A couple of articles related to Internet usage piqued my interest this week. First of all, Pew reported that we use the Internet because we're bored, not because we actually have anything to do; and secondly, The New York Times reported that a lot of people are being left behind in the digital revolution -- or so it appears.
So, on one hand, those of us who have access to the Internet are using it purely to entertain ourselves. And yet, on the other, lots of us aren't getting on the Internet at all; or if we are, we're using inferior connections -- and where you live has a lot do with it.
Let's start with the Pew Study, which found that "On any given day, 53% of all the young adults ages 18-29 go online for no particular reason except to have fun or to pass the time."
I can tell you unequivocally it's not just young people. Everyone I know pulls out their smartphones when they're bored and check email, Facebook, the headlines, and so forth. This is not exactly earth-shattering news. The Internet is a perfect vehicle for passing time.
Of course, that might say more about me and my friends and their income bracket, then it does about any actual trend. In Michelle Manafy's recent book, Dancing With Digital Natives, she described a young woman who woke up in the morning and, before she got out of bed, grabbed her iPhone and checked her email, Facebook, and headlines. I advised Manafy that it wasn't just young people who did that; I did too. She replied, "Ron, you're not a typical user." Well... perhaps not.
Which brings us to the very real digital divide facing this country. The New York Times article cited above points out that millions of people lack any Internet connection at all and that millions more are stuck using dialup -- which is equivalent to cruel and unusual punishment in my world.
Even though I joke, I do understand that there are millions of people who aren't as connected as I am and lack the resources to pay the monthly fee, even if they do have access to broadband connections where they live. If I'm looking at food and rent versus an Internet connection, I'm certain the Internet is going to be way down the list.
But could mobile be the great equalizer?
The NYT article states that over the coming years, many people in the US will get their Internet access in the same way many now do throughout the world, via their smartphones. The writer suggests this experience will be inferior to that of those who have wired broadband access, but I'm not so sure.
The smartphone was certainly good enough for demonstrators to communicate with throughout the Arab Spring; and it was good enough to drive the Occupy Wall Street movement in spite of a lack of central organization. I know I bring up these two movements frequently in my writing, but they represent the convergence of the mobile-social Internet in a profound way.
I'm sure those young people don't care that they lack the best connections money can buy, so long as they have some connection to the world through their phones.
So the digital divide is real, of course, but it might not be quite as significant as the NYT author suggests. What she fails to realize is the world is changing as apps become smaller and wireless and phone networks suffice for most activities, including streaming music and video.
As computing becomes more mobile, we need wired broadband less and less for basic computing tasks, and as the quality of phone networks increases, we will be seeing faster and faster mobile broadband connections.
And tablets, which, as we've seen, are dropping in price, will change the dynamic even more.
Where the divide could show itself is in the availability of the best mobile connections, and it's up to the government to reconcile that, just as it did with phone service in the the 1930s and 40s.
Ultimately, as I see it, most of us are going to be mobile regardless of our income, and if the smartphone evens the playing field for most of us, all the better.
— Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist, blogger, FierceContentManagement editor, and contributing editor at EContent magazine.