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Information Technology Experts Gather to Speak at

By Venkatesh Satish
Associate News Editor

A diverse group of experts gathered at MIT last Saturday to discuss a number of media-related issues at a symposium on the role of information technology in society.

The symposium, entitled "Information Technology for Society," was held in the Bechtel Lecture Hall (1-390) before an audience of mostly of MIT students.

The keynote speaker was Walter R. Bender, associate director for information technology in the Media Lab. He opened the discussion with a talk about changes in the focus of developers in the field.

"In the 80s, engineers spent time on the infrastructure, how to get information from one place to another," Bender said. "A lot of effort was on [data] compression."

But that has changed, Bender said. The emphasis today is on adding information, so that the data is "made relevant to the community and individuals. It has to be engaging."

The event was organized by a group of students from MIT and Harvard University, including Mayukh V. Sukhatme '97 and Teresa Huang '97.

"I think it's a unique forum that gets people from different backgrounds with similar areas of interest to interact," Sukhatme said.

Internet publications are failing

An introductory speech was also given by Gary Welz, a journalist for the magazine Internet World. He spoke about the task of creating content for Internet publications.

Companies that have attempted to publish things specifically on the Internet are failing financially, Welz said. "Advertising revenues don't begin to approach the costs" involved in producing a publication, he said.

"Big companies are discovering that they can't even compete with some lone individuals who have insight into what people want," Welz said.

The most successful World-Wide Web sites, in terms of the number of accesses, or "hits," include search engines like those of Infoseek, Yahoo, and Netscape, instead of publishers, Welz said.

Panels discuss access, censorship

A panel including Hiawatha Bray, a technology reporter from The Boston Globe, and Larry Goldberg, from WGBH Public Television, detailed some problems in making the Internet accessible to everyone.

"The problem is that people who aren't affluent don't want to get on the Internet" because they were never exposed to it, Bray said.

But "young people who don't have access to it are in trouble," Bray said, pointing out that Massachusetts is in the lowest quartile among states for the number of computers in school classrooms.

Goldberg also stressed the need for making the Internet more user-friendly for the visually impaired. Because many web sites make text a graphical element in advertisements and toolbars, for example, they can not be read using the screen-reading software often the blind often use to access the Internet, he said.

Another panel, which included Media Lab student Alan D. Wexelblat G, Virtually Wired Educational Foundation President Coralee Whitcomb, and Director of Boston University's Institute for Democratic Communication Phyllis Zagano, discussed the censorship of different media.

This year's Telecommunications Act, which prohibits "indecency" on the Internet, treats the Internet as a broadcast medium like television, instead of a publication, like a magazine, Zagano said.

"The cyber-community concept doesn't work," Zagano said, in reference to judicial rulings that have barred indecent material from being broadcast to the public.

"Censorship is a dead issue," Wexelblat said, insisting that the emphasis of current tools to block out undesirable material should change.

"People should be able to set up their software to avoid [such] materials," Wexelblat said, describing a system where users could choose from a variety of standards that rate material that is broadcast or published. "If we produce a good rating system, people will subscribe to it," he added.