An undercurrent of concern ran through a conference on the "Information Superhighway" at the University of Utah on Tuesday: maybe not everybody will be able to dip into the binary stream.
According to speaker after speaker at the conference, an explosion in information is being facilitated by new computer technology, which includes networks like the Internet and interactive education links.The changes already have begun to improve education, commerce, the arts and medicine, conference speakers said.
But the subsurface current - a theme not mentioned often but disturbing to some - was that many ordinary people may be left in technological backwaters.
U. President Arthur K. Smith raised both topics in his welcoming address to the estimated 400 conference participants in the U.'s Olpin Union. The meeting was sponsored by the Utah Engineering Experiment Station, the Utah Information Technologies Association and the Salt Lake Rotary Club.
Smith pledged the university's dedication to helping the information revolution succeed. He noted that information technology enterprises are extremely important to the state, with about 1,500 such companies located here. They range from industry behemoths like Novell to one- and two-person businesses.
Information technology firms in Utah generate about $5.3 billion annually, compared to tourism's $3 billion, he said. And the university will continue to lead in developing the technology, according to Smith.
But he noted there is a dark side to the information revolution, at least so far.
Ideally, knowledge flowing from computer screens should be abundantly available, Smith said. However, society remains divided into "information haves and have-nots."
Gov. Mike Leavitt said that 10 years ago, when he was in private business, he developed a three-year plan to help improve use of computers. He learned lessons from the experience, Leavitt said.
Getting new information technology to work is "more expensive, time-consuming, complex, important" than he had believed.
Also, he said, he found that the computerized flow of information is not limited by technology; it's limited by sociology. In other words, one of the big problems is getting people to use it.
So far, Utah has hooked together 65 educational sites in a new information system, and that should jump to 200 by the end of 1996, Leavitt said. Someday, with new systems being developed, the cost of such interactive stations should drop from $200,000 to $1,000.
Within three years, he hopes, the state system can be available to homes and businesses.
Leavitt said the state government's role is to facilitate the growth of the information system by being an "anchor tenant." Also, it may help regulate the system when regulation is needed.
A member of the audience asked how it will be possible to ensure that most people will have access to the information brought by computers.
Possibly Utah will extend such services through libraries, Leavitt said. In addition, computer access will be available to students through their schools.
Technology itself may solve the access problem, he said.
"I think in 15 to 20 years you won't be able to buy a television set or a telephone that won't have that kind of interactive capability."
He recalled the days when fax machines cost $10,000, and now they're common, even included in many new computers.
"The leading needs are in three main areas: education, health care and economic development," he said.
According to Rodney H. Brady, president and chief executive officer of Bonneville International Corp., to best use the information streaming through the new networks, business people should develop their computer skills. They should enhance their formal computer education, learn new skills and use personal computers.
Thirty years ago, when he was at Harvard University, Brady made a study of computers in business. The study, reported in the Harvard Business Review, had 12 predictions.
Among these were that computers and video display devices (computer screens, which had not yet been developed) someday would be the controlling systems for getting and managing information needed for decisionmaking.
Brady also predicted then that not until a generation that grew up with computers enters the boardrooms of the country's corporations would the computer reach its potential. Both predictions proved to be prescient.