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Information seen as key to economies

Information technology could widen the gap between rich and poor if it is not spread more evenly to individuals and countries, according to panelists at a recent MIT lecture.

"The rich have the information services to get the goods to be better, but the poor don't have this," said Professor Michael Dertouzos, director of the Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) and professor of electrical engineering and computer science. He spoke at a March 3 panel discussion entitled "Interfacing with the Future: Implications of the Information Marketplace," which was sponsored by the Technology and Culture Forum.

The other panelists were World Wide Web founder Timothy Berners-Lee, principal research scientist, and David Clark, senior research scientist, both of the LCS, as well as Richard Sclove, executive director of Loks Institute, a nonprofit organization that assesses the impact of information technology.

Information work now accounts for 65 percent of labor in the US economy and 50 percent for the world's 10 richest economies, Professor Dertouzos said. A decade from now, the information marketplace will interconnect half a billion computers and users who will be conducting business transactions and sharing information.

The infiltration of technology presages a change in life patterns, said Professor Dertouzos, who is the author of a new book, What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives.

"The movement we're talking about is not just economic, but it is like a village marketplace where people buy, sell and exchange," Professor Dertouzos said. "It's an extended infrastructure of what we have today."

He called information an intermediate commodity, much like flour, that derives value from the things it makes possible. And those possibilities may widen the chasm between rich and poor people, he added.

"The United States, Japan and Germany spend 10 percent of their gross national products for computer hardware and software programs. Bangladesh spends less than one-tenth of one percent of its GNP," said Professor Dertouzos. "So there is a 100-to-one difference in the monetary value we place on information."

Information technology shouldn't be left to its own devices to evolve, he said. There is so much information right now that information technology workers are needed to sort through "the pile of junk to find the diamonds," he said. "It's time to shed the shovels and go for the bulldozers."

Professor Dertouzos forsees the rise of urban villages, where people work with each other across space and time. "We'll see work centers where we might go from our home and provide our work," he said. Governments need to create international agreements to handle the nature of information traffic and prevent "cross-cultural invasions."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 12, 1997.

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