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Choice vs. Accessibility

At the beginning of the semester I set aside a post (this post) to discuss the differences between people who actively choose not to use the Internet and those who do not have access. What I have discovered throughout my research however is that no clearly defined binary exists between these groups of people. Within around the past five years the percentage of Americans who do not use the Internet (for any reason) has leveled off to around twenty percent of the population according to a Pew Survey on Internet use. These are people that do not use the Internet at home or through their jobs. What really needs to be defined in asking the difference between people who do not have access to the Internet and people who choose not to, is in what way that accessibility is limited.

The surveys that exist measuring Internet use split people who do not use the Internet into four major categories: Relevance (34%), Usability (32%), Price (19%), and Lack of Availability/Access (7%). The remaining fall into an “Other,” category. While an explicit category for Availability/Access does exist, aren’t Price and Usability also factors within lack of access?

The 34% of people who fall into the “Relevance” category are the people I have focused on most this semester; the Amish, Ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not use the Internet at all, or even Paul Miller who chose to spend a year without the Internet as an experiment. These people choose not to use the Internet for a reason, not because some other cause inhibits them from doing so. With the other categories, this is not the case. People who fall into the “Usability” category find it too difficult to use the internet because of age, or an impairment or some sort; people in the “Price” category lack access because they cannot afford an internet connection or computer; and people in the “Availability/Access” category for some reason cannot gain access because of their physical location. To me, all of these three categories fall into a larger, “Lack of Access” category that in many cases can be addressed.

Internet use is directly correlated with gender, race, age, education, income, and urbanity, all of which correlate with one another also. The chart below from the Pew Survey shows this correlation:


This data make it evident, which though there are people who do not use the Internet by choice, there is also a lot that can be done by way of education and physical accessibility to help people gain access to this resource. In many ways this has already started insofar as 44% of people who do not use the Internet have reported asking a friend to look something up or complete a task for them online, 23% report living in a household where a family member uses the Internet, and 14% of non-users report having used the Internet in the past. In these ways the Internet still touches the lives of those without access. Additionally, people in urban areas especially have access to public libraries where they can use the Internet for free.

In general the Internet should be an equalizer; a source for the curious to discover new ideas and promote understanding within global communities. The community is not global, however, if people are still restricted from access. For this reason President Obama has introduced a new initiative entitled ConnectED, “We can’t be stuck in the 19th century, when we’re living in a 21st century economy.” He said to Forbes. The goal of the program is to connect 99% of students within the next five years. He noted that, “Schools without Internet put students at a disadvantage.”

While I strongly agree with this initiative and its necessity, I also urge the president to follow through and make sure that these funding dollars are also spent on education surrounding responsible and productive Internet use, as the Internet can be such an overwhelming novelty that it can become distracting. My guess is that as the baby boomer generation starts to die off, and less and less people that were born into a world without the internet exist, we will again see the levels of connectivity rise, until it remains to be only those who consciously choose not to connect.


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