Fortune's Brainstorm Conf: Technology Really Making Us Better?

Motorola Razr
Motorola Razr

I'm writing from Fortune's Brainstorm:Tech conferencein Half Moon Bay in Northern California, an invite-only event gathering CEOs of major tech and media companies, startups, and non-profits.

The topic this year is technology and its impact, a seemingly omnipresent issue these days. The conference kicked off with the question "Is tech making the world a better place?" with Michael Dell, Mark Benioff, the CEO of, author Gary Hamel, and Christiane Zu Salm, an investor weighing in. Better? That requires a more nuanced answer than just a yes or no. More democratic? Certainly.

While the executives at this conference evaluate how to use technology to stay innovative an unavoidable trend is arising in a range of the conversations here. Technology is getting customers involved in the conversation about how companies are run and what they do, and increasingly employees are participating in the process. Gary Hamel articulated the obvious when he said the trend of putting customers in charge makes many executives "very uncomfortable." Can you blame them? It changes their role, and changes the way businesses work, if they're not serving customers, but effectively letting them serve themselves.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos also took the spotlight here, talking in detail about Amazon's Web Services which are designed to allow developers (and all those small companies who sell through Amazon) to innovate services for their customers. The idea is to encourage innovation within Amazon's structure, which will keep Amazon's customers loyal. Bezos made a couple of interesting comments that stuck with me. One was how web services, an increasingly valuable utility, can be compared to the regulated electricity market. There was some debate with a member of the audience about whether services need to be regulated the way power utilities are. Bezos said no: services need to compete.

Bezos also talked about designing the Kindle, Amazon's e-book gadget that also took center stage at the Allen & Co. conference two weeks ago. Obviously it's a challenge to reinvent the book, which has been static for a half-millennium, but the hardest part it seems, is to figure out how to make it invisible, so the gadget seems to melt away when you're reading, the way a book does when you're focused on the content of its pages. He gave a great example of technology that fails to be invisible; a microwave beeping every minutes until you open the door probably because the designers weren't thinking about how people would really want to use it. Conclusion: function should determine every detail of the form.

Over dinner three bloggers took the stage for a panel examining the line between blogging and print journalism, tackling some of the hot topics in the news. Kara Swisher, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, now at Dow Jones-owned "" talked about her obsession with Yahoo--despite some heckling "who cares" from the audience. She quipped that YahooCEO Jerry Yang may not be on his way out, due to the "lugubrious quicksand" pace at which the company moves. She also said "the new 11 member board sounds like the UN but less organized."

Om Malik, the executive editor of Giga Omnimedia and host to GigaOm.comweighed in on Twitter: "It's the way people are communicating." He described online journalism as moving towards "ubiquitous distribution at any point in a non-static way". And Robert Scoble, of weighed in on the conversation about the startups everyone's talking about. There seemed to be a consensus of criticism of Madison Avenue the assumption that "Advertising, of course" will be the business model for the likes of Facebook. These three bloggers aren't just journalists, they also seem to be advocates for innovation.

Questions? Comments?