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[Nettime-bold] They came, they surfed, they went back to the beach

Virtual Society? the social science of electronic technologies

They came, they surfed, they went back to the beach: why some 
people stop using the internet

 by Sally Wyatt

 Related Story: Slump in the Number of US Internet Users (Cyber 
 Dialogue 30th November 1999) 

 Net is passing fad 

 (Prepared for the Society for Social Studies of Science  
 conference, San Diego, October 1999)


 In many discussions about the future of the internet, it is  
 assumed that once people have been exposed to its wonders, they 
 will embrace it wholeheartedly. Thus, data about the growth of 
 numbers of users are extrapolated to demonstrate even greater 
 future growth. Problems of non-access are associated with 
 various forms of social exclusion; the possibility of voluntary 
 non-access is rarely acknowledged. Even more rare is the 
 recognition of the possibility that people might make an 
 informed choice not to continue to use the internet.

 Within the technology and innovation studies literature, there  
 is discussion of public acceptance of new technology, public 
 resistance (often assumed to be based on ignorance and fear), 
 barriers to use and how to overcome them. Such literature 
 usually assumes access to technology is necessarily desirable, 
 and the question becomes one of how to increase access. 
 Informed, voluntary rejection of technology is not mentioned. I 
 will return to this later, but I want to argue that this 
 invisibility reflects the continued dominance of the virtues of 
 technological progress, not only amongst policy-makers but also 
 amongst the STS academic community, who would probably reject 
 such a charge.

 This presentation draws on some of the data being analysed  
 within the Virtual Society? Project, From the net to the web and 
 beyond: actors and interests in the construction of the internet 
 being conducted together with two colleagues from the University 
 of East London, Tiziana Terranova and Graham Thomas, who do not 
 necessarily share the views I am about to express. At best, this 
 is work-in-progress, however, it is more of an initial 
 exploration of some ideas preparatory to developing further 
 research. Identifying this invisible group raises again the 
 questions surrounding the ANT dictum, ‘follow the actors’,
 have already been raised by Martin & Scott 1992, Russell 1986, 
 Bijsterveld 1991. How do you do this when some actors are 
 completely invisible?

 The presentation has three aims: 

   To review the available data and literature about internet 
   rejectors    To discuss the policy implications of internet 
   rejection and non-use To explore the implications for 
   technology studies of the absence of technology rejectors 

 1. Available data and literature about internet rejectors  This 
 will be a very short discussion – there isn’t much. I did a 
 literature search on various combinations of internet, 
 computers, information technology, technology on the one hand 
 and rejection, dropout, non-use, barriers, have-nots on the 
 other, and came up with very little, and most often with no hits 
 at all. ‘Barriers’ yielded most, but most of that was about 
 national level adoption or education. ‘Drop-outs’ also
 quite a few, including some interesting material about young 
 people who dropped out of school or university as a result of 
 doing too much internet surfing. My absolute favourite was 
 entitled, ‘treating technophobia – a longitudinal evaluation
 the computerphobia reduction program’. Sounds very painful! 

 The only work I’m aware of is by two Americans – James Katz
 Philip  Aspden in a paper which appeared last year in 
 Telecommunications Policy. Their analysis of ‘internet
 was a side-effect of some research about barriers to Internet 
 use in the US. They candidly admit they included the category of 
 ‘former user’ in their surveys only for logical completeness.

 They conducted a national random telephone survey to investigate 
 users’ and non-users’ perceptions of the Internet. They were 
 surprised to discover in October 1995 that ex-users and current 
 users each accounted for about 8% of the sample. They did 
 another survey in November 1996, by which time the proportion of 
 current users had more than doubled to 19% of the sample, the 
 proportion of ex-users had also increased, but by less, to 11%

 Some interesting results: 

   teenagers are more likely to drop out than those over 20    
   reasons for dropping out also varied by age older people more 
   likely to complain about costs and difficulties of usage 
   younger people more likely to quit because of loss of access 
   or lack of interest (if widespread, and true that the internet 
   is one of many things with which teenagers experiment and then 
   use in moderation, then important implications for the long-
   term future of the internet) 

 Another tiny bit of data concerns the use of the Amsterdam 
 Digital City –  one of the early digital cities. In the past 
 couple of years, many previously regular users have stopped 
 visiting. In this case, they have not become ex-users of the 
 Internet, but as service providers have proliferated, they have 
 more choices. Until recently, the Amsterdam Digital City was one 
 of the few sources of email and an easily accessible host for 
 web pages. The community building aspirations of the ADC were 
 not compelling for many of their early users. This also has 
 important implications for those committed to the community 
 building potential of the Internet.

