At conference, Dertouzos discusses links to the past


In a week filled with news of computers and security, MIT hosted the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference, held at the Hyatt Regency from March 27-30.

Thursday at the conference, Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) announced, via telephone, a bill that would end the imposition of government-designed encryption standards and would promote the use of commercial encryption. The formation of a Congressional Internet Caucus to increase Congress' understanding of the Internet and to get more members on line was launched the same day. On Friday, reporters sought out conference participants for comment on the case of an Argentinean student charged with breaking into DOD computers and other government computers through Harvard's computer system.

Conference chair Professor Harold Abelson, Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, coordinated the conference, which covered topics from the Communications Decency Act to electronic money and cyber crime.

Professor Michael Dertouzos, director of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, gave the March 28 banquet talk entitled "Ancient Humans in the Information Age" at the conference and appeared on WBUR's "The Connection," show hosted by Christopher Lydon, in conjunction with the conference.

Professor Dertouzos discussed his theories that a post-industrial society based predominantly on information cannot happen, that we will have an increased rather than decreased need for publishers and others who will sort and select material for us, and that information technology will not automatically democratize the world. He believes 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," Professor Dertouzos said. "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."

While some have said that our world may soon be filled up with information, Professor 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. A post-industrial society based predominantly on information cannot 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," Professor Dertouzos explained. "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.

"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 cannot 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.'

"The information age will help increase our productivity and will bring us closer to one another, helping us better understand our fellow human beings," Professor Dertouzos said. "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 will help us, but will remain fundamentally utilitarian."


Topics: Computer science and technology, Special events and guest speakers

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