When discussing the impact of the Internet on society, it is important not to be deceived by industrial-age definitions of terms and concepts.
The importance of understanding how concepts change in the Internet economy was emphasized by discussions of a new survey released by the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society (see below for links to the data and to some of the press coverage). Basically, the study was claimed to show that the Internet causes social isolation and increases workload.
There are several methodological weaknesses in the survey. Most important, surveys are a poor way of studying the impact of the Internet. You cannot simply ask people to self-report how their behavior has changed. It is well-known that it is very difficult to estimate time consumption; people often rationalize their behavior when they are asked to introspect and report on what they did.
Second, even assuming that we believe what the respondents reported (which we should not do), then the numbers are quite weak as well. For example, 13% of heavy Internet users reported spending less time attending events outside the house and 65% of the heavy Internet users reported spending less time watching television. But how much did people reduce attendance of events outside the house? One ballgame per year? Or one per week? And how much less time did they spend on TV? A minute per day? Or an hour per day? Obviously, the interpretation of the impact of the Internet would differ, depending on the reality behind the vague answers.
The study found that the more time people spend on the Internet, the less time they spend communicating with other people. In particular, 27% of heavy Internet users report spending less time talking to friends and family over the phone. 15% report spending less time physically with friends and family, and 13% report spending less time attending events outside the house.
Leaving aside the fact that this means that 85% of heavy Internet users do not report spending less time with friends and family, the real question is whether the study has an appropriate definition of social isolation.
Why is the telephone considered a superior form of social contact relative to the Internet and its communication formats such as email and discussion groups - or checking your grandchild's home page for her latest drawings.
If somebody had conducted a similar survey 100 years ago, they would surely have claimed that phone calls were a cold medium that undermined traditional forms of social contact such as visiting people to have tea.
In assessing the impact of the Internet, the question is not whether it replaces (fully or partly) some other forms of communication and social contact. Because the Internet adds its own new forms of communication and social contact. For example, people may well attend fewer meetings and events outside the house and yet feel connected to a community of others who "meet" on a much more regular basis online.
The question is whether the new lifestyle is enjoyable and whether it nourishes humans or causes them damage. There is certainly a risk that some people get overly caught up in chat rooms and role playing, but a different kind of study is needed to assess this problem.
Work Invades Home
The study found that 28% of heavy Internet users report spending more time working at home (12% out of these 28% even reported spending more time at the office as well). This is decried as proving that work is invading the privacy of the home.
But why is it bad to integrate work life and home life? On the contrary, one could argue that it is an unhealthy deviation from human nature to designate a special location as the "office" and insist that all work take place there. In most of human history, people lived and worked in the same location and work efforts and leisure activities were intertwined. The need to have assembly line workers report to a central factory to crank out Model Ts is the only reason we temporarily had the notion of work being a separate part of life. Industrial era concept.
In the Internet economy, people have already started bringing their private life to the office. Much private email gets sent from company computers. Much private shopping takes place over the company's T-3 line since fast access is the only way one can suffer through many current e-commerce sites.
The real question is whether the Internet makes us more stressed. Unfortunately I tend to believe that the Internet does have some blame in this area due to the miserable design of current email systems.
But non-Internet technologies are even more to blame. Cell phones, pagers, fax machines, and Federal Express (guys in trucks!) all conspire to make us ever-more driven and ever-less capable of contemplation and thorough analysis.
The survey has a third finding which has not been reported very widely, despite the fact that it is much more credible than the two over-hyped findings:
Quoting from the Stanford report: "By far the most important factors facilitating or inhibiting Internet access are education and age, and not income - nor race/ethnicity or gender, each of which account for less than 5 percent change in rates of access and are statistically insignificant."
The study's analysis of the digital divide is credible because issues like race, education, and age are precisely defined and can be reported very accurately in a survey as long as the respondent feels comfortable that the survey is being administered by a credible institution (Stanford would certainly count here) and that the answers will be treated anonymously.
When splitting out the effect of the various variables, the study finds the following three main effects on Internet access:
Education (having a college degree): +49%
Age (older people compared with 18-25 years' olds): -43%
Income (having high income): +21%
My interpretation of this finding is that the digital divide is a usability problem. The politicians are targeting the wrong part of the problem when they treat the digital divide as an economic issue. True, there is a (smaller) problem due to the expense of computers, but this third-level problem is rapidly vanishing and will be completely gone in a few years when computers will cost the same as donuts.
Old people will not go away. In fact, people who are currently in their 40s and 50s will be around for a long time to come. We can't simply write them off just because kids have fewer problems using computers. The same is true for people without a college education. We can't force them all to go back to school for four years simply in order to participate in society.
There is only one answer: computers and the Internet have to be made substantially easier to use than they are now.