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[Nettime-bold] <nettime> Langdon Winner on results of a new technology poll

[from: NetFuture #103 http://www.oreilly.com/~stevet/netfuture/ ]


Langdon Winner (winner@rpi.edu)

2.1 February 29, 2000

Everywhere one looks these days there's giddy excitement about technology,
a sentiment so common it often verges on mass ecstasy. In the media as well
as in conversations of everyday folks, "technology" is praised as the fount
of everything that is new and promising in the world, a cornucopia of
fabulous jobs, higher incomes, better health, longer lives, and more
satisfying ways of living. Improvements that people once attributed to
modern civilization or perhaps to science, are now widely believed to flow
from "technology," especially the realm of digital electronics and computer

But does the insistent buzz of news stories and personal anecdotes reflect
what the great majority of people are actually thinking? Is the ardor for
computers, cyberspace, and dot com enterprise displayed in tacky Super Bowl
ads also common in the populace at large? A poll released this week
strongly suggests the answer is "yes."

The survey was designed and sponsored by National Public Radio, The Kaiser
Family Foundation and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
University and was conducted last November and December by International
Communications Research (ICR) of Media, Pa. Pollsters tapped a nationally
representative sample of 1,506 adults 18 years and older, asking a long
list of questions about technology, especially their views of the computer
and Internet. The same survey also asked 625 children, 10-17, for their
views on the matter. Results from this research are extensive, worth
lengthy analysis and interpretation. My comments here offer some initial,
highly personal impressions, looking mainly at opinions from the sample of
adults 60 years and younger.

Positive Feelings -----------------

The survey confirms that computer use is indeed widespread: 92% of adults,
18-60, have used a computer; 53% use a computer at work. Perhaps more
surprisingly, 69% of those polled reported having a computer at home; of
these 70% said they had just one computer, not more. For most people,
having a computer at home is a fairly new experience; more than half the
sample said they'd gotten their first computer just within the past five

The Internet is now widely available to Americans: 75% of adults have used
it at one time or another; 53% have access to the Internet or email at home
while 27% use the Internet at work. For those who log on to the Internet on
the job, 63% said it was "essential" for their work.

The data suggests that people use the Internet at home primarily for
information gathering and leisure activities -- current events (43%),
entertainment, sports and hobbies (44%), travel (38%), and health (31%).
But the more practical, business-like uses are much less common: paying
bills (11%); investments (10%); and shopping (28%). Can it be that people
are dragging their feet when it comes to exploiting the economic functions
of networked computing in the home? For now, the data suggests as much.

Seeking a larger context to situate its findings, the poll asked people to
list the one or two technological developments of the twentieth century
they found most significant. The computer received far and away the highest
ranking with 65%. Next came the automobile with 33%. Far down the list were
older technologies, ones heavily promoted in their heydays decades back,
but now evidently fading in the public's esteem.

Remember the saving power of nuclear energy and the "revolution" it
promised in the 1950s? Only 11% of those polled now place it among the most
significant technologies. Similarly, the halo that once surrounded space
flight seems to have lost its shine; only 14% placed rocketry in the top
rank. Even television scored rather low in the pantheon of technical
systems, coming in at a mere 19%. Given the prominence of TV in people's
lives, it is fascinating to see it pale in significance when compared to
the computer. Rankings of other notable contenders include the airplane
(15%); broadcast radio (12%) and genetic engineering (14%).

Several questions in the poll tried to discover how people feel about
changes in their lives brought about by technological transformation.
Adults were asked to respond to the assertion, "Science and technology make
our way of life change too fast." Those who agreed "strongly" or "to some
extent" totaled 56%. Asked how well they were adapting to computers, 56%
said they were "keeping up", 43% "being left behind."

Answers to the lifestyle questions produced what is probably the most
important headline to emerge from the study, namely, that most people of
all ages and income levels now have very positive feelings about the
computer. Those who have a computer at home were asked whether "a computer
at home has made your life better or worse, or hasn't it made much
difference?" A large majority, 64%, said the computer had made life better
while 2% answered "worse" and 34% indicated not much difference. The
children sampled were even more positive; 91% said they thought the
computer made life better for Americans. By comparison, only 42% of adults
and 35% of youngsters thought television made their lives better. In fact,
computer use seems to be cutting into American's TV watching; 28% of adults
and 45% of children say they have watched less TV since the computer
entered the home, although the exact amount of time was not measured.

