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by Pamela Fogle Director, Office of University Communications

In the early 1950s, growing up on an island off Florida's east coast was an enchanting experience. As if it were yesterday, I remember huge brown and blue crabs that migrated yearly, emerging from the Indian River on the west to crawl across the slim three miles of land to the Atlantic Ocean on the east. Their formidable pinchers punctured car tires. We positioned brooms strategically outside our front door to sweep them away without harm to ourselves – or to the crabs, for that matter.

This memory struck me as I listened to an intriguing presentation last fall on the technological transformation underway in worldwide communications. John Evans, chair and CEO of Evans Telecommunications Company and co-founder of C-SPAN, had just delivered a keynote address at the Rocco C. Siciliano Forum on "Worldwide Communications: Are You Ready?"

Too few of us understand the global revolution he described, or its implications. The accelerated pace of communication development is evident, from the printing press in the 1400s, to the telegraph and wireless in the 1800s, followed in rapid succession by radio, television, cable, satellites, and the Internet and World Wide Web in just the last 30 years.

We're light years away from the communication conveyed simply by the notorious lanterns in Boston's Old North Church signaling "one if by land, two if by sea." We're in the midst of an information explosion. And the data dump is landing right in our laps at work and at home, complicating our lives: electronic mail, facsimile machines, personal computers, pagers, digital phones, Web sites, chat rooms, newsgroups, Next Generation Internet. Information reaches us in overwhelming data streams arriving at warp speed. Welcome to the digital age.

According to Evans, gross domestic products are shifting from the tangible (cars and homes) to the intangible (banking and information). Management structures of entire institutions are being transformed. The issues facing society are huge. How do we train students and teachers to use digital tools? What is the media's role and responsibility? What about security, privacy, and intellectual property rights? How is access determined? As one who leads the electronic tidal wave, Evans cautions, "We'll be left behind if we don't accept the digital age."

Is Utah ready? By any measure, the University of Utah is wired. And the U has been at the forefront of this high- tech revolution since scientists in the 1960s thought to link their computers together. Our faculty have both created the technology and educated today's visionaries. Those roots are traced to David Evans BA'49 PhD'53 and Ivan Sutherland, founders of the Computer Science Department and Evans and Sutherland Computer Corporation. Their legacy to Utah and the world reads like a "Who's Who" of innovation: Alan Ashton PhD'70, WordPerfect; Jim Clark PhD'74, Silicon Graphics and Netscape; John Warnock BS'61 MS'64 PhD'69, Adobe Systems; Edwin Catmull BS'69 BS'69 PhD'74, Pixar; and Alan Kay MS'68 PhD'69, Disney Imagineering, among others.

Through the determined efforts of many at the U, including people like Stephen Hess BS'73 MS'74 PhD'78, executive director of Media Services and the Utah Education Network, the University is connecting us all electronically through data and interactive video networks. Utah's elementary, middle, and secondary schools are linked with one another and with the world through UtahLink, a statewide data network connecting with the Internet. Our faculty beam courses to rural towns, bringing advanced degrees to individuals in education, social work, and nursing through the use of EDNET. As Hess puts it, "We're delivering education free of place and time." The promise of these and hundreds of other efforts is greater access to education, greater efficiency, increased learning, and improved technological skills.

It's a seductive picture. But Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and now distinguished professor at Brandeis University, sees storm clouds on the horizon. Speaking to public relations professionals last fall, Reich described a future in which those who have resources and education will have limitless options, while vast numbers who do not, especially those in the Third World, will be displaced. Such are the ingredients of societal breakdown. "We get in trouble," he noted, "when we don't see the problem coming."

Terry Tempest Williams BS'79 MS'84, noted Utah author, would agree. In a Continuum Conversation following the Siciliano Forum, she noted that nowhere in Evans' list of societal concerns did he make reference to human or social issues. Is the technology serving or dividing us; is it spiritually injurious? "I'm caught between contrary equilibriums," she said. "We're surrounding ourselves with machines. They become our reality. The future is bright; the future is not bright."

As we travel in hyperreality, we're redefining relationships, suffering alienation, and moving away from original experiences. Which brings me back to the blue and brown crabs. No crabs migrate today. The leaders in my hometown, in their zeal for economic development, never considered the ramifications of building and paving over that island. Children might download images of these long-gone creatures on some natural history Web site, but they'll never savor the saltwater smell or scissor-like sound of claws, or the thrill of being surrounded by such a massive migration.

Public dialogue about the consequences of this transformational technology is imperative, for significant questions remain. The technology is amazing, but as Tempest Williams concluded, "it's not a birdsong."

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