The world stands at the threshold of a digital Renaissance

Editor's note: The following is the keynote address that Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO and President Carly Fiorina recently delivered at the "Aspen Summit 2000: Cyberspace and the American Dream VII" conference held in Aspen, Colo.

Putting a wrapper on a two-day gathering of great minds that I couldn't attend is one of those challenges that fall to a CEO. But let me take a shot at it.

During your working dinners and panels, I'll bet somebody expressed the concern, that we in business and technology on the one side and government on the other may be talking past each other. At a time when we need shared understanding as never before.

Tonight, I'll carry it a step further. I'll propose that business and technology are in a true digital Renaissance, while our whole approach to policymaking remains rooted in the industrial, "medieval" world. Like the first Renaissance, which was the liberation of the inventive imagination, the digital Renaissance is about the empowerment of the individual and the consumer and finally, if we can bridge the gap between business and science and government so that we all understand and foster the digital Renaissance then we have a chance to make this second Renaissance truly global and grassroots.

The Digital Renaissance

Just a few weeks ago, I was talking to the head of one of our intelligence agencies. It doesn't matter who because he speaks for all of them.

He was perplexed, because in the old world, government built impermeable walls to protect national security. But the new world is about tearing down walls.

He was concerned, because in the old world, government controlled the flow of critical ideas and inventions. But business in the new world is about acquiring and sharing the best ideas, right now.

He was disturbed, because in the old world, government was on the cutting edge of technology. But in the new world, the newest technology is being driven by business, not by government.

I sympathize. Many of us are trapped in a frame of reference that no longer fits. Fifty, even 25 years ago, politics were based in geography, and national power grew from defense technology.

But today and tomorrow, information technology questions the relevance of geography. Information technology drives business and creates economic power and national power. And defense, even though it gave us the Internet and many of the technologies business now depends on, is not the primary driver of change.

This transformation and the resulting disconnect are so big that to find a parallel, I need to go back in history.

I need to go a long way back to the Renaissance. Because when Copernicus and Galileo and Leeuwenhoek exploded the geocentric universe and the old Greek theories of biology, they exploded religion, they exploded politics, they exploded commerce.

The explosions were also tremendously liberating.

The quiet world of Everyman, of feudal lords and scribes, gave way to Hamlet, to Lorenzo de Medici, to Gutenberg's books.

If you had to boil the Renaissance down to one sentence, it was the end of the medieval, geocentric universe, the end to humanity's subordinate role, and the freeing of the individual imagination.

In that time 500 years ago, invention was the prime virtue. It stimulated the flowering of a thousand ideas and creations. The Renaissance enabled the Enlightenment and the rise of the West and the Industrial Revolution and democracy and freedom.

I firmly believe we're at the beginning of a second Renaissance: the digital Renaissance. Its essence and consequences may go deeper and wider than the first one.

Again, invention is the prime virtue. This time around, a million ideas and inventions are flowering. The old concept of the nation-state is being tested by global connections, by global communities, by global markets.

Expressed in one sentence, the digital Renaissance is about empowering all individuals by unlocking their richest core asset - a great idea, a great invention - even if they don't own any other assets.

So you could argue that the digital Renaissance completes the revolution that the first Renaissance began. It gives us all the tools to be Leonardos and Michelangelos.

And like the Florentines in the first Renaissance, we have a leading role in this digital Renaissance. Because of the size and speed of our own transformation, because of our economic power and because of our own democratic faith, we have the opportunity to bring a great portion of the globe along with us.

But there's something missing in this second Renaissance. There were some players in the first act of the Renaissance who haven't yet come onstage in the second. There are some important voices who have yet to be heard. And the silence disturbs me.

Where are our digital Medicis and Machiavellis? Because remember, while Lorenzo de Medici began his work as a banker more analogous to modern venture capitalists than today' s commercial bankers, he grew to become a master politician, an accomplished poet and a patron of art and science. All at the same time. He literally defined the Renaissance Man.

Now we need to ask: Who are the Renaissance men and women of the digital age, with skills in commerce and government and invention and the arts, and with values and ethics grounded in all these things?

Let's take this idea a little further. Will this second Renaissance reach full flower if political leaders and lawmakers don't understand the power of technology and the potential of commerce and enable them?

Will our inventions transform the globe and empower humanity if business leaders and scientists can't communicate with officials and policy makers and learn how to work with them how to partner with them?

Taking this idea to its conclusion might we need a whole new kind of digital Renaissance leadership a whole new kind of digital Renaissance man?

The New Business Landscape

Before I try to answer, let's think for a moment about the new business landscape.

At HP, we detect three emerging forces in the technology economy:

  • Information appliances
  • Always-on IT infrastructure
  • And digitally-delivered services, or e-services.

Information appliances are anything from the familiar PCs and pagers and Web-connected cell phones to cars that communicate maintenance status to Detroit to smart refrigerators. In other words, anything with a chip inside and able to connect to the Internet. We foresee billions of these new devices.

The second emerging force is the always-on computing infrastructure to support this swarm of transactions. And it will need to be as available and reliable as tap water, as dependable as the sun and moon, as pervasive as the air we breathe.

