Tuesday, April 29, 2003

At Antioch New England Graduate School, where I'm working on Web issues, someone posted a comment today on the public online conference about Pew's recently published study about Internet usage. Thought I would republish my response here:

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David Forbes writes:
>>I think we can safely say that the people who are the subjects of the Pew Research Center's (http://people-press.org/) most recent poll are not like most of us. According to their survey, 'The Ever Shifting Internet Population' (46-page .pdf - see attached file), there is a sizeable group of people out there who are never to be found on the Internet - 42 percent of Americans see no need to go online at all.<<

This is a fascinating study. A study came out 2-3 years ago (from Harris Poll, I think) with similar results -- there are many, many people who say that they are not and never will be Internet users. Also, because of illiteracy or economic conditions, many people purportedly will never have the opportunity to become Internet users.

However, this assumes a static definition of what constitutes an "Internet user" or a "computer user." I think it's possible that eventually almost everyone in the world will become a "user" of the global computer network now referred to as the Internet. But not necessarily in a conscious ("I am now using the Internet") sense.

Right now, when we think of "using" the Internet, we imagine sitting down in front of a personal computer and "going on" the Internet by typing and clicking. "Using the Internet" implies a proactive effort and conscious interaction through a device. But is that really the only way to be an Internet user?

One example I can think of is the appearance of public Web display devices -- kiosks and wall-mounted screens that display Internet-delivered content, whether for passive viewing or for interactive access. If you read a news headline on such a display, are you an Internet user? You might not think, "I am using the Internet," but you are.

To take the idea further, think of how computers are "disappearing." Not that they don't exist. In fact, they are proliferating in vast numbers, but invisibly by becoming embedded all around us -- in automobiles, consumer electronics, watches, kitchen appliances, and much more. To some people, this is a marvelous trend. To others, it's incredibly frustrating, because it means that the objects around us begin acting like computers with all of their rudeness and disregard for human needs.

Nevertheless, the embedding of computers is an accelerating trend. What would it be like if Web servers were embedded in objects all around us -- not just in electronic devices, but in clothing, furniture, building materials, traffic surfaces -- so that Internet information was being delivered and applied throughout the human environment for purposes we might not even be able to imagine right now? Then who would actually be an Internet "user"?

Al Bredenberg
Reluctant Geek
O&M '78

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Keene, NH, USA
4/29/03

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