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America's Love Affair with the Internet

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We are reaching a point where how many Americans are online is about as relevant as counting how many people have used electricity today. James Cortada examines what internet issues are next, including e-commerce, security, mobility, and equality.

Americans have definitely crossed into a new era of economic and social experience bound up in digitally-based technological changes that are producing new ways of working, new means and manners of communicating, new goods and services, and new forms of community.
—Robert J. Shapiro

Howard Rheingold homesteaded on the Internet as early as the 1970s, and in the pages ahead we will read his account of those early days. Users in the 1970s were a mixed lot of government employees, defense contractors, and members of the university community, such as students and professors. Rheingold needed to understand how telecommunications and computing worked to use what came to be known as the Internet. He had to type in nonintuitive commands on his microcomputer keyboard. Finding people on the "Net" was not simple; there were no user-friendly tools. A quarter of a century later, we have a situation where more than a third of American homes regularly access the Internet. Tools are available that allow one to find other people, buy goods and services, and communicate. All of this is done by users typing in English-language commands. In fact, the Internet is sufficiently intuitive that a user does not have to know anything about computers to use it. The cyber frontier that Rheingold remembers is now a bustling society filled with millions of residents on what so many now like to think is a crowded Information Highway. How did these changes occur so quickly, within one lifetime, and to so many people?

Let's begin by stating the obvious importance of the question: Nothing in recent years has had more of an effect on how Americans use computers than the Internet. No technology—information or otherwise—received so much attention in the 1990s or today, or has been the subject of greater misunderstanding and hype than the Internet. Yet no technology may prove more important for American computer users over the next two decades than the Internet. That is why this chapter is so long and detailed. The topic is just so important. I started this chapter with a quote from Robert J. Shapiro, Undersecretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce, which he made in June 2000, to suggest what is happening. 1 This development begs the question why? We can almost reach an understanding of what is happening by using the analogy of a love affair.

This love affair with the Internet is an honest and faithful one, nurtured over a long period of time, embraced with emotion and commitment, and poised to be an important feature of American life. What makes any discussion of the Internet difficult, of course, is the roar of noise, comments, and speculations about it to which any reading or television-watching American is exposed to today. It is hard to believe that the Internet, otherwise known as the "Information Highway," is relatively new. Yet in just a few short years (it became available to most Americans in the 1990s) often the debate is about how many Americans are on the "Net," and how the Internet will change everything, finally bringing us into the Information Age.

In this chapter I review the arrival of the Internet onto the American scene, then explore what in time historians may come to view as the second generation of computing to appear since the Internet, small devices that link to the network doing specific tasks. These include pagers and cell phones, although I do not discuss machinery that is not yet widespread, such as refrigerators that automatically call repair people (they are just now coming out on the market). My first key message is that the reaction of Americans to the Internet is consistent their previous behavior. Information infrastructures have always been endorsed, despite fits and odd starts. Because it is embraced, it will become as central to American life as is the automobile or television. My second point is that, unlike other information infrastructures of the past that Americans often implemented and embraced years before people in other countries, the Internet, while yet another American first, is rapidly being deployed around the world. I begin discussing the implications of that development in this chapter and continue the theme later in this book.

CREATION OF THE INTERNET

Now for some quiet history. The U.S. government set up ARPANET in the 1960s for its own communications with the academic and defense establishment within the United States. In 1971 four supercomputers at universities were linked together via that network so scientists could share data. During the 1970s the technical infrastructure continued to expand with a series of incremental enhancements and additional users. By 1984, computer hobbyists were becoming active on the system, and some people were beginning to use the term Internet.2 The National Science Foundation (NSF), the government agency most responsible for doling out government R&D grants, took over responsibility for managing the backbone network in 1987. But the big event came in 1990 when the World Wide Web (WWW) came online, making it much easier to access and use the network. The next turning point came in 1993 when the University of Illinois introduced a browser called Mosaic that made it possible for people to access and use (browse) the Internet much as they do today. During the second half of the 1990s, tools that made it easier to get onto the "information highway" continued to be developed, such as browsers from American startup firms (e.g., Netscape, Lycos, and Infoseek).

