As the use and influence of the computer Internet explode in the United States, the "digital divide" grows wider. It has become what some see as a chasm between those who use this powerful information and communication tool, and those who lack access to the Net or the skills needed to use it.
For years, computer use has been assumed to be an either or situation. Either you have the income, language skills, and education level to experience the wondrous world that the Internet lays before you, or you do not. It was assumed that the Internet would be irresistible to anyone who could access it.
But a new report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project not only reveals that 42 percent of adult Americans do not use the Internet, it also lists some surprising reasons why. Chief among them, the Pew survey found, is that millions of people simply aren't interested. Of those non-users, one fifth live in wired homes yet remain offline, and 17 percent tried the Net but have abandoned it.
Pew research specialist Amanda Lenhart wrote the report. "Many people, particularly those who are in some way socially closer to the Internet, either themselves have had previous experience with the Internet or live with someone who uses the Internet," she explained. "Those folks in particular are the ones who are likely to say, 'You know what? I don't want it. It's not something I need in my life. It's not something I want. I've created ways of communicating with other people, and the Internet's not something that I need to use.'"
In the course of their study, Pew researchers identified a number of people who felt the Internet could expose them to identity thieves, was immoral because of the abundance of pornography on the Net, or simply was not a productive use of their time. "Some folks even told us that they were concerned that if they started to use the Internet, it would absorb all their available time," said Amanda Lenhart. "They were afraid of almost becoming addicted to it."
And the Pew survey found a significant number of what it calls "Net drop-outs." "In many cases, they encountered difficulties with software, difficulties with the Internet itself," she said. "And that wasn't something that intuitively felt right to them. There's also something to do with sort of self-definition, people who think of themselves as sort of 'high-touch' rather than 'high-tech.' They want to touch the paper. They want to talk to someone face-to-face. They don't want to get their information mediated by a screen. Those are other people who are going to say, 'You know, I don't want this technology in my life.'"
Indeed, the Internet is anything BUT irresistible to Americans like 42-year-old John McKinney of Boone, Iowa. Married, father of three, he's a switchman for the Union Pacific Railroad. "Many of my friends own computers, and I've watched them sit around and play with them," he said. "And, put it this way - may I quote Thoreau? It seems to be a 'quicker means to the same bad ends' in many respects. Since professionally I don't need one, I don't have one. It just doesn't interest me as a form of recreation. And for me, that's all it would be. If I wanted such a thing and was willing to spend the money for it, I could have one. I just don't want it. I want personal contact with someone. I don't want to look at a screen. I want to talk to a living human being. 'You're not online? What's your e-mail address?' No, to me it's just simply another product hawked by businesses to create profits for themselves. You spend an awful lot of time ingesting pre-prepared experiences. The television, movies, I suppose music, what have you. And to me, a computer is simply another pre-prepared experience. You're not living your own life, having your own experiences, dealing with your own reality when you're staring at something somebody else has created and cleverly crafted for your consumption."
The full citation from philosopher Henry David Thoreau is as follows: "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end."
Such attitudes do not surprise Penn State University information and communications professor Jorge Schement. He has long studied how Americans adapt to new technologies. "We sometimes begin with the assumption - I say 'we' meaning policymakers and the general public - that perfectly good technology is perfectly good for everybody," said Jorge Schemnt. "And what we've discovered over the years is that all Americans don't come from the same stripe. There are a lot of folks who were living perfectly good lives before the Internet arrived, and some of them will continue to do so. Just because the Internet is in a home doesn't mean everybody is using it or everybody intends to use it."
The Pew study points out, and Professor Schement confirms, that a number of older people, in particular, steer clear of the Internet because they feel clumsy, technologically inept, or even stupid in the company of techno-savvy Internet users. "All technology imposes a kind of barrier," he said. "And oftentimes getting over the barrier can be embarrassing in public, especially if you see others who have already done so. I'm sure you're familiar with stories of CEOs [corporate executives] who've taken lessons on how to use a computer but have done so secretly because they don't want others to observe their lack of ability."
Jorge Schement at Penn State and Amanda Lenhart at the Pew Project agree there can be consequences for those who choose to ignore the Internet. One is that they may be missing important government and corporate information that has migrated to the Net and can be found there alone. Another potential consequence, they say, is that, because the culture is so technocentric, Americans tend to judge those who are not technically "up to speed" as backward. There's even a pejorative term "technopeasants" for those who have not embraced the Internet.
Nevertheless, the Pew study points out that even if the saturation point of Internet households reaches 80 percent - the top figure that has so far been projected - it will still leave millions of people who might check out the Internet and say, "Thanks, but no, thanks."