Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Digital Subdivision

As the Internet buzzes with the latest news about the iPhone, Apple TV and the new devices introduced at CES, let's keep in mind that the sweeping changes predicted won't be universal. Not everyone in this country is plugged into the Internet, and thereby are excluded from a lot of the benefits these devices bring.

Much has been made about the "digital divide" separating those with Internet access and those without -- the "haves" and the "have-nots." Let's take a closer look at the "haves" side of that divide. It's not as uniform as you might think.

A great many of my friends and acquaintances can only be considered marginally online. Some are hampered by dial-up (still an issue in the hinterlands of Orange County, VA). Even if they wanted to, the difficulties of accessing sites with extensive graphics, flash animation, downloadable audio or video content with a slow modem effectively cuts them off from most of what the Internet has to offer.

Overlapping that line of dial-up vs. broadband is another division. I don't know if anyone's come up with an official name, but I call them the minimalists. This group is an offshoot of those who think of the computer as a typewriter with a screen. Their use of the Internet is minimal, and they seem uninterested in expanding beyond their extremely limited knowledge and skill.

Minimalists use e-mail, but primarily to forward urban legends, jokes and cute photos as opposed to active communication. One of our friends sends us several e-mails weekly, and over the course of several years we have yet to receive an original message.

I know of other friends and family members who only visit game sites like Puzzle Pirates. Some just play online bridge. Anything wrong with this? Not at all. But while a minimalist may spend several hours playing some flash animation game, they're usually oblivious to the web's other resources. The burning issues covered by online newssites, blogs and forums go unread. To minimalists, the global network that some of us live and work in simply don't exist -- just as it doesn't for those on the "have-not" side of the divide.

As we continue our discussions about the impact of technology, keep in mind that a significant part of those on the Internet are only marginally so. And that group, the minimalists, can slow the rate of change we postulate. Time's "Person of the Year" may have been "YOU," but it wasn't necessarily them.

- Ralph

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