Sitting out may come with a price

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Even with prices of computers, cell-phones, and other high-tech gadgets going down, not everyone has been swept up by the technology revolution.

In the United States, a few people in rural areas remain left out by distance. And many have been relegated to the sidelines because ... that's where they want to be.

"An awful lot of people keep out of new technology by choice," says Linda Sherry, spokeswoman for Consumer Action in San Francisco. "They have no interest, or are offended by cell phones."

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She says it's not about money: "I see all kinds of people who pull out food stamps, but they have a pager," she says. Electronic technology "is available to low echelons of society."

But it's becoming more difficult for those who want to avoid the Information Age to do so.

Some banks now charge those who visit branches and talk to tellers over a certain number of times per month. Their customer service departments have even begun keeping lists of customers who frequently call with queries or complaints. These people are often referred to online help that some cannot access, says Ms. Sherry.

Other companies require account numbers or even Social Security numbers to access help lines, and customer service representatives "are told not to spend a lot of time answering consumers' questions," she says.

"It's getting harder and harder [for customers] to get information" through traditional customer-service channels, says Sherry.

And the number of people without access to digital information "is a great concern," says Susan Grant, spokeswoman for the National Consumers League (NCL) in Washington.

At last count, 106.3 million Americans, or slightly under 40 percent, had access to the Internet, according to a Nielsen poll.

Even those who don't have Internet access of their own, however, can get it through libraries or schools, Sherry points out.

At the same time, more and more business is being conducted on the Web. Small organizations and businesses in particular "find it more cost effective to do things online," says Ms. Grant.

For instance, recipients complained when the NCL wanted to move its newsletter online to save postage. Many couldn't access it.

But a lack of access to the Internet is a bigger problem for poor people who need business opportunities than it is for consumers, says William Bane, a Washington-based communications-industry consultant.

"The Internet is well established as a business-to-business technology," he says. Its importance as a business-to-consumer interface "is less clear."

While lots of consumers search for information on the Internet, e-commerce has been slow to get off the ground. Some of the biggest sites are profitable, but most still are not.

And even the quality of the information consumers get on the Web is unproven.

Mr. Bane refers to the information-access issue as the Jamaica-Bahamas gap: "If you're going to the Bahamas because you don't have information that you could have a better time in Jamaica, you're still going to have fun in the Bahamas," he says.

If you don't have access to the Internet, "I don't think it's one of the top 10 things you should be worried about," he says.

Sherry agrees. "I'm not overwhelmed by the information that's available on the Web," she says. "I would be cautious about telling people all the information they need is on the Web."

Others don't believe there is or ever will be a gap between those with access to technology and those without.

Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association in Arlington, Va., points to the 99 percent of US households who own a television.

He says falling prices, especially for used equipment, will also make computers and Internet access available to everyone - at least in the US -who needs them. Besides, he says, "statistically, somebody has to be last."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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