Students of the Internet are debating the extent of usage, but all would agree that Americans made up the largest population accessing the Net, until late 1999. In that year, for the first time Americans made up slightly less than 50 percent of the entire population of global users. While Americans still were the largest national community of users, the statistic suggested how quickly the rest of the world was getting on the Net, particularly in Western Europe and in East Asia. The best estimates suggest that by 1989 some 80,000 computers were attached to the Internet, 1.3 million in 1993. With the arrival of the World Wide Web, making it so much easier for Americans to get connected with their personal computers, one could see the effect just in the numbers. In 1994, 2.2 million computers linked to the system, following the kinds of growth we saw with the PC once it acquired relatively easy operating systems (Microsoft's in the early 1980s, Apple's a few years earlier). Growth for the Internet continued at the torrid rate that we saw with PCs. By late 1996, 14.7 million computers (big and small) were accessing the Internet, and a year later the number exceeded 26 million. 3 By early 2000, the most reliable estimates of the number of users of the Internet documented the continued expansion in the use of the Internet. Some 304 million people around the world had access to the Internet, of which 137 million lived in the United States or Canada. To put that in perspective, economists believe that in 1994 only 3 million people around the world had access to the Internet, and most of those were Americans. 4 They estimated that usage around the world had climbed by 80 percent between early 1999 and mid-2000!

Comparative data on the extent of Internet usage around the world clearly demonstrate that Americans are nearly six times as likely to be users than people in other industrialized nations. One organized effort in the U.S. to expand usage occurred in schools; it became a major program of the Clinton administration. In 1994 less than a third of American schools had some sort of access to the Internet; by the end of 1997 that number had reached 78 percent. 5 The U.S. government expected by the end of 2000 that some 95 percent of American schools would have access to the "Information Highway." One can only marvel at how rapid and extensive the deployment of the Internet into schools has been. It is nothing less than stunning.

Users followed a pattern similar to what we saw with personal computers nearly two decades earlier, as communities of users grew in number and variety. First, those for whom the ARPANET had been designed were the only ones with access to it. Then individuals introduced to ARPANET began to use it, especially after the NSF took over management of the network, essentially making it available to all academic communities, including students and staff, and not just to researchers tied to defense-related projects. These communities became global with a high concentration in the United States during the 1980s. Hobbyists were active all through the 1970s and 1980s. One of these cyber pioneers, Howard Rheingold, commented in his memoirs about the "good old days" of pioneering on the Internet:

The idea of a community accessible only via my computer screen sounded cold to me at first, but I learned quickly that people can feel passionately about e-mail and computer conferences. I've become one of them. I care more about these people I met through my computer, and I care deeply about the future of the medium that enables us to assemble.6

Rheingold recalled that his initial contact with the growing hobbyist world on the Net "was like discovering a cozy little world that had been flourishing without me, hidden within the walls of my house; an entire cast of characters welcomed me to the troupe with great merriment as soon as I found the secret door." He found a "full-scale subculture was growing on the other side of my telephone jack, and they invited me to help create something new."7

With the arrival of browsers in the early to mid-1990s, home and business users began using the network for everything from e-mail to collecting information. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Internet began to catch on quickly with the business community in the United States. Companies first started by putting their "page" out on the Internet, much like adding their address and advertisement in the yellow pages of old. They next used the tool for their own internal communications, making in-house e-mail and then business-to-business communications over the Net major applications by the late 1990s. 8 Simultaneously however, individuals began to use the Net as additional information became available. Consumers began routinely to buy PCs that had those telecommunications features (a modem) necessary to use the Internet. By the start of the new century, more than a third of American homes had gone online. These users crossed all income levels and genders.9

The room for expansion in the number of users is still enormous. If the Internet extends to all homes that have telephones in the U.S., then we should expect to see another 150 million potential users over the next decade. It is not an unreasonable projection, because telephone lines are in place today in nearly all American homes and these can be used to access the Internet. Many businesses have not yet started to use the Internet on as regular a basis for routine business transactions as they use telephones. One study by the National Association of Manufacturers suggested that as many as two-thirds did not, although that number now appears to be far too conservative.10 Companies are getting on the Net faster than individuals.

