To Have or Have Not

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 August 1997

In America, the Internet has always been thought of as something you buy. You purchase a computer, stick it in your home somewhere, choose an online service, and then find a fourteen-year-old to set it up for you. The biggest hurdle in getting online has been the fear associated with typing in your credit card number over non-secured phone lines (as if the carbon copy you signed at that restaurant last night is any safer - it isn’t).

But what about people who don’t have credit cards? Or who don’t have the money to buy a computer, new or used? Or who don’t have a phone line in their home? Or who don’t even have a home at all?

According to a recent survey of US and Canadian residents conducted by CommerceNet/Nielsen Media Research Internet Demographic Studies, the “have-nots” are logging onto the Internet in record numbers. They are making use of what the study calls “alternative points of access” including libraries, schools, community centers, and churches in order to get online.

Last spring, 1.5% of Internet users got online through these alternative means. This year, the proportion of users accessing the Internet from somewhere other than home or work rose to 4%, and analysis indicates that number is continuing to grow.

While the study was released by telecommunications giant MCI as a way of demonstrating the success of its LibraryLINK service as well as the new opportunities for online marketing to lower income families, it still marks a significant trend in Internet development. It’s a trend that contradicts the common assertion that the Internet is widening the divide between the rich and poor, educated and uneducated, or “haves” and “have-nots.”

People who were formerly believed to be falling even further behind the information curve than they already were are apparently learning to keep up. The unemployed are flocking to public libraries to explore job banks online, while people on welfare are using free online access to learn about which government services might be available to them. Sometimes they can even apply for aid online.

And this phenomenon is not limited to the United States. The first Internet-capable computer I ever saw in the UK was at a community center, being accessed by striking coal miners to learn about local demonstrations. The first one I saw in South Africa was at a café, and the majority of the email I receive from Australia is from users with private email accounts on public servers.

But the increase in computer availability for the poor might just as easily increase their level of computer-dependency. Once government agencies and essential service businesses can justifiably claim that “virtually everyone” has access to a computer, they have good rationale for closing up storefronts and other physical access to their offices or merchandise.

Hiding behind bureaucratic red tape, or adding service charges to previously simple purchases will become easier than ever. Let’s call it the Ticketmaster Syndrome, named after the company who, under the guise of convenience, added a $1.50 service charge and made concert tickets impossible to get by any other means.

Those who hope to market to the world through the Internet might be celebrating a bit early. For one, the thing best marketed over the Internet has been Internet itself. Computers, software, modems, and electronic services. If a greater percentage of people continue to access the Internet through other people’s computers, then they won’t be worrying about upgrading to the latest version of Internet Explorer anymore. That will be a librarian’s job.

Further, in the United States at least, computer culture has been an increasingly consumer culture. This is, in part, a product of the commercial focus of most web sites launched in the past few years. But the more insidious cause of this commercialism has been the environment and conditions under which the Internet is traditionally experienced.

When we access the Internet alone from within our suburban fortresses, we are prime targets for marketers, who trade on our isolation and despair. They want us to stay alone in our homes, surrounding ourselves with products that substitute for human relationships.

The momentary thrill of an online purchase, however inane, gives us flash of shopping euphoria. Those of us using the Internet as a means of socializing can’t help but respond to advertisements that promise to make us friends or connect us others.

People who go to public places to access the Internet won’t be such easy prey. The fact that they’re making up a greater percentage of Internet users every year suggests there may actually be an advantage to “not having.