Monday, March 26, 2007 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

The Other America

During a Tech Liberation Front blog happy hour last week (you can listen to the "live-from-the-bar" podcast here!), I got into a debate with some of my TLF colleagues about the future of physical versus non-physical media. I was making the argument that the impending death of physical media at the hands of intangible, digital storage has been greatly exaggerated. One of the points I made was that some people just love to "kick the tires" of their media and have something to look at and store on a shelf, whether it be a CD, a DVD, photo albums, a book or anything else. Even though I'm increasingly an all-digital storage guy like most of my TLF colleagues, there are still a lot of people out there who think different than us and prefer the old way of doing things. (I wrote about all this at greater length here.)

But there's another reason that physical media has a future: A lot of people just don't give a damn about digital technology and the Internet at all. Really, it's true! Just check out the results from this recent survey by Park Associates:

A little under one-third of U.S. households have no Internet access and do not plan to get it, with most of the holdouts seeing little use for it in their lives, according to a survey released on Friday. Park Associates, a Dallas-based technology market research firm, said 29 percent of U.S. households, or 31 million homes, do not have Internet access and do not intend to subscribe to an Internet service over the next 12 months.

The second annual National Technology Scan conducted by Park found the main reason potential customers say they do not subscribe to the Internet is because of the low value to their daily lives they perceive rather than concerns over cost. Forty-four percent of these households say they are not interested in anything on the Internet, versus just 22 percent who say they cannot afford a computer or the cost of Internet service, the survey showed. [emphasis added]

Now all this could change, of course. The price of almost all digital technology will certainly continue to fall. Internet access will increasingly be integrated into everything we do and be accessible everywhere we are. And, most importantly, today's youth will grow up with different expectations about digital technologies and the Net. And they will be better equipped to take advantage of them.

But, despite all that, it could still very well be the case that -- as the title of this Reuters story about the poll says -- "many Americans see little point to Web." And things could stay that way for quite some time. If it does, and there remains a large percentage of Americans who simply choose to opt-out of the digital lifestyle the rest of us relish, it has some interesting implications for technology policy. How big a deal is "the digital divide" or broadband diffusion when millions say they are uninterested in technology at any price? Can tele-commuting and distance learning become more widespread if a big chunk of homes don't bother with computers or digital connections? And so on.

More broadly speaking, this poll suggests that the Internet and digital connectivity are not yet viewed as "essential goods" by a significant group of Americans. Let's face it, few of us in this country could spend a week without electricity, basic telephone service, refrigeration, running water or flush toilets. But plenty of us could do without the Internet and digital connections for that long and probably be just fine. Heck, I'm going to be in DisneyWorld with the kids for several days next week and plan on abstaining from any Net surfing or e-mail during that time. At least that's the plan, but I'm sure I'll find a way to cheat and get online for at least a little while!

posted by Adam Thierer @ 11:00 PM | Generic Rant , Mass Media