And the third emerging force, digitally delivered services, or e-services, will take any process, any asset that can be digitized and deliver it over the Web. Whole chains of transactions will be electronically brokered while you do better things with your time - things like travel planning and scheduling global virtual learning, supply-chain management and more.

But an economy with this kind of fluidity, this kind of speed and permeability, will affect the behavior patterns of organizations and markets and economies. It's already having effects.

In this e-services world, companies and organizations are already functioning more like organisms and less like machinery. And markets are functioning as ecosystems. Lines between companies, between industries, between disciplines are blurring. The line between work and personal life, for example, is becoming so indistinct that for some people, you almost can't separate them anymore.

Now, let's ask ourselves honestly: Do our policies reflect this organic new business landscape? Do our leaders sufficiently understand the porous ecosystem we all live in? Do any of us fully understand our second Renaissance and where it's going?

The answer is, Of course not. No one understands the new world sufficiently. It's still emerging from the mist. It's so big. It's so fast. And it's evolving before our very eyes, so that only a psychic would know where it's going to end up.

Our job at HP is to see around corners and out into time. Let me tell you what we see.

Digitally Empowering the Individual

At HP, we've envisioned this digital Renaissance world from the viewpoint of the consumer, the individual. And instead of a medieval illustration with a tiny Everyman dwarfed by giant technologies and devices in this new vision, the individual is empowered.

Our digital Renaissance man is Michelangelo's David, with magical powers at his fingertips.

In the digital Renaissance, David doesn't have to work the Web; the Web works for him. Silent, invisible, automatic. Always-on. Fail-safe. And user-friendly.

We've done more than imagine this new world. We've built it at HP Labs, and we call it CoolTown.

In one CoolTown scenario, we put David at a bookstore. As he walks in, the shop's Web site pops up on his PDA screen to welcome him. Infrared beacons on bookshelves transmit data about the books in each section, as well as recommendations based on David's interest.

We've also put David at a business meeting. He arrives carrying nothing but a cell phone. That's all he needs, because his presentations are on the Web, and URLs are already loaded onto the cell phone and ready to transmit to an LCD projector and printer in the conference room.

And we've imagined David touring the Metropolitan Museum. He wants more information on a particular sculptor. So he simply points his palm PC at an infrared beacon near the exhibit and pulls up its Web page, which contains information about the work and the artist

Policy ... to Enable the Digital Renaissance

There's a huge technology cluster to support CoolTown infrared beacons, GPS, wireless signals, Web sites for every person and thing and an array of recognition systems. We've built all this and have demos running at HP Labs and various HP sites around the world.

As is so often the case in the digital Renaissance, technology isn't the biggest challenge in doing all this.

Just as the first Renaissance created and surfaced values-based issues and ethical issues that society had never dealt with before, like depicting the human form or attributing things to physics or biology rather than divine intervention, the digital Renaissance is raising whole new issues, too.

Like, how secure is your privacy when your habits, your preferences, even your location are constantly tracked and recorded and used to sell to you?

How secure is your identity when billions of devices know who you are?

How secure is the whole world when a weak spot in a planetary net could shut down communications for all of us?

We've already had a taste of this new kind of issue at HP. Our executive team recently discussed a digital Renaissance opportunity, which I'll describe.

HP has 90,000 employees. We have information on all of our people. We could use this information as a company asset to cement our relationship with other partners and customers.

How? The HP population is a captive market for new commercial services. To understand, see our new employee portal as the gateway to these services. With this employee information, commercial offerings could be tailored to the individual's needs thus maximizing the possibility of a sale.

Our question was: Does HP have the right to do this? Do we have the right to use our captive market to build relationships with other companies and profit from them? Do we have the right to turn our employees and their own habits and needs into a new kind of HP asset?

And our conclusion was: We don't have that right.

But we also realized we were in uncharted territory. The familiar landmarks and guideposts just don't fit anymore. We have to improvise. We have to find the right moral and ethical compass when the old one just spins.

Since the individual is the center of both the first and second Renaissance, logic tells us that empowerment of the individual should be the guiding principle to develop new values and rules.

More specifically, we need to build the trust of the individual. We need to build the confidence of the consumer. Because while we may have the technology to give consumers magical powers today, without their trust in this technology, the magic will never become real or grow enough to become pervasive.

Building consumer confidence must be the foundation of digital policy, whether policy developed through industry self-regulation or through legislation.

Consumer confidence lies in our resolving many hard questions - questions like online consumer privacy and disputes in cross-border Internet transactions and cyberterrorism and Internet taxation, just to name a few.

But in searching for solutions, the geography-based, control-based policies of the old medieval industrial economy don't fit anymore.

For example, to combat cyberterrorism, HP and our competitors need to share information and work together. But if we do so, we're vulnerable to medieval interpretations of liability and antitrust violations.

Internet taxation is another area. While it's unrealistic to forever exempt e-commerce from taxation, it would be a tragedy to apply our medieval tax system to the Internet. Wouldn't it be wiser to reform the old tax system with all its inefficiency, its complexity, and then apply the new system equally to both the online and off-line worlds?

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