By Rory O'Connor, San Jose Mercury News, Calif. Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Apr. 3--Every so often when I marvel at the brilliant people who have created computer technology, I am snatched back to earth by evidence of just how insular the computer intelligentsia can be and left wondering about what the people in charge of this grand revolution are thinking.

It happened just last week, at the annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in Burlingame, where about 500 very bright technophiles- university computer scientists, programmers, hackers, civil libertarians, privacy advocates - came to debate the social implications of their creations.

At the end of the Wednesday program, a panel of four distinguished academics from outside computing presented a critique of computer technology. They attacked the assumption, shared by most of the audience, that the computer represents the best human invention yet for individual freedom and progress, if only we can deal with a few delicate issues of privacy and the like.

The case they made, in scholarly vocabulary that sent a few people from the room, boils down to this: computer technology - far from being the great populist equalizer and agent of social benefit that many insiders believe it to be - is one of the greatest tools for centralization of power ever created.

With computers, governments have the means for tighter control of their citizens. The computer and instantaneous communication make it possible to concentrate economic power in the hands of large multinational corporations and world financial institutions whose interests often are divorced from any individual community of people. With the explosion of technology, individuals count for less, not more.

What's worse, the computer and related technology can be blamed for a host of ills: blurring the distinction between work and private life; creating mass amounts of toxic waste; destroying the sense of physical community humans need to build sustainable cultures and share common moral values.

Heady stuff, not all of it easy to understand, but most of it valid criticisms of the highly educated, fairly wealthy people in charge of it.

But the criticism didn't sit well with many of the people in the audience, even some who imagine themselves as concerned with the social and cultural implications of computers.

Two men from the audience took the microphone during a question-and- answer session to suggest, in insulting and blunt terms, that the panel had placed its collective head where the sun doesn't shine. They garnered applause for their efforts.

The backlash wasn't universal. There were people, including Berkeley computer pioneer Lee Felsenstein, who seemed to understand the point and asked what the people at the conference could do about the situation.

The answer, though, pointed out the depth of the problem: that is, who is missing from these groups and their discourses.

Ordinary folks, that's who. Or, as people on the inside of computing often put it, ``the rest of us.''

As one of the panelists pointed out, the ``rest of us'' adds up to a lot of people - and most of them don't know a thing about this revolution, except that it will have an impact on their lives. They certainly don't attend conferences like this one, although many of the topics are of keen interest to everyone: privacy, the nature of work, freedom of speech, the role of government.

The people who attend these conferences, and other conferences at which the weighty questions of technology arise, discuss using computers to improve the lives of the technological ``have nots'' by giving them access to computing. But, as the panel pointed out, what those people really do not have is any voice in how the systems are designed or in the development of the rules that govern their use.

Until the people inside the industry really do offer those outside it a seat at the table, and not just some conscience-assuaging mindshare, the ``have nots'' will never become ``haves.'' But given the response of the insiders last week, I'm not holding my breath.

Write Rory J. O'Connor at the Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, Calif. 95190; phone (408) 920-5019; fax (408) 920-5917 or send e-mail to rjoconnor on Mercury Center or rjoconnor(at)aol.com on the Internet. END!R3?SJ-TECH-COL

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