The Internet started out as a DARPA sponsored experimental project to develop a fault-tolerant computer network. ARPANET was launched in 1969, and by the mid-1980s, it had evolved into NSFNET, a network widely used in the academic and research communities. Then, with the advent of the World Wide Web, the Internet began its transformation from a network used primarily by research communities to the commercial platform it has become, now being used by billions around the world.
The Web and the Internet have become so intertwined that most people use the terms interchangeably, even though the Web, like e-mail and other applications, is one of the major layers of the Internet. The original concepts that led to the Web where first proposed in a 1989 paper by Tim Berners-Lee. The Pew Research Center is commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Web with a number of reports on the current state and potential future of the Internet and digital life.
The Web at 25 in the US looks back at the growth of the Internet over the past 25 years and presents the findings of a national survey on how Americans feel about the Internet’s impact on their lives. The survey asked questions in four main categories: adoption, impact on everyday life, impact on social relationships, and overall verdict. Let me briefly discuss the key findings in each category.
Adoption. The Mosaic web browser developed by Marc Andreessen was released in 1993. Its easy-to-use graphical interfaces played a key role in popularizing the Internet. The following year, Andreessen co-founded Netscape, to commercialize the Mosaic browser and develop a number of other Web-based products. In August, 1995 Netscape went public, and its highly successful IPO caught the world by storm, the first step of what became the dot-com bubble a few years later.
The digital age was now off and running. According to Pew’s research, 14% of adult American were using the Internet in 1995; 5 years later, usage reached 50%; it’s now up to 87%. There is little usage differences by gender or by race and ethnicity, but there are differences by age group, education and household income: 97% of 18-29 years old, compared to 57% in the over-65 age group; 97% of those with college degrees, compared to 76% with high school degrees or less; 99% of people in households with over $75,000 in yearly income, compared to 76% of those in households with yearly incomes under $30,000.
Until not so long ago, getting online required a relatively expensive personal computer and an account with an Internet service provider, which led to a socioeconomic digital divide in Internet usage. In 1995 around 55% of US adults had access to a PC, a figure that’s now up to 81%. While not as pronounced as it once was, there is still a fairly sizable digital divide. 96% of those living in households with yearly incomes over $75,000 use computers, compared to 65% of those in households with yearly incomes under $30,000. There is also a generational gap, - 89% in the 18-29 age group compared to 56% of those over 65.
Due to their significantly lower costs, cell phone usage shows a significantly smaller digital divide. Cell phone ownership has grown from 53% of adults in 2000 to 90% now; 98% of those in households with yearly incomes over $75,000 have cell phones compared to 84% of those in households with yearly incomes under $30,000. And although relatively new, smartphone ownership is rising rapidly, from 35% of US adults in 2011 to 58% today, especially among the young: 83% of 18-29 year olds compared to 19% of those over 65.
For most Americans, the Internet has already become an integral part of our lives. It’s on its way to near universal use, driven by the rapidly falling costs of mobile devices and generational transitions. What impact are they having on everyday life?
Impact on everyday life. How essential are these technologies? How hard would they be to give up? 46% of US adults said that the Internet would be very hard or impossible to give up, compared to 35% saying so about television. 44% said that cell phones were essential, compared to 17% saying so about their landline phones.
We experienced this growing reliance on the Internet and mobile phones when Hurricane Sandy hit the NY area in October of 2012. As much of the region lost electric power, we read quite a number of newspaper stories of people wandering the streets of New York City looking for a place to plug in and recharge their mobile devices. In my own town, our local library never lost power or Internet access, but its Internet capacity, more than adequate on a normal day, did not begin to satisfy the demands of a town where most of its residents had lost power and Internet access. Wireless service was equally inadequate.
Sandy proved to us all that not only is our physical infrastructure antiquated, but so is our digital infrastructure, given the growing importance of the Internet and mobile phones in just about all aspects of the economy and our personal lives. With few exceptions, the situation is not much better across the US. In a recent Social Progress Index which measured and compared countries around the world in a number of categories, the US ranked 23 in access to information and communications, even though it’s second in GDP per capita behind only Norway.
Impact on social relationships. What about the impact of the Internet on our personal relationships? This is a topic of considerable debate. In 2011, MIT professor Sherry Turkle published Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, followed a year later by a widely watched TED talk, - Connected, but Alone?
In her TED talk, Turkle said that while she was still excited by the technology, “I’m here to make the case, that we’re letting it take us places that we don’t want to go.” After interviewing hundreds of people about their plugged-in lives over the past 15 years, she concluded that “those little devices in our pockets, are so psychologically powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are. Some of the things we now do with our devices are things that, only a few years ago, we would have found odd or disturbing, but they’ve quickly come to seem familiar, just how we do things.”
These disturbing behaviors all have to do with our social relationships, including texting and doing e-mail while having meals with our families, in business meetings and in classes; having trouble making eye contact with the person we are supposed to be having a conversation, who is being constantly interrupted and simultaneously texting someone else; and hanging out with a group of people, each of which is barely paying attention to each other while doing something else online.
But, despite it all, the Pew Survey found that Internet users are quite positive about the social impact of online communications, with 67% saying that it has generally strengthened their relationships with family and friends, while 18% saying that it has weakened them. There were no significant demographic differences in these numbers.
How about online bullying and similar negative social behaviors? Once more, the responses to the Pew study were generally positive. 76% of Internet users said that people were mostly kind online, while 13% said that they were mostly unkind; 70% said that they have been personally treated well online, with 25% saying they have been treated badly; and 56% said that they have seen online groups come together to help an individual or solve a community problems, while 25% said that they left an online group because it was unpleasant.
Overall Verdict. Finally, the Pew survey asked if after adding it all up, the Internet has mostly been a good thing or a bad thing. The verdict was overwhelmingly positive: “The internet has been a plus for society and an especially good thing for individual users.”
- “90% of internet users say the internet has been a good thing for them personally and only 6% say it has been a bad thing, while 3% volunteer that it has been some of both.”
- “76% of internet users say the internet has been a good thing for society, while 15% say it has been a bad thing and 8% say it has been equally good and bad.”
So far so good, - despite all the complex issues that must still be worked out in our increasingly digital society. But, how about the future? What will digital life be like in 2025? That’s the subject of a second Pew Research report which I’ll discuss next week.