Online all the time

Welcome to the age of online, everywhere, all the time. We are quickly approaching the moment when Internet access will be possible from any point on the planet.

In industrialized nations, that access will become invisible to many people. Networked homes will create a living space where tablet-sized PCs will talk to the fridge, the toaster, even the garbage pail, often when the residents are not home.

For some people, this will be an enormous benefit. Fully wired homes for seniors citizens, for instance, will use the Net to help them stay independent far longer than in the past.

These are only a few promises that the Internet holds for us. And even with a downturn in New Economy businesses, countries ignore these developments at their own risk.

But while the promise of being constantly connected to the Net may seem desirable to many, it also raises questions about the social consequences of this hyper-connectedness.

Questions such as: What does it mean to be online all the time? How will that change the way we live? What are the benefits and the drawbacks to being constantly connected?

For Adam Clayton Powell III of the Freedom Forum, an international foundation dedicated to free speech, being online all the time means paying more attention to our choices.

"It's easy to say we would just have more of the same: more speed, more multitasking, more frequent messages," Mr. Powell says. "But maybe we will see something more qualitative than quantitative - watch kids doing homework with four or five instant-chat windows open. Is this just more, or is it something very different from, say, sitting quietly with a book? Whatever that difference is, that's what is coming."

For James Adams, head of iDefense, a firm that specializes in global security, "There is a price to be paid for this [ubiquitous] access," he says. "It's a loss of individuality or anonymity. Anytime you ask for or are given something, you will need to provide data about yourself.

"And that data can be used for you or against you. The pace at which this is all unfolding makes it almost impossible for governments, or NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], to plan how to deal with it."

The haves and the have-nots

Dave Allred, vice president of Broadband Services for Telocity, one of America's leading DSL firms, sees another problem - equality of access.

"We need to be aware of the digital divide, between Internet haves and have-nots," he says. "If you look at our society, it's becoming a service- and information-oriented culture. Access to information has become a fundamental part of what we do. It can make a real difference at the level of the individual's life."

Perhaps even more interesting will be the way the Internet ultimately empowers the individual to take political or social action. "This revolution - and that's what it is - will give voice to the individual in ways not seen before," Mr. Adams says.

"The question is what will this social activism look like? Will it be using the Internet to write an e-mail to your senator or will it be to operate a social-activist chat room that organizes large online protests against government and corporations?" Adams asks. "I don't think that the nature of this power has been understood by those who have it yet. It may look very much like anarchy, and there is a danger in that, too."

Yet how realistic are these predictions of ubiquitous Internet access? How popular is the Internet?

Recent Yankelovich/Monitor surveys of 857 Internet users in 1999 and 1,039 in 2000 showed a decline in Internet use. The thrust of the study was that people are bored with the Net and spend less time using it.

Yet other studies show dramatically different results. A survey by the Pew Internet and the American Life Project showed that Americans continued to flock online, across all ages and economic groups, growing from 88 million Internet users in May 2000 to more than 104 million by the end of 2000. (More than 4,500 Internet and non-Internet users were interviewed in May and June last year and 3,500 in late November and December.)

As for time spent online, the data showed the average dropped by only a few minutes between May and December. On the other hand, the number of adults using the Net increased 4 percent over the same period, or by about 11 million a day.

The legerdemain of Internet statistics is complicated by the fact that the Internet is becoming so woven into our lives - quickly moving beyond the desktop computer - that we may not even notice we're online. Do those who instant message 10 times a day via PCs, cellphones, or PDAs (personal digital assistants) realize they're online?

The GSM Association, which sets wireless communication standards, reported April 5 that more than 15 billion SMS (short message service) text messages were sent worldwide in December 2000. The group predicts that total will climb to more than 200 billion by the end of 2002.

In short, we've never been more able to reach out and touch each other.

The Holy Grail

These days more businesses use the Internet to conduct key transactions. A recent report by Forrester Research showed that the online wholesale energy trade will reach $3.6 trillion by 2005, saving the industry millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, more homes are turning into small Internet hubs of their own. Cahners In-Stat Group reported that the in-home networking equipment market jumped more than 97 percent last year.

Mr. Allred of Telocity sees a future where every home will have Internet access, regardless of economic factors.

"Some folks will have very simple access to the Internet, while others will have faster connections."

Some families will have fully networked homes. Others will choose a single high-speed connection. Families at the low end of the economic spectrum will have dial-up access. But make no mistake, Allred says, anyone who wants the Internet will have it.

For those who work for Internet businesses, to be online, everywhere, all the time, is the goal of their industry.

"It's constantly on our minds," Allred says. "It is the Holy Grail. We want to get to the point where service, information, and data, in user-friendly ways, are available in all the appropriate devices our customers want them in."

For Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet and founder of 3Com, constant access has few downsides. "Nothing bad, as I would have more choices, not less," Mr. Metcalfe said via e-mail. "More communication is better - many problems stem from a failure to communicate.... A recent National Geographic chart showed the number of languages spoken by humans on earth declining over the ages....

"Some people, especially French-speaking people ... lament language convergence. I don't.... This is part of the inexorable trend toward more-frequent and higher-fidelity communication among us, which I think bodes well for the human race."

The danger of being 'always on'

So be aware. Whether we like it or not, the Internet will continue to find its way into our daily routines. In the future, we may even wear our Internet connections.

For many, it's hard to escape feeling slightly uncomfortable with it all.

"The benefit and the danger" of being constantly connected is being constantly accessible, Powell says. "It's not great to be overwhelmed by hundreds of incoming messages." At the recent New Mexico Media Forum in Taos, Powell says, he was interested by the reaction of participants when they realized their pagers and cellphones didn't work there: "Most cheered."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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