Why The Web Is Hitting A Wall

U.S. Internet growth is stalling. And it's not just the old or poor who are living offline

These days, getting answers to most questions seems like a no-brainer. For everything from who won an Olympic speed skating race to when to plant tomatoes, most people turn to Google or one of its rivals.

Not John W. Rogers Jr. The CEO of Ariel Capital Management LLC doesn't use the Internet at work or at home. The 47-year-old Princeton University grad thinks the Net is largely a waste of time. Assistants print out e-mails for him and researchers give him paper copies of Wall Street analysts reports from the Web. He prefers to spend his time reading, talking directly with his staff, working out at the gym, or spending time with his teenage daughter. "If you're spending all your time on e-mail, you're not listening and reading," says Rogers, who rarely took lecture notes while he was a student so he could listen more intently. "I listen and read; e-mail is a huge distraction."

It's a sentiment that many Americans find hard to imagine. Plowing through e-mail has become part of the daily routine, like brushing your teeth or walking the dog. But Rogers isn't as much of an oddity as it might seem. Despite its popularity among teens and techies, and its use in most offices, the Internet is far from ubiquitous. In fact, 39 million American households still do not have Internet access. That means only 64% of households are connected, according to a recent survey of 1,000 people by Dallas researcher Parks Associates. An even bigger surprise is that the growth of the Internet in the U.S. has stalled. Despite cheaper prices and faster speeds, analysts expect uptake to creep just one percentage point this year, to 65%, and to only 67% by 2009.

Many people are non-Netizens for obvious reasons. They can't afford service or live in remote areas without hope of affordable connections. And some are past the age when they want to adopt new technology. Says Jeanette Lamar, 92: "I'm too old to start that stuff." But the spectrum of naysayers also includes millions of well-off, educated, and younger professionals. Of the survey respondents who say they don't use the Web, 24% make more than $50,000. Some 39% of the Netphobes attended or graduated college or have at least some associate degree training. And 29% are 44 years old or younger. "It's not just everyone's grandmother who is avoiding the Internet," says John C. Barrett, director of research at Parks Associates.


Why are people saying no? Some worry, after hearing about online scams and digital viruses, that the Net isn't safe. Others swear that, for all the brouhaha about the Net's ability to enhance communication, e-mail and instant-message chats break down social interaction. But the broader issue is that -- despite innovations that make it possible for people to call up their bank accounts with a few clicks of the mouse, watch the latest episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on a PC, and play online games against competitors in Korea, France, and South Africa -- the Internet remains too complicated and costly for a huge swath of American society. Doreen Pappas, a 39-year-old who works in the finance industry in New York City, isn't willing to go through the headache of picking out a computer, having it delivered, and setting up an online connection. "It's a hassle and it's expensive," Pappas says. "I would rather spend the money on fun things."

Other consumer electronics gear is much more widely adopted: Nearly 100% of U.S. households have a TV, 83% have a DVD player, and 78% have a cell phone. Despite their particular drawbacks, all these technologies are easier to use than an Internet-connected computer. Yet, while the tech industry has vowed to make its products simpler, companies keep stuffing online services, PCs, and other devices with complicated new features. That's why predictions of a few years ago that 75% of American households would be online by now have fallen short. "Innovation is rarely seen as taking things away or making them simpler," says Steve Jones, a senior research fellow for the Pew Internet & American Life Project in Washington. "We've had so much time to come up with a computer and Internet that are easier to use and work better, but we haven't done it."

It's little wonder that millions of people don't like or trust the Internet. Take Sylvia Goodwin, a 57-year-old assistant attorney general in Tucson. She has a PC at home but no Net service. That puts her among the 31% of households that say they will not subscribe to an Internet service because access at work is sufficient. To Goodwin, the Web is a 21st century manifestation of the world depicted in George Orwell's 1984. As a prosecutor, Goodwin knows how easy it is for Big Brother to gain access to personal information. To her, giving out addresses, telephone numbers, and credit-card information online seems like a surefire way to lose control of your privacy. "If you do everything on the Internet, someone can go in and pick it up," she says.

For others, the Internet is an example of what author Neil Postman called "the surrender of culture to technology." From Silicon Valley engineers to teenage geeks, tech enthusiasts see only what the Net can do, not what it might undo. But James J. Mitchell, a retired banking executive from suburban Chicago, believes the Web dismantles face-to-face communication. He's part of the 18% of households that, according to the Parks survey, have a computer but aren't interested in "anything" on the Internet. Though Mitchell oversaw his company's tech strategy a few years ago, he never used e-mail at work. Instead he watched people become enslaved to it. Mitchell says most messages were trivial and undermined the more intimate forms of communication he favors -- in person or on the phone. "If you want to talk to me, you should do it personally," he says. "I don't need to sit and read every idle thought you rattle off."

For Chicago flower shop owner Grace Puente, it's less a frivolity than a disruption of the simple life. After a day spent arranging blooms and logging deliveries, the 50-year-old is content to go home, sit back, and watch King of Queens or Boston Legal on TV. She doesn't think the benefits outweigh the technical headaches or possible security problems. Instead, she feels people create difficulties for themselves by shopping online or paying bills over the Internet.

Puente doesn't even have a computer at home. That would mean spending close to $1,000, plus an additional $15 to $20 a month for Internet service, not to mention the inevitable upgrades. "You always have to buy some new software to make it juicier," she says. "What kind of juice would I be getting out of it? Nothing."

By Roger O. Crockett

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