More Americans live their lives online

My friend, Reedy Kream, is a mother of three young children. Any parent can tell you that three children can eat a lot of food in a week. But Reedy hasn't been to a supermarket in two years. Instead, she turns on her computer every week and orders all of her groceries online.

In my house, my wife and I buy most of our clothes online. The special spices that my wife likes to cook with are bought on the Internet. And I can't remember the last time I visited a travel agent to book a flight or a hotel.

I go online to do my banking, buy music, share photos with my family, and make international calls via Skype (an Internet phone system).

I also work online. When I contact co-workers – or even my mother back in Nova Scotia – a lot of our conversations are done via instant messaging.

And I'm far from being alone.

A few years ago, most people would've thought only genuine computer geeks would spend so much time online. But as technology improved and businesses realized the enormous cost savings that comes from using the Internet to reach customers (and allow customers to reach them), more and more "nongeeks" are living their lives online.

My friend Reedy matches that description. As nongeeky a person as you would ever meet, Reedy hits the nail on the head when she explains why she now uses the Internet for a task that she formerly did "in the real world."

"You just save so much time," she says. "I just have so many things to do, not having to go to the grocery store saves an enormous amount of time," she adds. "Sometimes I get angry when I have to go outside to do something, and I think to myself 'Why don't they let me do this online?' "

Somewhere between 70 and 73 percent of American adults have access to the Internet, and the activities they are engaging in are expanding, according to a Pew Internet and American Life Project report issued last year. The use of broadband is also growing. As of May 2006, 42 percent of Americans have broadband in their homes. The largest growth is taking place in middle-income households.

The Internet is also changing the way we house hunt. Remember when you had to actually visit a house to see what it looked like? Not anymore. According to a Pew study released last December, 39 percent of adult Internet users have looked for a new house online.

Talk about time savings. Without the Web, I remember visiting more than a dozen open houses before buying a home. Now folks can narrow down what they want online and only go to one or two homes instead of 10 or more. In addition, smart real estate agents are using the technology to create virtual tours of houses that they're selling.

A life lived online became an eye-opening experience for Kathy Marks, a Web designer at Arizona State University and mother of two. She was laid up in January with an illness and described the experience on her blog (www.kathymarks.com).

"Cut off from the world, I continued to work; to converse with colleagues, friends, and family; and to shop (right up there with eating and breathing in my book). I read the news, watched movies, paid bills, collaborated on projects, and signed my kids up for Art class. I was bed-bound, but my life went on with scarcely a hiccup. Some colleagues and friends never even noticed anything was different.

"I realized that, if I wanted or needed to, I could live a full life without ever leaving my bed. I could attend school, graduate, find employment, and work online. I could make money, spend it, invest it, and save it without ever getting out of my pajamas. And as for entertainment and a social life, the Internet offers worlds of opportunity. The only thing I would miss – and I would miss it desperately – would be actual human contact. For everything else, all I would need was this laptop."

Ms. Marks notes at the end, however, that while she wouldn't want to live her life online permanently, it's nice to know that she could if she needed to.

In a sense, that's how the Internet really has changed our lives. It's not that we have to live online, it's that we can if we want to or need to.

For instance, I still like going to record stores and finding an album that I've wanted for years in some remainder bin. (An experience I call "album serendipity.") But the reality of my life is that I just can't afford to spend hours upon hours doing that. If I want to buy music, it's much easier for me to find it online.

Spending a life online doesn't mean that you become a hermit. For my friend Reedy, it means that she can spend more time with people who are important to her. Instead of spending half an hour in line waiting to talk to a bank teller whom she doesn't know, she can spend that time at her children's school, meeting other parents, and making friends.

What you do with the time you save is up to you.

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