“The Internet is becoming more and more widespread and will increasingly represent a scientific random sample of the population,” claims ICANN’s newest board member, Joi Ito. Quite what scientific experiments he will wish to perform, once the desired sample size has been reached, remains a mystery. But like many people who spend too long in front of their computers, he’s talking about a Platonic ideal rather than the real world.
A survey by the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration shows that the internet has entrenched the divide between rich and poor, and the races. Statistics reveal an internet that’s overwhelmingly white, wealthy and urban. And the net’s best days may even be behind it. The pace of internet adoption has tapered off to a trickle, with a substantial part of the population not interested in the internet at any price.
Only 13.9 per cent of black households and 12.6 per cent of Hispanic households have an internet connection – and less than a quarter of rural households. The spurt of internet adoption that coincided with the Napster boom – which took penetration over the fifty per cent mark – is now a distant memory. Although 13.1 per cent of the US came online in the year to September 2001, only seven per cent have been added in the subsequent two years. The lack of availability is cited by less than ten per cent of non-wired households. Almost half, or 44.1 per cent, aren’t interested at all. 38.9 per cent say it doesn’t represent value for money. The boredom is apparent elsewhere in the survey: amazingly, 17.7pc of households have dial-up, but don’t use it. Having arrived on the Information Superhighway, they’ve pulled over into the layby for a snooze.
Clearly rural areas can benefit greatly from an information service of some kind. But it’s becoming less apparent that the internet in its current shape is the way to deliver such services. Braving this toxic wasteland of spam, viruses and trolls requires a major investment for a low income household, and it isn’t clear that the payback is worth it. (Berating them for “Not Getting It™” is no longer an option, and illustrates why Professor Fisher’s work on a digital pool for music is so important: it would give everyone a good reason for having a computer connection).
We may even be approaching the problem from the wrong direction.
For a decade governments have tried to cajole the real world into jumping into cyberspace, with grants and promotions to adopt internet adoption. Perhaps what was needed instead was a drive to persuade techno utopian bloggers to join the real world. With a compassionate approach – involving patience, counseling and therapy – there’s no reason they can’t be fully integrated back into society. At which point we may begin to get computer networks that are really useful to all of us, and not just a technocratic elite.