Fleeing the dot.com era
By Sally Wyatt
Two years ago, one of the scientists behind the original computer language that gave birth to the Internet announced a daring new plan. Work would begin, Vinton Cerf declared, to spread the network beyond the boundaries of Earth: the InterPlaNet, as it has been baptized, would bring online computing to outer space.
Outlandish as it may at first seem, the plan is consistent with the hype and breezy forecasting all too often surrounding discussion of the Internet. Even though mounting evidence points to a stubborn "digital divide" separating not just poor and rich countries but also groups within nations, policymakers, business and computer scientists downplay the figures as brief blips in the unstoppable onward advance of the network.
"A figure of a hundred computers per human is not entirely unreasonable, leading to a thousand billion computers in the Internet in 2020," argued Christian Huitema, a scientist involved in the creation of the latest Internet protocol, IPv6. "Some have observed that such a target was a bit narrow."
This technological optimism has come under increasing scrutiny over the past year. The "Digital Divide," a UN Development Programme report from 1999, revealed that less than 15 percent of the world's population accounted for more than 88 percent of the Internet's users. The financial failure of multiple dot.com firms and a sense that the technology is still too slow and unreliable have dented some grander hopes for an "information superhighway." Yet it is a little known and barely noticed trend that may perhaps prove the most troubling: for the first time, evidence has emerged of a widespread tendency to abandon the Internet.
No forecasting has yet taken account of this. A cast-iron premise in all extrapolations of the Internet's future is that once the network is available, prolonged use necessarily follows.
Recent empirical work has suggested otherwise. Cyber Dialogue, an Internet research consultancy based in the U.S., has uncovered evidence of a slowdown in Internet growth based on interviews with 1,000 users and 1,000 non-users. They argue that the rate of growth is decelerating overall, and that an absolute decline in the number of users aged 18 to 29 is underway. An interesting claim is that approximately one third of U.S. adults simply do not believe they need the Internet and what it offers.
The first signs of a rebellion against commercialization?
Similarly, a 2000 survey in the U.K. found that 40 percent of the adult population had no intention of going online, while most of them put their reluctance down either to cost or to the belief that the Internet was irrelevant to their lives. Only a third of those who had stopped using the Internet expected to reconnect in the future. In early 1997, Cyber Dialogue estimated there were 9.4 million former users in the U.S., a figure that had jumped to 27.7 million by September 1999.
According to U.S. researchers James Katz and Philip Apsden, the number of ex-users jumped in the 1990s, albeit by a smaller margin. Their national, random telephone surveys sketch some features of this apparent anomaly. People who stop using the Internet, they argue, are poorer and less well-educated. Those who are introduced to it via family and friends are more likely to drop out than those who are self-taught or receive formal training. Most surprisingly, teenagers are more likely to give up than people over 20.
These results must be treated with considerable caution, since former users can easily become active ones at a later date. But the sheer existence of Internet malcontents-and in such numbers if Cyber Dialogue is to believed-raises critical challenges to the entire online industry. Why the decision to abandon use just at the time of giant Internet expansion prompted by the introduction of the World Wide Web?
Possibly the most salient feature in the trend is how it has coincided with a revolution in the network's character. Though there is as yet no concrete evidence of a link between the two, the suspicion is that the Internet's first users have been alienated by the rampant commercialization of the network over the past five years. Perhaps these figures point to the first signs of rebellion against the transformation of a computer-linked community into a marketplace.
During its first 20 years, the network was the preserve of computer science professionals, students and academics resourceful enough to negotiate its complicated protocols (see box). But in 1991, the U.S. National Science Foundation decided to allow commercial traffic, heralding the Internet's switch from academic forum to virtual bazaar. The foundation's decision was followed by the creation of the Commercial Internet Exchange, designed to regulate the exchange of traffic between newly emerging and profit-oriented Internet service providers (ISPs).
