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MIT Technologist Focuses Sociologist's Light on Electronic Community

Dertouzos to speak at Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference March 28, 7:45 pm

Cambridge, MA-- Left to its own devices, the information market will increase the gap between rich and poor, possibly leading to revolt, says Michael Dertouzos, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of computer science and electrical engineering and director of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. Dertouzos is giving the March 28, 7:45pm banquet talk "Ancient Humans in the Information Age" at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference which MIT is hosting. The conference is being held March 27-30 at the Cambridge Hyatt Regency. Computers can not bridge the gap by themselves, he says. Benevolent activity--teachers and money are needed.

Dertouzos, whose talents are 'techie' and 'humie' in equal proportions, will speak on his theories that a post-industrial society based predominantly on information cannot happen, that we will have an increased, not decreased, need for publishers and others who will sort and select material for us, and that information technology will not automatically democratize the world. According to him, the information market will bring on the rise of the "Urban Villager," but not lead to basic changes in human relationships.

"Technology has shifted dramatically--from stones and clubs and plows to engines, jet aircraft and keyboards--but we have not changed," says Dertouzos. "You are the same human being. You may watch TV and eat with a spoon and fork, but you have the same brain, same musculature, the same aspirations and beliefs you had 1,000 years ago.


"Information is mostly an intermediate good, like flour which will be made into bread. It can also be a final good, like bread or like entertainment, that is not used for something else. Only about 5-6% of information is used as a final good," says Dertouzos.

While some have said that our world may soon be filled up with information, Dertouzos thinks that won't happen because of the nature of information as an intermediate good. "The economy can't become so skewed that the value of the information exceeds the value of the physical goods and services produced. In principle we might reach a stage, perhaps two, three or four centuries from now where all we consume is final information and we have slave robots that produce all the goods and services we need to live...and we will spend our time basically enjoying reading and sitting around and maybe doing some exercises. But that is highly unlikely. Something dramatic would have to happen world wide, we would need to go to 100% property ownership. Not a chance in the 21st century. A post-industrial society based predominantly on information can not happen.


"The gap between rich and poor will increase--within a country and among countries. If you are rich, the information technology helps . . . . If you're poor it doesn't. If you're poor, you don't have the means. All the nonsense you hear that says that computers will help bridge the gap--they can, but not by themselves. For them to help, there has to be money spent, there have to be teachers around, there has to be a lot of activity, a lot of benevolent activity. Left to its own devices, the information market will increase the gap and therefore we must help the have-nots with our money and with our work. If we don't, the poor, whether they are countries or people, will, as history teaches, revolt.


"Your information is irrelevant to me. This is called info junk. If you look at a billion computers only a small portion of the information contained will be of interest. To find those gems will be very difficult because they will be occluded by the glare of all this 'info junk.' This means that we're going to need middlemen, publishers, and other selectors of material. Their work will become even more important in the information age.


"In the Middle Ages you knew a few hundred people, but now, you can reach a few hundred million people. One mouse click away and I can be in your computer living room and you can be in my computer living room. We'll find ourselves in this huge infometropolis. I'm forecasting the rise of the Urban Villager--half New Yorker and half farmer. A person wakes up in the morning in his or her little town, turns on the computer and teleworks across the globe, meets with people in Tokyo, France, New York City. A very urban kind of person. This person then stops for lunch and goes to the pizza store next door--maybe takes some time to play with the kids. This person is moving from an urbanite who spans the oceans to a villager who sees the same 200 people. Will the urbanite or the villager dominate? At this point we have no clue.

"As ancient humans, we have the ability to contact a few thousand human beings in our lifetime. Typically, the capacity of a human is a handful or two of close, solid relationships and a couple or three thousand acquaintances. The information age can not change that. You can be close in proximity to hundreds of millions, but you can't know them all, because all you can remember is 3,000. All you can do is replace the label 'physical acquaintance' with 'virtual acquaintance.' You can re-label some of them but you can't increase them. You can't talk to a million people in a 'town hall.' You get together a group of maybe 500 or 1,000, talk the issues over and someone will take this and discuss it with others. You've invented representative government. Information technology doesn't become an automatic tool that will democratize the world.


"Straight information--images, words--pass through the information marketplace. Emotions pass through--people cry in front of their TVs, people laugh, people get attached to people through letters. But emotions don't pass 100% They pass partially, depending on the situation. Nothing is truly consummated until people meet. What doesn't pass?--the forces of the cave. This is where we grew up, where we felt the primal fears, ate our food, and guarded and protected our families. The forces of the cave have not left us--the fear of the enemy, the nurturing and loving, touch, trust are with us everyday. When two business partners meet for the first time, they don't meet over the telephone, because they want to build trust, gauge each other. There are a lot of primal forces there. The more important the relationship the more the forces of the cave are in play.

"The information age will help increase our productivity and will bring us closer to one another, helping us better understand our fellow human beings. However, it will not be a panacea that will solve all the problems of human kind. It's not going to free our spirits, increase our compassion, make us better people. Nor is it going to turn us into criminals or violent people. The information market is nothing more than new tools, in the hands of ancient humans, helping us pursue the same ancient aspirations of love, happiness and fulfillment. The information market will help us, but will remain fundamentally utilitarian."

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