Internet Holdouts

Not everyone in the United States is on the internet. In fact, recently released numbers from the Pew Research Center indicate that a full 15 percent of Americans do not use the internet.

Tech leaders often like to present these numbers in terms of access; as in “It is important that people have access to the internet.” Those who don’t use the internet are almost invariably said to lack access or to fall on the wrong side of a “digital divide”. I have even recently seen the term “online disenfranchised”. This is a shrewd use of rhetoric as it evades the question about whether such technologies are desirable; it erases the non-negligible part of the population that remains uninterested in what is being sold. The idea that someone does not want to use the internet is nearly unthinkable.

According to a 2013 Pew report, only about a fifth of those who don’t use the internet cite cost as their principle reason. A significantly larger number—over a third—of non-internet users say “they are not interested, do not want to use it, or have no need for it.”

This is a particularly difficult situation for tech promoters and peddlers because the straightforward solution of providing government subsidies and lowering the cost is not an incentive for those who may be able to afford internet service but simply lack interest. Aaron Smith of the Pew Research Center explained that “A lot of the easy adopters have already been converted.” Consequently, the number of internet holdouts hasn’t budged since 2013 despite efforts by many to convert them.

Brian Fung of The Washington Post has written that “encouraging the disconnected to hop online has become a national priority.” Multiple news sources reporting on the recent Pew report used the word “stuck” as in “Still Offline: Non-internet users stuck at 15 pct” clearly indicating a desire to lower that number and frustration that it hasn’t moved in several years.

The language employed strongly suggests that the decision to use the internet is not a freely made choice being left up to the individual and that there is more than just social pressure to get online. Indeed, getting people connected is said to be a “national priority”.

A brief look at the history of landline telephones is helpful. In 1985, Congress created a plan to subsidize landline phones having determined that phones had “become crucial to full participation in our society and economy, which are increasingly dependent upon the rapid exchange of information.” In similar fashion, the FCC is now considering subsidies for internet and HUD is considering putting high speed internet into public housing. Outside of the United States, Google is experimenting with balloons and Facebook is designing drones all aimed at getting the internet to people who aren’t yet connected. All these efforts not only provide “access” but as Angela Siefer of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance has said it “[builds] a nation of more consumers for broadband”.

Phones and now the internet were deemed “crucial to full participation in our society” meaning that the person who opts to forego either technology is severely penalized with a diminished role in society. It may be suggested that the penalty is not deliberately imposed but something on the order of a natural consequence; defenders of this technological hegemony may liken my position to refusing a life jacket and then complaining about the increased risk of drowning.

But the problem is in how governments and tech companies choose to respond; that is by insisting on one very specific flotation device and denying meaningful access to all others. The solution seized upon is to connect everyone to the internet even those who need to be cajoled, converted, or coerced. It is a strategy that betrays the notion floated with each new gadget that the technology is voluntary and need not worry those who are concerned or uninterested. “Don’t like it? Then don’t buy it.” goes the refrain.

An alternative solution instead of universal internet adoption would be to allow for multiple ways of fully participating in society. To belabor the analogy, the alternative would be to allow flotation devices of all sorts so that people may avoid drowning; to refrain from pushing people under who were doing just fine. But there is perhaps a catch.

Mass society cannot tolerate that level of diversity; it must have nearly everyone on the internet and cast the few holdouts overboard. Only at great personal cost might one be able to briefly opt out. What Lewis Mumford wrote of Rome is even more true of the current global technoculture: “Rome was the great sausage-grinder that turned other cultures, in all their variety form, and content, into its own uniform links.” To the extent that we remain animals we will resist entering the grinder; to the extent that we are alienated from our animality we will race toward the gears and call it liberation, transcendence, or perhaps the Singularity.

2 thoughts on “Internet Holdouts

  1. I agree with the multiple flotation devices idea. I think more resources should be put toward creating and strengthening public centers of info like libraries which offer a variety of ways to receive and consume information.

    The picture created by those large corporations who desire to attach everyone to the internet is sinister: cables reaching out and isolating individuals while consolidating power for themselves. Like marionette strings or a spider’s web.

    This is why a public place of access like a library is preferable. A place where we can read old and new sources of info, in books or in pamphlets, hear it from other locals, and ask experts, even use the internet. This way we can connect with people and strengthen the disenfranchised rather than being separated out by big companies who want us to stay isolated and detached in our homes. Their idea of a disconnected and socially isolated future is ugly but preventable. But the sooner these measures are taken the better.

    Connect and collect people together in centers of info where they can choose to go as they wish rather than having each person leashed with a cable line and constantly observed, like docile pets of the powerful few.

  2. Pingback: Least Popular Posts of 2015 | Uncivilized Animals

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