From four computers connected in 1969, the number grew to 188 by 1979, 159,000 by 1989, and over 56 million worldwide by mid-1999. But the decisions of the early 1990s and the emergence of the Web-allowing user-friendly multimedia features and full integration of the Internet's previously dispersed elements (e-mail, file transfer and information access)-also marked a change in style. The temptations of advertising on and profiting from this unique interface soon proved overwhelming. The proportion of Internet computer addresses ending with .com or .net, and thus in the private sector, has risen steeply as a result. By 1999, these addresses formed 79 percent of the Internet, up from 47 percent four years earlier. Over the same period, the public sector share, represented by addresses ending with .edu, .mil, .gov and .int, fell from 48 to 17 percent. Non-profit organizations also dropped in their share, from five to two percent. From their very low base at the end of the 1980s, business shot to a position of dominance within a decade.
There is no doubting that the Internet remains an incredibly diverse collection of resources. Much of the original public sector ethos has also remained: most sites are free, and a slew of databases or archives held by companies (particularly the press) are open to whoever wishes to access them.
But it does seem highly probable, if as yet empirically unproven, that the Internet's mutation has driven away its first zealots. Back in the 1980s, there was relatively little distinction between the producers of what was on offer on the network and the consumers. If you had the skills and resources needed to access the Internet, it was more than likely that you would be able to produce content and even services for it. The ethos was "give some, take some."
A string of mergers in the scramble for supremacy
In the first few years of the web, this interactive culture continued, allowing anyone with a small amount of technical knowledge to become an "Internet publisher." The change since then has been profound. Increased emphasis on scripting languages, multimedia and links from the web to databases held by organizations has handed power to skilled, professional programmers. Now, the medium that was initially conceived as an opportunity for smaller organizations and individuals to create and prosper on a "level playing field" has bifurcated into an industry of producers and a mass of consumers.
This trend was reinforced by the spread of search engines such as Yahoo! and AltaVista, both of which aimed to help the user navigate through the surfeit of Internet resources. Commercial extension of this concept has given rise to the "portal"-one of most important elements in the current web industry. While offering traditional search features, these portals also try to maximize revenue by "click-through" advertising and deals with electronic commerce firms. The result of the scramble for portal supremacy has been a string of mergers and takeovers aimed at securing a top spot in Internet rankings, with leading contenders like AOL, Yahoo! and Microsoft acquiring other firms, boosting content, and linking up to media companies such as Disney and ABC network. As the era of digital television dawns, this convergence of access and content is certain to accelerate.
There are definitely many users who would not object. Even in its mid-1990s incarnation, use of the Internet was plagued by problems of connection, slow movement of data, excesses of information and the off-loading of "junk mail." It seems likely that some of those who abandoned the Internet did so out of disappointment with the sluggish and haphazard service they received once they had signed up for the promised information revolution.
Such former users could well be tempted back by the latest Internet developments. A stress on "pushing" pre-defined content through portals, sophisticated encryption schemes, secure payment systems and faster connections all promise to make the network easier to use and navigate, while simultaneously reducing variety. Add to this the fragmentation of the Internet through its introduction in mobile phones, interactive television and palmtops, and it is clear that the marriage between access and content-between the device that leads the user into the network and what the user sees-may well become much tighter. The result could be absolute commercialization.
The symbolic value of joining the information highway
This goes to show that the requirements of different groups of users, and particularly groups of former users, are not necessarily the same. The more commercial the network becomes, the more it strays from its free and interactive origins, the more likely certain users will be turned off. A different group of users, on the other hand, might switch off were it to remain chaotic and technical.
Certain trends may help to bridge this gap. The number and breadth of Internet resources is still growing, as is the quantity of local content made outside the United States. Simple text message services sent via low-speed telecoms-the so-called "information dirt track"-could also speed the take-up of the Internet throughout the developing world, evading the costly trap of commercial, high-speed service providers.
But a whole set of premises about the exponential increase in use of the Internet and the loyalty of Internet users are under threat. At present, the symbolic value of having Internet access is mainly perceived as a sign of inclusion in an unspecified, high-technology future. Its rejection can be seen to imply a refusal of the intimidating, exhausting pace of technological and social innovation. The Internet may travel to space, but it still has convincing to do on Earth.
Sally Wyatt is lecturer in Communications Studies at the University of Amsterdam and member of the British "Virtual Society?" programme and an editor of "Technology and In/equality, Questioning the Information Society" (Routledge, 2000).
(This article was first published by the UNESCO Courier, February 2001)
Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.
Axel Plathe, UNESCO Communication and Information Sector