater global economic equity can no longer be ignored. That's life in a connected world.

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