Unplugged: Why do people refuse to connect?

There is a homely Italian hang-out outside the Tal-Qroqq campus, which sits around fifteen people on its black and white plastic tables outside, and maybe another thirty on its two floors inside. At lunch hour on your average Wednesday, the place is full-up. Students, scholars and staff have all gathered to refuel, gossip, network, and surf the net.

To my left, two male students are swiping through photos on their iPads, the girl in the corner is discreetly reading something off her laptop, while the couple behind me is snapping selfies on their smartphone.

I’m guilty as charged – my fingers are typing away at a laptop, while I listen to The Killers on my iPod and attending to e-mails on my smartphone.

Despite the seemingly unstoppable tide of wireless devices that is sweeping our planet, it may seem surprising that there are still people out there who have never used the internet. Today, to connect means to be online. Yet, in the EU, 33 percent of citizens do not have internet access at home, and 29 percent claim they never access the internet. While in another survey, 15 percent of Americans do not use the internet at all.

Who are these black sheep, and why are they not flocking online?

At the moment, we are accepting a worldview wherein adoption of new technology is the norm. Science and technology scholar, Sally Wyatt wrote, “the use of information and communication technology (or any other technology) by individuals, organizations, and nations is taken as the norm, and non-use is perceived as a sign of deficiency to be remedied, or as a need to be fulfilled.”

As figures show, the majority have quickly come to adopt and adapt the internet to their everyday lives, demonstrating that the internet is no longer a luxury, but a given.

Just as users take an active role in shaping a certain technology through its use, non-users also contribute to the configuration of technologies across society and culture. Wyatt explains that it is important to get to know who these non-users are, and more importantly, why they opt not to conform to a rising culture of connectivity.

One would assume that the problem for these citizens is access, therefore making the internet cheaper, and providing education and training would be among the obvious solutions to reduce the amount of digital virgins.

This year, the EU has successfully achieved full broadband access across the entire continent, as part of the European Commission’s Digital Agenda, to make ‘every European digital.’

But, enhancing access is also based on the assumption that internet non-use is a problem to be solved, and once these barriers are overcome, people will embrace the technology with arms wide open.

The way that technology is adopted into our everyday life depends highly on the demographic and psychological characteristics of its users. Like users, a non-user’s age, gender, education and income also plays a role in determining motivations for non-use. When asked about their main motivations, non-users gave a variety of answers for shying away from the internet.

In the recently published Pew survey (US), 34 percent of participants do not use the internet because they feel it is not pertinent to their lifestyles. They claim to be disinterested and do not want to make use of the said technology. Others mention a concern about privacy (virus, hackers, spam) or that it was frustrating or difficult to use. As least, those who are offline are aware of the value of the internet: 44 percent of these offline adults said they have asked a friend of family member to look something up, or complete a task on the internet for them.

Interestingly, even those who do not have a computer nor plan to use the internet in the near future express a belief that computer skills are becoming a necessity – even if they could not articulate activities for which they could potentially use the computer.

Age is a major factor of internet usage and unsurprisingly, these people tend to stem from an older generation. 44 percent of offline Americans are older than 65, while only 2 percent are between 18 and 29 years old.

Moreover, those with lower incomes or lesser education are also more likely to be offline, as well as those whose future goals are less clear than those of adopters. From the 34 percent of offline Americans, there are those who are constrained by financial reasons (19 percent) or lack of physical availability or access to the internet (7 percent), which could even mean illiteracy.

Wyatt draws a distinction between non-users, that is, those who do not have access to a respective technology, and the want-nots, those who consciously resist or reject a technology. She explains that it is the latter group which, if paid sufficient attention to, can help in diversifying and enhancing technology.

Truth be told, I formed part of the want-nots until earlier this year, for I had refused to venture into the smartphone world. For a number of years, I went by with using a Nokia phone whose most exotic feature was a torch light. As long as it fulfilled my basic need to send and receive texts, I was happy.

However, in the restraining eye of society, I was excluding myself from the 60 percent of 16 to 24 year olds across the EU, who accessed the internet on the move. I was a black sheep – a non-adopter of new technology.

There was a personal choice that separated me from the rest of my fellow contemporaries. To be frank, I can’t say that I wasn’t intrigued by smartphones, but I had my doubts. Apart from being expensive, I thought a smartphone would be intrusive and I very much appreciated the notion that when I’m out of the house, I’m completely disconnected from the internet.

Usually, diffusion of new technologies and behaviours across society occur through a process of modeling and social influence. I was part of the diffusion, but as a spectator – a rebel of wireless internet technology. I wasn’t ready to take the plunge and have my ‘life changed’ in such a short period of time. I was protesting against the idea of being constantly connected, and at times, I romanticized over the beauty of letter-writing and instead of falling victim to the future, I fell into the trap of nostalgia. Alvin Toffler would diagnose my behavior as a symptom of future shock.

During the past five years, wireless technology use has diffused across society becoming a ubiquitous symbol of today’s culture. In this day and age, a high-speed internet connection is not merely restricted to the haven of our homes, or the conditioned air in our offices. Public spaces have also come to embrace wireless technology access. In fact, a lot of cafés, recreation centres, and village squares offer free Wi-Fi and accessible power sockets to change our devices, encouraging people to pull out their devices and stay connected, whenever, wherever.

Everywhere I went and whoever I was with, I was followed by this unspoken pressure to conform. Evolutionary psychology repeatedly shows how our basic human motive is to connect, and this is what eventually drove me into buying a smartphone: the basic need to connect.

I was getting tired of the resistance, which slowly made me feel like a grandma living in a twenty-something’s body. I had to adopt to a world with smartphones by getting one too. Having a smartphone made me feel connected, part of something. As superficial as it may sound, I belonged.

What is interesting is that when, as part of a personal research I conducted, I asked my friends why they had decided to buy a smartphones, I was met with ambivalent answers. Essentially, they explained that they don’t feel the need to own a smartphone and would willingly give it up, however, it makes it much easier for their friends to reach them.

So there: it’s not that they really needed their smartphones, it’s the tide in the wake of the culture of connectivity that’s swept them in.

After his year of self-imposed exile of the internet, The Verge journalist, Paul Miller came to realize just how easier the internet makes it to feel a relevant part of society. Without the internet, he fell ‘out of sync with the flow of life.’ “The internet isn’t an individual pursuit,” he writes, “it’s something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.”

Even though back in Tal-Qroqq, we were all sitting in the same café, only to ignore each other, we were all connecting, through the internet.

When in the mid-1980s, Joshua Meyrowitz wrote “to be out of touch in today’s world, is to be abnormal” the smartphone was still a product of science-fiction. Today, it is but a mainstream commodity becoming the most rapidly adopted technology in human history all for but a main reason: the internet.

In 2013, the internet is all embracing. It’s unavoidable. Everything is the internet: we are the internet. Manuel Castells said that it is difficult to go back to a pre-networked society, just as we cannot go back to a world without electricity.

Connectivity is no longer something abstract, it has fashioned itself into a state of mind. Now we are tethered to the rest of the world through the internet enclosed in a pocket-sized device. For better or for worse, the internet has changed our lives forever. Despite the digital divide, in the future, everyone will be online.

And in my earphones, The Killers front-man echoes the words: “This is the world that we live in/no we can’t go back.”

Originally published in the  The Sunday Times of Malta on November 10, 2013. 

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