One of the sharp changes that occurred in the very late 1990s involved business uses of the technology. As with earlier technologies, first came government applications (ARPANET era) and then commercial uses. Between about 1994/1995 and 1998, the Internet became a new, practical, and attractive channel to distribute products in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of new Internet sites sprang up. There was a huge rush of IPOs on Wall Street for Internet companies like Netscape and eBay, and it seemed that every new firm had a XXX.com name. Traffic expanded rapidly, going from a miniscule number of business transactions over the Net in the mid-1990s to the point where economists were calculating that over 8 percent of U.S. retail business was being transacted over the Internet. The most dramatic case of a new brand coming into existence was facilitated by the Internet: Amazon.com which, within a couple of years, had fundamentally changed how millions of Americans bought books, and later, music and prescription medicines. In 1999, Sony began to distribute music to its customers over the Internet, signaling the start of the end of the music industry's bitter resistance to the Internet, caused by people downloading music without paying for it.11 Each year, the percent of retail business done in the United States over the Net experienced double-digit growth.

At home, a similar expansion in use of the Internet occurred, driven by practical considerations. Much of the retail business cited previously was with individuals, people purchasing books from Amazon, shirts and slacks from Lands End, buying and selling stocks as day traders, and making travel reservations. Americans of the middle and upper classes were the initial users of the Internet. Yet, as the number of Americans going online increased and the costs of PCs dropped, lower-income families started to use the Internet for shopping by the end of the century. Often goods and services were less expensive over the Net because providers could cut out the middlemen such as stores and travel agents, passing some of the savings on to their customers. Amazon.com, for example, routinely sold books over the Net for nearly a third off retail price, and even after adding shipping costs, an order still proved less expensive than a trip to the local bookstore. It could also offer every American book in print—usually several million, and many others of British origin—while even the largest bookstores in America normally stocked only just over 100,000 volumes.

Many of the information-based activities Americans became involved in during the last decade of the 20th century, and which are the subject of a great deal of the rest of this book, they accessed via the Internet. As with PCs in the 1980s, online games were popular, along with other forms of entertainment at the end of the decade, including music and movies. An extraordinary growth in the use of information is, perhaps, the undocumented real story of what happened in the late 1990s. At the end of the 1990s, it would have been difficult to imagine any sizable organization—public, nonprofit, or private—in the U.S. that did not have a Web page. These were loaded with information, white papers, facts, misleading data, useful data, and an assortment of names and phone numbers. The biggest complaints about the Internet among users in the late 1990s did not center around e-business transactions (although there were privacy concerns related to the use of credit cards), but rather about the quality, volume, and ready access of information. There were concerns about:

  • accuracy of information on the Web,
  • access children had to pornography or to "hate sites," and
  • the poor quality of search engines for finding the information they really wanted.

Businesses began to notice a rapid, profound shift in consumer behavior caused by the availability of so much data, and a willingness of Americans to access it. Increasingly, consumers could enter into a business transaction understanding almost as much as a vendor about what potential terms and conditions could be. The most dramatic example of this shift occurred in the second half of the decade with purchases of automobiles. By 1997, an American consumer could find out what a new car should cost, determine what features he or she wanted on the car, how much profit a dealer could or should make, and walk into a dealership with printouts of this kind of information in his or her hot little hands. By 2000, over ten percent of them did not even bother with the dealer, they simply bought their cars online.

