Kim Polese's definition of the Internet differs from others who have opined on the topic at the Harvard Conference on Internet & Society. Polese, who helped create Java and now heads software startup Marimba, offered this thought: "The Internet might be defined as the largest experiment in human anarchy."
Others have spoken of the Internet as an autonomous, global network, capable of being a great unifying force or of dividing the world's population further into haves and have nots. Polese focused on the latter aspects of that notion and, unlike other keynote speakers who used the forum to present marketing pitches for their companies, she stuck to the conference topic, focusing on both the Internet and society.
Her great hope, she said, is that the Internet will unify rather than divide, becoming a vehicle for communication and for the dissemination of information. Already it has had unintended consequences, many of them positive, in shaping the world economy and changing our culture -- just as other technologies before the Internet also have had unexpected side effects.
Polese compared information technology to the advent of the loom, which led to the spinning wheel so that fabrics could more easily be made. PCs are like looms and browser software is like the spinning wheel, broadening the scope of computers, she said.
"The consequences are massive in scale," Polese said.
At first, the Internet was a source of titillation, but now it has proved an "indispensable tool," fostering, among other things, a return to letter writing in the form of e-mail.
"This dying art form which had been replaced by the telephone has returned," she said. "A total surprise."
The Internet also has become an important business vehicle. But it makes for a much more public spectacle when a company "stumbles" while using the Internet. Companies that develop five-year plans for the Internet are "blowing it" because life on the World Wide Web does not move in annual increments, she said.
It's not uncommon in Silicon Valley for startups to experience 6 percent growth per month, Polese said. In the "new economy" spawned by the Internet, intellectual capital is a premium and employees are driven by stock options and ownership plans rather than wages and company loyalty.
Instead of staying with the same company for the duration of their careers, for IT employees "it's about moving fast and making change and taking risks." This means workers are more loyal to the network of people who can help them get ahead.
"Loyalty to a company in Silicon Valley is most often measured by when your stock options vest," said Polese, adding that the new economy challenges previous economic models and rules that say low unemployment cannot be coupled with low inflation, and that shelf space is expensive and finite.
The former has become a staple of the U.S. economy, pushed by IT, and the latter is blown away by the Internet where there's an abundance of cheap shelf space.
As president and chief executive of one of the hot startups, Polese said she faces a major challenge presented by the changed economy, that of finding qualified, talented employees. She offered statistics about the need for college freshmen to take remedial reading courses and the large percentage of U.S. 8-year-olds who read below their grade level.
During a question-and-answer session after her remarks, Polese said Silicon Valley companies increasingly focus on employee retention, which "sounds like a painful disease" but is a huge issue.
She advised anyone thinking of starting a new company to "focus on what you can do to make the company worth staying at in terms of challenging employees."
Unlike other keynote speakers, Polese did not bring up Microsoft's travails as the U.S. Department of Justice and 20 state attorneys general pursue an antitrust case against the software maker. She remains decidedly "platform agnostic" and will provide her customers with whatever they want -- be it software that runs on Java, or software that runs on Windows.
Overall, her message was not about divisiveness. It was about unity and how technology can accomplish that.
"There certainly is the potential and there's proof," she said, "that technology brings people together."
More information about the Harvard Conference on Internet & Society can be found at http://cybercom98.harvard.edu/.