Toward a Solitary Life ----------------------

But the findings about computers and the better life come with a stunning
paradox. Of those who have computers at home 57% report they now spend less
time with families and friends. This mirrors controversial results in other
surveys of our emerging computer culture. A 1998 survey at Carnegie Mellon
University found astonishing levels of loneliness among first-time computer
users. Another poll just released by political scientist Norman Nie of
Stanford University also finds computer users spending less time with
friends and attending fewer social events. Stories in the *New York Times*
have dubbed this phenomenon the "Newer, Lonelier Crowd," recalling studies
from sociologists of the 1950s that described the collapse of community
life in America and the rise of an isolated individualism.

Today's advocates of virtual community howl in disbelief whenever results
of this kind are released; they prefer colorful anecdotes about all the
people they've seen energetically connecting online. But when substantial
numbers of people in scientifically selected random samples tell you they
are disconnecting from those closest to them, all those lovely stories
about close community in cyberspace seem like wishful thinking.

Let's face it: Large numbers of Americans are finding satisfaction in
computer games, email, chat rooms, and Web browsing and are perfectly happy
doing these things in more or less solitary ways. Is this news really all
that surprising? Unlike television viewing that at least provides families
a semblance of social interaction as they watch shows together, computer
use is typically a one-person, one-tube affair. Perhaps the computer
finally offers ways to resolve a problem identified by Jean-Paul Sartre:
"Hell is other people."

Another favorite theme among proponents of computerized social life -- that
the Internet will be a tonic for democracy -- also finds scant support in
the poll. The computer and Internet, you'll recall, were supposed to
revitalize politics by making it easier and more attractive for citizens to
participate. I wait by my window each day looking for signs that this is
actually happening. Alas, very little political activity is reflected in
the NPR/Kaiser Foundation/Kennedy School data. Only 12% of adult computer
users had ever visited a political candidate's site on the Internet and
only 2% had contributed money to a political candidate or charity online.
By comparison, 31% of children with computers in the home said they had
visited a pornography Web site (if only by accident).

Of course, the political findings do not begin to measure the kinds of
high-speed, online mobilization and lobbying one sees among activists
nowadays, a phenomenon that Bruce Bimber has termed "accelerated
pluralism". But if one's talking about engagement of the populace as a
whole in public affairs (and isn't that what democracy is all about?) then
the widely predicted reinvigoration of political life does not seem to have
reached some 88% of us who are currently asleep at the mouse.

Race, Income, and Jobs ----------------------

Today's worries about the "digital divide" are to some extent confirmed by
the study, although the inequalities are not as drastic as the worst-case
scenarios have suggested. Among persons with low income ($30,000 per year
or less) 35% use a computer at work and 48% at home; among the less
educated (high school or less) 38% at work, 57% at home. The gap between
income levels is most prominent when it comes to Internet use at home where
72% of families with incomes of $50,000 or more are connected while only
31%, of low income families have Internet links. Among blacks and whites
there was a relatively small gap in computer use at work, 28% vs. 36%, but
much larger signs of inequality at home: 35% vs. 52% in computer use and
19% vs. 34% in the availability of the Internet or email.

The specific ways people use the Internet is more greatly influenced by
income and education than by race. Both high-income blacks (27%) and whites
(38%) reported doing some shopping on line. But this figure drops to 6% of
low-income blacks and 10% of whites. Thus far the poor have not caught the
bug of E-Commerce. (Once again social science does a wonderful job of
revealing the obvious: Those with lower incomes tend to shop less

About half of those polled (46%) said they believe that differences in
access to computing have widened gaps in income and opportunity in our
society. Apparently more generous than their elected leaders or today's
talk show hosts, 61% of the sample affirmed that government should help
low-income people gain access to computers and the Internet.

How realistic are the popular views reflected in the poll? In my reading,
people seem to have a fairly well-balanced understanding of what computers
can do and also know of their drawbacks and dangers. Hence, while there was
overwhelming enthusiasm for the Internet, more than half of adults polled
said they trusted the information found on the Net just a little or not at
all. Given my own experience, that seems about right. The data also
revealed folks to be profoundly wary of a host of troubles linked to
computer use -- loss of privacy, smut on the Web, dangerous strangers
online, and other ills.

Interestingly enough, large majorities of those who recognized problems in
the online world -- pornography, information on building bombs, gun
purchasing, hate speech, false advertising, etc. -- believe that
"government should do something about" these matters, a conclusion that
candidates running for office this year might well notice. As reflected in
the survey, the general public seems worried about the darker side of
cyberspace, far more so than the digital cognoscenti in Silicon Valley or
our free-market-happy political leaders.