 Perhaps we need to turn to some other technologies. For example, 
 there is  some recent work by Louis Leung and Ran Wei about 
 mobile phone use/non-use in Hong Kong. Mobile phones have a much 
 longer history than the internet as a consumer technology. 
 Following the work of Everett Rogers in the 1980s about adoption 
 of communication technologies, they identify four groups of 
 factors important in determining whether someone adopts a 
 technology or not: 

   Individual personality traits (not included in this study)    
   Socio-economic characteristics Interpersonal communication 
   influence (including use by individuals’ social networks, and 
   mass media, but not advertising) Perceived attributes of the 
   innovation itself 

 Age, income, gender and education all work in expected ways. 
 However, age  dominates – if you’re older (unspecified),
 more money and more education doesn’t make much difference. 
 Income levels are declining in significance – suggesting the 
 good old theory, beloved by free marketeers, of ‘trickle
 works – mobile phones are no longer perceived as the preserve of 
 young men in suits. Intensity of use of mass media is not 
 significant, but belonging to social groups which use mobile 
 phones is. Equally unsurprising is the finding that non-users 
 perceive the technology to be unnecessary because they have an 
 alternative or because they find mobile phones complex to use 
 (including pricing structures) or intrusive. Leung and Wei’s 
 results confirm a growing gap between communication rich and 
 poor, with mobile phone users more likely to possess a range of 
 alternative and complimentary forms of telecommunication – 
 pagers, answering machines, etc; whereas non-users simply had 
 one reasonable alternative. [Note: this accepts the premise that 
 more communication devices = good; only one adequate 
 communication device = bad] This work on mobile phones isn’t 
 very surprising – people don’t use mobile phones if they have

 alternatives, think they’re intrusive and/ or expensive. By 
 extension, maybe some people don’t use the internet because they 
 have alternative sources of information and forms of 
 communication which are appropriate to their needs, or because 
 they think it is cumbersome and expensive. 

 2. Policy implications of internet rejection and non-use  The 
 question of dropouts may only be a transient issue – all 
 dropouts may eventually return to the fold. On the other hand, 
 the internet may follow the model of CB radio – explosive growth 
 followed by collapse. It’s still too soon to say. In any event, 
 in the US alone, there are literally millions of former users 
 about whom very little is known. They may be a source of 
 important information for subsequent developments. Even within 
 the paradigm of increasing access, it is important to know why 
 such people leave and what could be done to lure them back. 
 Rather than denying the possibility of their existence, internet 
 service and content providers as well as policy-makers might all 
 have much to learn from this group. Steve Woolgar tells me that 
 when he told the industrial member of the Virtual Society? 
 advisory group who is a member of the World Wide Web consortium 
 about this data regarding the existence of former users, the 
 response is that Steve is ‘completely bonkers’. Why do actors

 find voluntary rejection so hard to contemplate?

 What categories of non-use can we identify?    Never used – 
 because don’t want to Never used – because can’t get
access, for 
 variety of reasons Stopped using – voluntarily (boring, 
 alternatives, cost, etc.) Stopped using – involuntarily (cost, 
 loss of institutional access, etc.) 

 Policy implications are different for the different groups – for 
 1&3 it might be appropriate to develop new services to attract 
 them [or, learning from the Minitel experience – get rid of some 
 old ones so people have to switch]; traditional access issues 
 related to cost, skill and location might be important for 2&4. 

 Once one has made the step of including ‘former user’, as
 as ‘current  user’ and ‘never a user’, it is not
too much more 
 of a leap to begin to take apart the notion of ‘user’. What 
 exactly does it mean to be a user? How is it defined? A recent 
 survey in the UK (NOP early summer 1999) suggests that 26% of 
 users didn’t access the internet at all in the week preceding 
 the survey, and a further 20% only accessed it once or twice. 
 [This survey illustrates another curious feature of internet 
 usage data: when users themselves are asked, no one admits to 
 looking for pornography. A rather different picture emerges when 
 one looks at provider data. I realise I have presented the 
 frequency of use data as if it is unproblematic whereas the 
 point of this comment about the nature of use is to call into 
 question the reliability of the data.] The point I’m trying to 
 make is that we need to treat the notion of internet usage in a 
 rather more nuanced way, distinguishing between complete 
 ‘surfies’, and those people who don’t like to get their
hair wet 
 and only venture into the water occasionally.

 3. Implications for technology studies of the absence of non-
 users  It’s time to declare my personal interest in this topic. 
 Of course I use the internet, though I don’t have home access. I 
 could not have written this without it – both to check sources 
 and to discuss some of the ideas with friends and colleagues in 
 different parts of the world. However, there is another major 
 20th century technology which I don’t use – a car, the
 that changed the world’. I’m very well qualified –
passed my 
 test first time in Toronto when I was 16 – took me two tries in 
 England when I was 25. I’ve never really driven much – twice
 think since I passed my British test 15 years ago, and I have 
 never owned a car. Even amongst critically and environmentally 
 aware STS scholars, at least those in the UK and US, this is 
 regarded as a deviant and bizarre choice. One of my closest 
 friends thinks it reflects a failure to grow up on my part: 
 ‘real adults drive cars’.

