Some Are Happy Never to Set Foot On the Information Superhighway

For many Internet enthusiasts, the unwired life is scarcely worth living. As such, they can easily lose sight of the fact that millions of their compatriots are happy to forgo cyberspace and all its supposed wonders. A study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project looks at the four in 10 Americans who don’t use the Internet.

Cost is not the only factor keeping non-users away. When asked why they aren’t online, just 30 percent of them said “it’s too expensive.” By comparison, 52 percent said “I don’t want it,” and the same percentage said “I don’t need it.” Forty-three percent cited “worry about online pornography, credit-card theft, fraud”; 27 percent said “it’s too complicated/hard to understand.” Responding to another question in the survey, a mere 16 percent of non-users agreed strongly that they’re “missing out on things by not using the Internet and e-mail.” One intriguing tidbit: 20 percent of non-users live with someone who uses the Internet at home. Despite this proximity to the Internet, these folks shun it.

Seventeen percent of non-users are Internet “dropouts”—people who used to be wired but aren’t now, often due to technical problems. Many of them will end up becoming rewired at some point. Indeed, the study finds a good deal of such coming and going. “Between a quarter and half of current Internet users say they have dropped offline for an extended period at one point or another in their online life.” Still, there’s a hard core of Americans who have little or no connection with the technology: 27 percent of non-users say that “very few or none of the people they know go online.”

Age is the sharpest dividing line between the wired and the unwired in this country, trumping such factors as race, household income and level of education. Under 65, each age group’s percentage of the Internet population is fairly close to its percentage of the population in general. However, people 65-plus account for 4 percent of the Internet population, vs. 15 percent of the whole U.S. population. While the digital divide between ethnic groups has tended to be more of a temporary digital lag, there’s little reason to believe today’s crop of elderly Americans will suddenly launch themselves into cyberspace. In fact, 79 percent of current non-users in that age bracket said they’ll never become wired. That compares with 28 percent of current non-users in the 18-29 age cohort. In other words, we’re approaching a point at which the percentage of people with Internet access (whose growth has slowed during the past year) will become linked inversely to the old-folks mortality rate.