Online buying had expanded so fast that by the end of the 1990s the U.S. government began measuring the growth of this new form of commerce. In 2000 alone, more than $25 billion in business was done over the Internet in the United States, or nearly 1 percent of the total commerce done within the U.S. economy. While that number may seem small, the rate at which Americans were buying over the Internet was growing faster than the economy as a whole. In the fourth quarter of 1999, e-commerce represented 0.06 percent of all business done that quarter; in the same quarter in 2000, the percentage had climbed by two-thirds over the comparable period in 1999.12

Consumers using the Internet learned very quickly that they could use the technology to find the best deal around. The best deal could be in their city or across the nation; it did not matter. The best deal meant the lowest price, and often substantial comparisons of quality, features, and functions, using software tools to do the analysis for them. One could shop for home mortgages, looking for the best rates from the comfort of one's home, and have solid offers within hours. Market-based power shifted rapidly to buyers because of their access to information and competitors anywhere in the United States. The extent of this shift in power is only just now becoming evident. It is part of the great love affair that Americans have with the Internet. "Freedom," "flexibility," and "control," are words historians and sociologists have always used to describe why Americans had their love affairs with the automobile. They apply the same words to the Internet. Americans always admired results, and today the Internet allows them to achieve many: acquire goods, pay a fair price, and have it all work reasonably well, just like automobiles did by the late 1930s.

Is the analogy of the Internet with the automobile justified? One could argue that at least at this time—at the start of the 21st century—the Internet has not yet been as uniformly beneficial as the automobile. My account of the Internet is clearly a positive one, driven by the historical reality that useful technologies tend to get used. That they are sometimes misused or create negative consequences cannot be denied. People are killed in automobile accidents for speeding faster than a horse and buggy can go. The Internet can be accused of denying poor people access to many activities beginning to be done primarily over the Internet, such as increasing number of government–citizen communications. In the early years of the Internet, online commerce was poorly protected and so there existed the risk of cyber thieves charging purchases on someone's credit card. Despite enormous strides in fixing that problem, issues with security remain. Then, there is the whole discussion about privacy; data in a system can be tapped into by a skilled computer expert and we live in a country that has very weak privacy laws when compared, for example, to the laws enforced in Western Europe. That information could be used to deny insurance coverage or a job, or to rob one's savings account. So I would be the first to agree with those who would argue that freedom and flexibility carry a certain social price.13 While those are caution lights posted on the Information Highway, it is very clear that Americans are not slowing down.

What about the theme of progress? There is a huge debate underway about whether or not information technology is a form of progress. The debate has been engaged by historians, sociologists, political scientists, and economists. Commentators on the American scene have long cautioned that technology sometimes is not progressive. We have only to think of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops to know about the cautionary tales. Even in the Age of the Internet, such voices have warned us, such as Neil Stephenson in Snow Crash and William Gibson in Neuromancer. 14 We could spend the rest of this book focused on these points but the fact remains, we would not resolve anything. What we can quickly get to, however, is the fact that Americans are rapidly adopting the Internet, and for reasons they believe beneficial to themselves.

So, while historians and sociologists will argue for decades about the nature of American use of the Internet, we can consider the argument that as the Internet became more practical (that is to say, had more useful information and offered increasing numbers of services), more Americans flocked to it. Robert Metcalf, the creator of a popular networking protocol (Ethernet) postulated what become known as Metcalf's Law: The value of a network increases as the square of the number of users. His rule of thumb about the value of networks applies very well to the Internet. The more people were connected to an e-mail network in a firm, the more they used that e-mail system, and therefore the greater its value to them and to their organization. This was a lesson many business people learned in the 1970s and 1980s, and relearned in the 1990s on a national basis. So as the Internet acquired more users and content, and as it increasingly became easier to use PCs and software, usage climbed in all age groups.15

Americans made up a public economically preconditioned to use the Internet. They had to have the economic power to afford a PC—the tool of choice so far for most accessing the Internet—or at least a television set that could be connected via WebTV, paying a monthly access fee. That is the primary reason why the per capita number of users of the Internet in poorer sections of the world remains so low. Often the economic price of admission was a $2,000 system in the late 1990s; under $1000 by the end of the decade, then a monthly telephone access fee. These are sizable costs for people in poor economies, for example the majority of people in China, India, or Africa. Thus, any accounting for the rapid adoption of the Internet has to factor in the affordability of PCs, monthly access charges, and so forth. It is no accident that utilization remained the highest in those countries where the per capita income of its citizens was the greatest (e.g., northern and western Europe, Canada, and the U.S.A.). New users are coming from emerging prosperous economies, such as across most of East Asia, and parts of Central Europe.