 [I don’t want to give the impression of being a neo-Heideggerian 
 – I do  own other contemporary IT-based products, and travel 
 frequently by plane. I enjoy many of the features of late 20th 
 century life.] To what extent is not driving analagous to not 
 using the internet? Given the prevalence of ‘superhighway’ 
 metaphors in some policy discussions, particularly here in the 
 US, is there anything to be learned from non-drivers? Or are 
 they another invisible group? (Yes – according to my recent 
 literature search.) Especially non-drivers like me who have a 
 choice. I could afford a car – most of my British colleagues 
 have one. Not having one is usually regarded as a sign of 
 deprivation. At the very least, the existence of people like me 
 means we have to be careful about how we interpret data about 
 non-ownership/use of particular technologies. Maybe non-use of 
 the internet reflects some other phenomenon – like it’s
 there are easier alternatives for obtaining the same 
 information, people would rather spend their time and money 
 doing other things, or people have spatially close social 

 Thinking about cars also highlights the connections between the 
 online  world and the offline world. I simultaneously inhabit 
 the same world as car drivers and a different one. My life is 
 affected by cars – as a pedestrian and more recently a cyclist, 
 I have to watch out for them; as an organism that needs oxygen, 
 my quality of air is affected; as a bus user, they slow me down. 
 I am constrained by the reach of public transport in where I can 
 live and visit. My knowledge of London is very much based on 
 public transport routes convenient to where I lived. Just as 
 there are different maps of the physical world, so there are of 
 the internet. The London underground map is a better and more 
 useful representation of my experience than a topographical one. 
 There is also a parallel universe which I don’t visit much. 
 Recently I was driven from London to Amsterdam. I was fascinated 
 – to the amusement of my driver friend - by this alien world of 
 motorways, petrol stations, motorway services, drive-on ferries. 
 There are advantages to not driving – saves me lots of money, 
 time and stress, reduces my chances of being killed or killing 
 others, and in these post-Rio, post-Montreal days of greater 
 environmental awareness, provides me with a tremendous feeling 
 of self-righteousness. Will the cyberworld come to dominate the 
 real world to anything like the same extent? Is it possible to 
 turn off the machine? Or, will everyone’s choices come to be 
 shaped by the net?

 1. Technology as cultural symbol  All technologies are imbued 
 with cultural significance. This is especically true for the 
 car, a paradigm case of a symbol of modernity in the 20th 
 century. To many people cars reflect wealth, power, virility and 
 freedom. The internet promises many of the same attributes, on 
 an even larger scale, with its promise of global reach. While 
 this simply might not be appropriate for many individuals and 
 organisations for whom time is not short and for whom 
 geographical distance between self and significant others is not 
 great, the symbolic importance remains profound.

 2. Technology as control and surveillance

 You need a license to drive a car, though you didn’t during its 
 early days  [in Belgium they became compulsory only on 1 January 
 1967; anyone over 18 on that date received a license 
 automatically, email: Jacques Berleur, ‘funny question’, 20 
 October 1999]. In many parts of the world, a driver’s license 
 serves as official identification. In the UK, you are legally 
 obliged to inform the DVLC (Driver Vehicle License Centre) of a 
 change of address. Most people are not aware of it, but it 
 effectively serves as a population register, and is used as such 
 by the police. These days, much car use is subject to enormous 
 levels of surveillance, through the spread of cctv (closed 
 circuit television) [discussions in Netherlands about electronic 
 tracking of all cars]. Many of us choose to ignore the 
 surveillance capacities of the internet in our daily practices, 
 hoping that the sheer volume of traffic will serve to protect 
 our privacy, but all of our activities on the internet are 
 pretty transparent. If you wish to escape the surveillance 
 capabilities of modern societies, avoid modern technologies.

