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The Public Good: The Impact of Information Technology on Society


Press Release

Leaders from industry and academia addressed the multiple effects – positive and negative, planned and unanticipated – that information technology has had on society on Feb. 28 and March 1, 2009 in Silicon Valley.

The weekend symposium, The Public Good: The Impact of Information Technology on Society, held at the Mountain View campuses of Google and Microsoft and the Computer History Museum, explored how digital technology has created unprecedented changes in the way we live, work, and interact with the world and each other. The magnitude of recent trends is staggering: President Obama’s digital campaign recruited 8 million volunteers online; more than 200 million blogs have been published; Facebook surpassed 150 million users worldwide; and sales of iPods topped 180 million.

Three panels were held at Microsoft on Saturday, Feb. 28. Edward D. Lazowska of University of Washington moderated the first panel, “Information Technology and Democracy: Public Discourse, Electoral Politics, and Governance.” Panelists Joshua Cohen of Stanford University, Edward W. Felten of Princeton University, and Henry Brady of the University of California, Berkeley, considered how technology has changed the ways citizens interact with government and receive information.

“The web has not solved the problem of political stratification in America,” said Brady. “Maybe we should never have thought that it could.”

At the next panel, “Alternative Futures for the Internet: Fears and Optimism,” moderator David Clark of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lead a discussion about what society can and should be doing to craft the ideal Internet of the future

“The Internet is not a fixed and determined thing. It mutates rapidly,” said Clark. “As we drive rapidly toward the future, there’s more than one possible path and that raises a bunch of vague questions. Can we even predict the eventual implications of actions we take now? Should we assume that the Internet of the future is simply a random phenomenon?”

Clark was joined by panelists Cynthia Dwork of Microsoft, Hal Varian of Google, and Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School, who each shared their vision of the Internet of the future.

“Creative Arts: New Tools and Technology and the Democratization of Craft,” the third panel, examined how technology has contributed to a shift in they way society thinks about, produces, and experiences art. Moderator Pat Hanrahan of Stanford University was joined by panelists Jonathan Berger of Stanford, Dale Dougherty of O’Reilly Media Inc., Charles Geschke of Adobe Systems Inc., and Carl Rosendahl, founder of Pacific Data Images.

Now that anyone can create and disseminate art freely over the web, what comes next? According to Berger, a new way of actively engaging with the material.

On the evening of Feb. 28, the symposia moved to the Google campus for a roundtable discussion with four individuals whose work helped launch the digital revolution. Vinton Cerf of Google Inc., Irwin Jacobs, founder of Qualcomm Inc., and Butler Lampson of Microsoft Inc., engaged in a conversation with Stanford President John Hennessy about the past and future of computing, communications, and the Internet.

Cerf commented on the speed with which people decided to learn how to use the Internet, especially to share information using social media sites. “It has been this incredible avalanche of shared information,” he said. “The expression ‘information is power’ – I think it’s wrong. It’s ‘information sharing is power.’”

The symposium reconvened the next morning at the Computer History Museum for a session on “The Future of Books, Publishing, and Libraries.” Edward Feigenbaum of Stanford University moderated a panel with experience in both traditional and online publishing.

Daniel Clancy of the Google Book Search Project said, “Publishers are the throttle for pushing out new ideas. Libraries are the vehicle for accessing ideas. The revolution in Internet technology hasn’t necessarily made it as easy to get those new ideas as we might like.”

Joining Feigenbaum and Clancy on the panel were John Hollar of the Computer History Museum, John Warnock of Adobe Systems Inc., Michael Keller of Stanford University, Donald A. B. Lindberg of the National Library of Medicine, and Daniel L. Goroff of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


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