Posted by: nickgerlich | February 20, 2008

Class Conflict

Theoretically, the internet should be the great unifier, the quintessential tool of democracy to ensure that power remains in the hands of the people, the vox humana of a global economy. Sounds good on paper, but the reality is, it just isn’t so. It turns out the diffusion of this innovation has hardly been equal across demographic groups.

In fact, in the last 14 years, only one thing has changed significantly among internet users: men and women alike are fairly equal in internet usage. It didn’t start out that way, though, because men latched onto the internet instantly, with women trailing behind. And although there may be differences in how women and men use the internet (women being heavy users of email, while men are looking for news and sports updates), at least there is no need for Gloria Steinem to rally her troops.

Computer UserBut there are still significant differences between other demographic groups. Internet usage is skewed heavily in favor of youth, education, and income; to a lesser extent, it favors whites and Hispanics over blacks and urban over rural.

After all these years, I would have predicted a lessening of these differences, but it’s just not happening yet. Sure, it stands to reason that more education leads to jobs with higher technological expectations, and a resulting growth in income. This is a well-established cause-and-effect relationship. This negative correlation is alarming. It’s almost like saying that if you are uneducated, you are relegated to a life in the technological dark ages.

Also of interest are the varied ways people use the internet. Tied for first at 91% are email and search engine queries, followed closely by mapping activities. This basically means that the bulk of our internet time is spent either in communication or asking questions. Granted, while this summary statement came out in 2007, some of the activities tallied were measured several years ago, and thus do not reflect current social networking activities like MySpace.

Still, these stats are a breath of fresh air, for the internet is not just a chatterbox, it is a tool. And people are using this tool in a myriad of ways. It is the Swiss Army knife of technology.

When PCs came out over 25 years ago, people stood in awe of the device, but really didn’t know what to do with them. Aside from typing documents or balancing their checkbook, it was just a very expensive device with limited application. E-Mail was the initial killer app that helped propel computers to ubiquity; now it is an endless array of tools and e-commerce sites that greatly simplify our lives leading the way.

But back to my initial statement. While those of us who use the internet daily realize it is indispensable, it bothers me there are still many who are not yet on board. One need not be a statistician to pinpoint where the biggest gap is among internet usage: it is between the educated and uneducated. If ever there were a predictor of internet usage, this is it.

So maybe what we need to be focusing on is just this one fundamental social construct. Locally, Panhandle Twenty/20 seeks to educate about the benefits of education, illustrating the need for ever more of it. But if we fail on the educational front, we will continue to see these disparities in internet usage.

And I find that voice unsettling.

Dr “Theoretically Speaking” Gerlich


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