 3. Network technologies as totalising externalities  Cars are 
 not simply wheels, engines and steel: they include test centres 
 for drivers and vehicles, motorways, garages, petro-chemical 
 industry, drive-in movies, out-of-town shopping centres. The 
 more people use cars, the greater the infrastructure to support 
 them, and the lessening of car-free space. Similarly, the 
 internet is not just web content: it includes computers, 
 telecommunication links, routers, servers and other 
 applications. The more people use it, the more pressure there is 
 to develop user-friendly interfaces and provide greater 
 bandwidth. But there is a paradox here: the technologies become 
 more useful if more people use them but both tarmac highways and 
 electronic superhighways become more congested. There have been 
 several ads recently for cars on British, Dutch and Canadian 
 television in which the ideal presented is of a single car on a 
 remote, non-urban road – no other cars, no other people. This 
 resonates with Wired’s pictorial representation of the future 
 [nature – no machines, no people – use OHP, january 98

 [Technology vs. Nature] 

 [Is rejection of technology, whether cars or the internet, an 
 indication  of a deep green agenda? Is it possible to occupy a 
 more ambivalent position, or is Donna Haraway right, that we’re 
 all cyborgs now? – need to think about this some more, won’t 
 mention it]

 4. Specific technology as leitmotif for social science research  
 In the 1970s and throughout part of the 1980s, even for 
 researchers not particularly involved in STS, the car and its 
 industry were the site of much empirical research. Moreover, the 
 auto worker was the prototypical industrial worker. [Today, is 
 the prototypical worker the code slave, the call centre operator 
 or the supercool multimedia designer?] For better or worse, the 
 car industry became the symbol of industrial society, and much 
 effort was expended in understanding the dynamics of that 
 industry. There were problems with this including the 
 promulgation of the idea of the skilled male worker as the norm, 
 and the generalisation of a set of industrial relations and 
 working practices to other sectors. Social theory focused on 
 questions of alienation and massification, extending them, not 
 always appropriately, to other areas of social life.

 In terms of social science research agendas, we may be 
 witnessing  something similar today, possibly even on a grander 
 scale. Just as countries have programmes to promote ICT R&D, to 
 encourage the location of ICT production and the adoption of 
 ICTs by industry, lots of social science research programmes are 
 devoted to studying the re-configuration of the social-technical 
 divide, using ICTs in general and the internet in particular as 
 exemplars. For example, the Virtual Society? Programme asks, 

   Are fundamental shifts taking place in how people behave, 
   organise themselves and interact as a result of new 
   technologies? Are electronic technologies bringing about 
   significant changes in the nature and experience of 
   interpersonal relations, in communications, social control, 
   participation, inclusion and exclusion, social cohesion, trust 
   and identity? (ESRC 1999: 3)

 Perfectly good questions, but even though they allow for 
 negative answers  and the question mark illustrates the 
 programme’s commitment to scepticism, there is a danger that we 
 may repeat past mistakes – to totalise; to take the use of ICT
 by individuals, organisations and countries - as the norm and 
 non-use as a deficiency to be remedied. I am suggesting that one 
 way of avoiding these problems is to take seriously non-users 
 and former users as relevant social groups, as actors who might 
 influence the shape of the world. Once we’ve solved the problem 
 of how to research the invisible, maybe it will be time to stop 
 researching ICT altogether.

 The work on which this is based is supported 
 by the Virtual Society? Programme 
 of the Economic and Social 
 Research Council, grant no. L132251050. 
 Tiziana Terranova and Graham Thomas, with whom I am working on 
 this project, almost certainly do not share the views expressed here. 
 Bijsterveld, Karen (1991) ‘The nature of aging. Some problems of 
 an "insider’s perspective" illustrated by dutch debates aboug 
 aging (1945-1982)’ Paper presented at the Society for Social 
 Studies of Science meeting, cambridge, MA. November. Burrows, 
 Roger et al (1999) ‘Virtual community care? Social policy and 
 the emergence of computer mediated social support’ paper 
 prepared for submission to Information, communication and 
 society. ESRC (1999) Virtual Society? The social science of 
 electronic technologies, Profile ’99, Swindon: ESRC. Katz, James 
 E and Aspden, Philip (1998) ‘Internet dropouts in the USA’ 
 Telecommunications Policy, 22, 4/5, pp.327-39. Leung, Louis and 
 Wei, Ran (1999) ‘Who are the mobile phone have-nots? Influences 
 and consequences’ New Media & Society, 1,2, pp.209-26. Martin, 
 Brian and Scott, Pam (1992) ‘Automatic vehicle identification: A 
 test of theories of technology’ Science, Technology and Human 
 Values, 17,4, pp.485-505. NOP (1999) ‘Internet user profile 
 study’ confidential report prepared in September for syndicate 
 members. Russell, Stewart (1986) ‘The social construction of 
 artefacts: A response to Pinch and Bijker’ Social Studies of 
 Science, 16, pp.331-46. Email comments from Flis Henwood, Helen 
 Kennedy, Tim Jordan, Ian Miles, Lera Miles, Nod Miller, Dave 
 O’Reilly, Graham Thomas; pencil comments from Hans Radder. 

 Sally Wyatt  University of Amsterdam Wyatt@swi.psy.uva.nl

 Related Story: Slump in the Number of US Internet Users (Cyber 
 Dialogue  30th November 1999)

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