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The Internet is making the world a better place...but not for CEOs

At the Fortune Brainstorm conference, business thinkers ponder the effects of the Internet.

HALF MOON BAY, Calif.--At Monday's kickoff discussion at the high-zoot (it's at the Ritz Carlton) Fortune Brainstorm 2008 conference, moderator David Kirkpatrick asks the question, "Is tech making the world a better place?"

Two speakers, Michael Dell and Mark Benioff of Salesforce.com, focused on the changes in business: the Net gives companies a communications conduit with customers. "We put big ears on," Dell said, referring in part to the Digg-like Ideastorm system that Dell is using to gather customer feedback.

Fortune's big thinkers, left to right: David Kirkpatrick, Michael Dell, Gary Hamel, Mark Benioff, Christiane Zu Salm, Rafe Needleman/CNET

Benioff said, with a smile, "Our customers are ganging up on us," and, he said, "our product managers have less to do. The Internet is the great accelerator."

Author Gary Hamel pointed out the flip side of these changes: "The great scandal of management," he said, is that, "most workers are disengaged. The Internet is great at harnessing customers' imaginations more than employees."

Focusing on society more than business, Hamel also said on the panel that the Net is, "empowering people to create like never before in human history. We are emancipating human imagination."

The final panelist, investor Christiane Zu Salm, focused on societal changes: "Technology will change more our society than our business."

I believe the takeaway from this first panel is much about the conflict between old-style management and the power-leveling effect of the Internet. Conceptually, user-generated content services like YouTube, user-edited newstreams like Digg, and user-powered customer support initiatives like Get Satisfaction put customers in charge. As Hamel said, "It's going to make a lot of traditional executives very uncomfortable."

I believe it is already.

See the rest of our conference coverage here.

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