Second, Americans had also become used to paying monthly fees for information services. They began with monthly fees for the ability to have a telephone at home. Next they became accustomed to paying for a huge source of information and entertainment—cable television. By the start of the 1990s, over 95 percent of all homes had telephone service and over 50 percent subscribed to cable service.16 So the notion of paying for access to the Internet by purchasing a TV-like device (e.g., PC) and then a monthly access fee was not a huge leap. The pattern of paying for information services had been set a long time earlier. In fact, Americans had paid for regular delivery of information for over two centuries, first for newspapers, then for magazine subscriptions, and later for a wide array of electronic products. These ranged from the telephone to pager services and the Internet. As Americans increased their standard of living from the 1840s forward, they could afford to acquire increasing supplies of information on a regular basis, a practice I illustrate in future chapters. Simultaneously, as I argued in early chapters, the costs of information technology also dropped, providing additional incentives to acquire information and to make it affordable to even lower-income Americans. Newspapers and telephones were the first to drop their costs, followed by television, PCs, pagers, and cell phones, and most recently by long distance telephone providers in the late 1990s.

By the start of the new century, millions of Americans were simultaneously and routinely paying every month for telephone services (often for more than one line into their homes), Internet access, cable service, pager service, cell phone service, one or more newspapers, and several magazine subscriptions. Most of these Americans were also buying books and videos, both fiction and nonfiction.

There is a third, equally important consideration, namely the technological and sociological conditioning Americans had undergone all through the second half of the 20th century that prepared them for the Internet. They were surrounded by information technologies of an extraordinary variety when the Internet arrived. At work, more than 50 percent of office and factory workers, and between 15 and 25 percent of retail workers, had been using computers in one fashion or another. At home, technology was everywhere: programmable VCRs, stereo equipment, radios, and the television all provided the familiar look and feel we would associate with personal computers. Increasingly over the last two decades of the 20th century, these devices appeared in homes of all income levels and racial makeup. Deployment extended to telephones, televisions, and radio. While the PC remained the kind of information technology purchased by the middle and upper economic classes, as the cost of such devices dropped they began to appear in less-prosperous homes. Even the poor were being exposed to PCs at work, in school, and in a variety of public settings, such as in public libraries, welfare and unemployment offices, even in homeless shelters. Their exposure was relatively similar to their introduction to telephones and TVs. In short, one did not need to own an information appliance in order to use it.

Usage of various technologies that ultimately became part of the Internet is a crucial preconditioning that quietly took place in the home and involved television, which had a screen. But there were other preconditioning technologies in use. Keyboards connected to personal computers by which one communicated with the Internet were exactly the same as typewriter keyboards. With over 95 percent of households wired for telephone and over a third with cable, the concepts of the Internet—a smart TV connected to some sort of a cable or telephone line, talking to a computer with the kind of software we use at work—made sense very quickly. The conceptual jump from what they were doing before the arrival of the Net to what they could do afterwards was less revolutionary than the press would lead us to believe, and closer to a natural evolution to a more effective use of information technology tools.

Given the practical bent of mind of the American public, it is not hard to understand why so many people would jump on the Net. In fact, they rushed to it almost faster than they did to television. The revolutionary quality of the Internet was less an issue about Americans embracing the technology than over the consequences that emerged as a result of their adoption. The shift in purchasing balance of power is an example. Now that is revolutionary!