Whether people are realistic about computers, jobs and income is a
fascinating question as well. An astonishing 87% of those polled said they
are not concerned that computers might eliminate their jobs. In addition,
some 40% believe that computers in the workplace will increase wages, while
39% think it will make no difference. While these views reflect the glowing
economic optimism of the Clinton years, they seem at odds with some
longer-term historical trends. In recent decades the introduction of
computers has eliminated whole categories of jobs formerly held by ordinary
folks -- telephone operators, bank clerks, and the like.

Networked computing makes it extremely easy to get rid of the middle man,
the person who stands between the information or product desired and its
ultimate consumer. But these middle-level jobs are exactly the ones most
people still hold, the very ones targeted by "innovators" who hope to reap
profits by "cutting costs." While the booming economy of the past decade
may continue to create new kinds of work and keep unemployment rates down,
the belief that computers do not pose a threat to a great many existing
jobs seems bizarre. Perhaps Americans have gotten used to having their
lives shaken up by upheavals in "The New Economy." And perhaps they have
come to accept wage levels that have remained essentially flat for several
decades. A key message from the poll: Computers are fun and I'm still
working. What, me worry?

Another contradiction revealed in the survey is a tension between the
overwhelmingly positive feelings expressed about computers and the
deteriorating estimate people have of television. Only about 4 people in 10
said that television had made life better; even beepers (of all things)
received a higher score, 50% on the "makes life better" scale. With a 64%
positive rating, computers and the Internet seem well situated to pull
society toward Nirvana.

But perhaps the public is unaware that in the next several years the two
boxes -- computer and TV -- are destined to merge into a single entity, one
that will (if its corporate planners have anything to say about it) bring a
torrent of advertising, entertainment and commercial messages into the
home, crowding out many of the charming features of the Internet that folks
now find so appealing -- its flexibility, openness and way of putting
ordinary people in control. The survey gives no indication folks realize
that there's likely to be trouble ahead as today's romance with the
computer encounters pungent economic forces.

Unasked Questions -----------------

The IRC research gives us much to ponder. It is certainly a relief to have
some solid numbers to help test the various claims and counter claims
advanced as Americans flock to the online world. At the same time, it is
worth noting some serious limitations of polls like these, especially their
unwillingness to move beyond conventional assumptions about society and

For example, the poll did not ask people for their opinions about
improvement or decline in the communities in which they reside. An
excellent question would have been: "Is online commerce making your
neighborhood, town, or city a better or worse place to live?" But nothing
remotely like that question was asked of the hundreds surveyed. The
underlying worldview of the survey and its sponsors projects a society of
individuals who move back and forth between the workplace and family, but
encounter nothing in between. Thus, the poll sheds no light on crucial
issues about computers and the vitality of present and future communities,
issues hotly debated in writings about cyberspace and society.

In a similar way, the survey did nothing to encourage people to share their
opinions on emerging concentrations of economic and political power,
developments obviously connected to the development of digital electronics
and widely recognized as such. Perhaps the pollsters found opinions on
these matters too volatile to explore, too difficult to measure. But the
gaping absence of such topics lends an air of eerie unreality to otherwise
valuable research.

Most Americans are perfectly aware that the new millionaires, billionaires,
and media conglomerates are bringing substantial and rapid change to our
ways of living. All of us know at least a little about Bill Gates, the
antitrust suit, mega-mergers between AOL and Time Warner, and the like. Why
not ask our opinions about wealth, power and conflict? Those who designed
the poll evidently decided to err on the side of politeness, not bothering
to inquire about public issues that only make people unhappy.

One last gem popped out at me from the reams of data and analysis. Buried
in the sample was a small but not insignificant minority of persons who
don't have a computer and evidently don't plan to get one. Of all the
people queried, this group seemed consistently most contented. Although
almost unimaginable in the year 2000, these rugged souls claim they're
actually able to do their jobs, communicate with friends, obtain
information, and even go shopping, all without the power of digital
equipment. Simply amazing! Asked if they feel "left out" of the world
taking shape around them, three quarters answered "no." Obviously, they
don't know what they're missing.

 * * * * * * * * *

Tech Knowledge Revue is produced at the Chatham Center for Advanced Study,
339 Bashford Road, North Chatham, NY 12132. Langdon Winner can be reached
at: winner@rpi.edu and at his Web page: http://www.rpi.edu/~winner .

Copyright Langdon Winner 2000. Distributed as part of NetFuture:
http://www.oreilly.com/~stevet/netfuture/ . You may redistribute this
article for noncommercial purposes, with this notice attached.


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