What is extraordinary about the arrival of the Internet is the speed with which it became ubiquitous. To be sure, it went through a long gestation period (1969 to mid-1990s) comparable to what happened with computers, and before that with tabulating equipment and the radio. Once it exploded onto the scene, the rate of adoption proved nothing less than phenomenal. It would be difficult to exaggerate the speed with which the Internet raced through American society and the psyche of the nation. The race to adopt was not a new pattern of behavior. Americans had embraced the postal system in the early 1800s, telephones in the early 1900s, radio in the 1920s and 1930s, and television in the 1950s and 1960s—all at rates far faster than occurred in other countries. Later, places like Western Europe and Japan caught up with the extent of deployment with some of these technologies, but not all. Americans generally adopted all these technologies quicker than other societies.17 It appears that we are witnessing the same process at work with the Internet and related technologies and tools. I used the word generally because these technologies appeared in other places. Some counter examples include the extensive use of cell phones by Scandinavians (about which I will have more to say later, France's pre-Internet telephone directory system, the Minitel system, and even Great Britain's teletext services. But that is my point; these are exceptions.

To a large extent the discussion above minimizes the pure economics of the Internet and the cost of its components, such as the price of a PC. However, we need to give the economists their fair due, because while they minimize the socially conditioning factors, they are right about the numbers, especially when it comes to the consequences of the Internet. They point out that overall the cost of computers declined at a rate of 26 percent per year from 1995 through 1999. Second, this enormous decline in the cost of computing had a profound effect on keeping inflation down in the United States (some argue by 1 percent, although a more conventional opinion is 0.5 percent) because so much of the capital expenditures in these years went into computer technology. The information processing industries as a whole occupied up to 8 percent of the U.S. economy, and contributed 30 percent of all economic growth in the nation since 1995. Increasingly, economists are realizing that at least half of the acceleration in U.S. economic productivity growth experienced since 1995 can be attributed to computers, and a large portion to the Internet. A leading economist of the information technology industry, Robert J. Shapiro, observed yet another phenomenon at work, "a dynamic of cascading or continuous innovation has characterized the development and deployment of information technologies in this period," forcing companies to rethink how they do their daily work and what they make and sell.18 In short, the Internet was beginning to change how Americans worked just as mainframe computers had started a similar process in the 1960s, and the telephone had at the turn of the century.

It is becoming increasingly evident that another factor influenced the rate of adoption of the Internet and the extent to which people use it—the cost of telephone lines. Looking at the experience of other advanced economies illustrates what was happening. OECD nations on average have less than half as many users per thousand inhabitants than the United States. Second, the cost of Internet access by the hour is higher in Europe than in the U.S. The less telephone access charges are, the more usage there is. In fact, in Europe a digital divide is emerging based on that issue; those with relatively meterless access have higher usage than those that charge. One OECD study of patterns of usage in the U.S. and Europe over the period of late 1999 and early 2000 also uncovered the fact that Americans are adopting the Internet at faster rates than anyone else in the world. OECD's economists concluded that cheap access accounted for the differences. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand also have relatively unmetered access and they too showed higher levels of use than in the metered economies of Western Europe.19 National telephone monopolies mean little or no competition, and hence few incentives to lower costs of telephone services. On average, it costs a European two to three times as much to be on the Net. As a result, Europeans spend less time on the Internet and, in turn, do less shopping online. A German using the Internet will, on average, be online for less than 5 hours per week. Contrast that with an online American who spends closer to 8 hours per week on the Internet.20

The consequences for Europe are serious, and highlight the contrasting situation in the United States. One economist at the OECD made the obvious point:

The pricing structures in countries with unmetered access are allowing users to experiment with electronic commerce, 'to-shop-around,' to disregard the time of day, and to have certainty in their monthly communications costs. Moreover the pricing structure enables something approaching an 'always-on' mode of use.21

So Americans are learning to exploit the Internet sooner than Europeans, and, as a consequence, are fundamentally altering the nature of some aspects of modern economic life. OECD's study led its economists to point to telephone costs as the single biggest inhibitor to use of the Internet in Europe. In those countries where the costs of telephone service were dropping, as in Finland, Internet usage was rising rapidly. The implications are clear: Europe will remain behind the U.S. in usage if it does not make access relatively inexpensive, and the American economy will continue to evolve in productive ways faster than Europe's, making the latter a less competitive economic environment.

The implications are also borne out with what has been happening since 1998 or early 1999. Unlike in Europe, where the cost of access is paid by users, in the U.S. and in Canada, these expenses are rapidly shifting to Internet Service Providers (often just called ISPs). ISPs are now funding access by electronic commerce and the sale of advertising on their sites. While it is too early to tell if that model is sustainable over time, it is there because there is enough economic traffic on the Net to motivate this very new development. Those who charge for access, therefore, are having to drop their prices in the United States. For example, AT&T has a service which, in January 2000, cost $19.95 per month. In March that same service cost $14.95. The following month Microsoft, a rival of AT&T in this market, began offering free service for six months. Prior to this new offering, using Microsoft's service cost $22 per month. In those countries where prices were dropping, they were falling fast. Between October 1999 and March 2000, they declined by 15 percent for 20 hours of use per month, and by 17 percent for 40 hours of use.22 The moral of this story is that if a nation wants to encourage electronic commerce—and so far every major industrialized nation has publicly stated that it does—then this problem has to be fixed.

Now let us look at some other issues related to the Internet. While Americans are treated in this book largely as one shared community in order to discuss the highlights of the role of information, we know that usage varies by gender and age, as demonstrated in subsequent chapters. The Internet and related technologies, such as electronic games, reflect distinct patterns, many of which are only just now being identified. We know, for example, that boys were the first to embrace electronic toys. When the PC initially appeared, it was overwhelmingly the preserve of white men, particularly those with technical backgrounds. Over time, with electronic games, PCs, and now the Internet, the first entrants were joined by girls, women, nontechnically skilled males, older Americans, and various ethnic and economic groups. If there is a generalization to be made, it is that the earliest users of a new technology, including the Internet, were later joined by other groups as the new tools deployed across the economy and society at large. Males were the first automobile drivers, now women drive as much as men.

However, there are differences in how technologies are used. When the Internet first became widely available to the American public, white middle- and upper-class men were the primary users. In fact, one of the most popular first Web sites visited by American men in the mid-1990s was Playboy's! That quickly changed as increasing amounts of material appeared on the Net. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Commerce estimated that there existed around the world over one billion Web pages, and that an additional three million new ones were added daily. As the number increased, the variety of interests that could be served did too. In 2000, on a global basis, there were over 260 million computers attached to the Internet.23 What about gender differences? Women were not the first users of the Internet, but by the end of 1999 they were rapidly getting online. It has been estimated that over 9 million women used the Internet for the first time in late 1999 or early 2000. In a study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, researchers reported that in 1995, only 9 percent of all Internet users were women, but that by 2000 they made up half of all American users. Women are extensive users of e-mail, while men searched for information. Women reported that they used e-mail to strengthen their ties to family and friends. When asked if they would miss having that function on the Internet, 65 percent of women said yes as opposed to 55 percent of males asked the same question. The Pew reported that more women today were playing games over the Internet than men (37% women vs. 32% men). Men, however, did more online shopping (80% vs. 32% of women).24

The same report pointed out that age matters. The younger the user, the more both sexes did the same thing: downloading music, using instant messaging, keeping up with trends in popular culture. The study's director, Lee Rainie, observed that "age is more of a divider than gender." His study showed that about 55 million Americans were using the Internet each day in early 2000, and that half of all users did that from home.25 Historians and sociologists who like to study racial, gender, and economic differences among users of technology now face the fact that many of their attempts to segment users of this technology may represent artificial constructs because the Internet is becoming ubiquitous. We have reached the point where how the Internet is used and why are the more important issues to discuss.

It appears that we are witnessing the same process at work with the Internet and related technologies and tools. This is a familiar pattern of behavior that we should recognize as very American and that has long characterized this nation's appetite for information and its technologies. We may also be seeing the same phenomenon just emerging with much smaller digital gizmos, to which we now turn our attention.

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