The Internet and the Electronic Age - The History Of The Internet, The Digital Divide, The Future Of Computing And The Internet

march online december american

The Internet was a Cold War military project. It was designed for the purposes of military communication in a United States devastated by a Soviet nuclear strike…. When I look at the Internet—that paragon of cyberspace today—I see something astounding and delightful. It's as if some grim fallout shelter had burst open and a full-scale Mardi Gras parade had come out.

—Bruce Sterling, in "Literary Freeware—Not for Commercial Use" (with William Gibson), Speeches to the National Academy of Sciences Convocation on Technology and Education, Washington, D.C., May 10, 1993)

Since the 1980s, innovations in electronics and communications technologies have utterly transformed the way in which Americans lead their lives. Computers and the Internet have dramatically reduced the time needed to complete dozens of mundane tasks, such as finding directions, searching library catalogs, or researching products. Cell phones, e-mail, and instant messaging now enable people to communicate with each other at any time or place. Affordable microprocessors have improved the efficiency and features on everything from coffee makers to stereos to dishwashers to automobiles.

The speed with which these new technologies have proliferated through American homes and offices is nothing short of astounding. Cell phones, which were once novelties occupying the middle front seat of a car, can now be found in the pockets of many fifteen-year-olds. Computers and the Internet, once only accessible to those who worked in government installations, large corporations, and academic institutions, are present in most American homes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 8.2% of American households had computers in 1984. As can be seen in Figure 1.1, this number increased to 51% by the year 2000. The Internet, which was not available to homes in 1984, had forty-four million U.S. customers by the turn of the twenty-first century, according to Eric C. Newburger in Home Computers and Internet Use in the United States: August 2000 (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, September 2001). More recent estimates, derived by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (Pew/Internet; in 2004, revealed that 73% of American adults (148 million people) had computers and 63% of adults (128 million people) used the Internet.

The Internet and Daily Life, an August 2004 Pew/Internet study, found that 88% of online adult Americans believed that the Internet played a crucial role in their lives, and 64% said their daily routines and activities would be affected if they could not use the Internet. Table 1.1, taken from America's Online Pursuits (Washington, DC: Pew/Internet, December 2003), reveals that the Internet has become more and more integrated into people's lives. The activities that most people engaged in on the Internet were such typical uses as sending or reading e-mail, searching for an answer to a question, or researching a product or service. The use of the Internet to engage in activities other than these standard operations, however, rose the fastest. The number of wired adult Americans who used the Internet to bank online grew 127% between 2000 and 2002. The number of users who looked for religious or spiritual information increased 94%; the number who bought or made a travel reservation jumped 87%, and the number who participated in an auction went up 85%. Perhaps the most interesting of these statistics was the rise in the number of adult Americans who purchased a product on the Internet. Despite a recession during this period, the number of people who bought products online rose 63%.

While the spread of technology has affected most people in a positive way, significant pitfalls have developed as well. As these technologies have been thoroughly embraced by the well educated and wealthy, typically disadvantaged groups have been left at a bigger disadvantage. The Internet and computer databases have also made fraud much easier. The number of cases of identity theft in the United States has exploded in recent years. Each day thieves steal hundreds of social security and credit card


Growth of online pursuits, 2000–02
Estimated growth in users who have ever done these activities (2000–2002)
First time we asked this Most recent time Growth
Activity Have done this (millions) Have done this (millions) %
Note: Listening to music online is not included in this chart because the most recent data we have is from 2001. Creating content online has also been excluded due to the relatively short period of time in which we have asked about it.
SOURCE: Mary Madden and Lee Rainie, "Overall Growth of Online Pursuits," in America's Online Pursuits, Pew Internet and American Life Project, December 22, 2003, (accessed October 25,2004). Used by permission of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which bears no responsibility for the interpretations presented or conclusions reached based on analysis of the data.
Bank online 15 (March 2000) 34 (October 2002) 127%
Look for religious or spiritual info 18 (March 2000) 35 (November 2002) 94%
Buy or make a reservation for travel 31 (March 2000) 58 (December 2002) 87%
Participate in an online auction 13 (March 2000) 24 (December 2002) 85%
Check sports scores or info 30 (March 2000) 52 (September 2002) 73%
Download music files to your computer 21 (June–July 2000) 36 (October 2002) 71%
Buy a product 41 (March 2000) 67 (December 2002) 63%
Look for health or medical info 46 (March 2000) 73 (December 2002) 59%
Look for political news or info 30 (March 2000) 47 (November 2002) 57%
Look for info from a government site 40 (March 2000) 66 (November 2002) 56%
Research a product or service 64 (March 2000) 97 (December 2002) 52%
Get news 52 (March 2000) 78 (December 2002) 50%
Research for your job 42 (March 2000) 61 (November 2002) 45%
Play a game 29 (March 2000) 42 (June–July 2002) 45%
Surf the web for fun 54 (March 2000) 78 (January 2002) 44%
Look for info on a hobby or interest 65 (March 2000) 91 (January 2002) 40%
Buy or sell stocks 10 (March 2000) 14 (September 2002) 40%
Research for school or training 47 (March 2000) 63 (September 2002) 34%
Send an instant message 39 (March 2000) 52 (June–July 2002) 33%
Get financial info 38 (March 2000) 50 (September 2002) 32%
Send or read email 78 (March 2000) 102 (December 2002) 31%
Search to answer a question 79 (Sept–Dec 2000) 98 (September 2002) 24%
Participate in a chat room or discussion 24 (March 2000) 29 (June–July 2002) 21%

numbers by simply surfing the Internet or by sending out fraudulent e-mails. According to a report entitled Consumer Fraud in the United States: An FTC Survey, released by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in August 2004, identity theft accounted for 43% of the cases of fraud in the United States. In the year prior to the release of the report, nearly ten million Americans were victims of identity


theft. According to the study, the cost to Americans of these fraudulent activities came to $48 billion.

Another problem that appears to be growing worse is the number of viruses and worms making their way around the Internet. The CERT Coordination Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, reported that malicious computer incidents (hacking attempts, viruses, and worms directed at specific organizations) increased from 21,756 in 2000 to 137,529 in 2003. (See Table 1.2.) Not only do viruses, worms, and hackers cost time and energy, but they also put valuable information at risk. To make matters worse, in October 2004, the first mobile phone virus was detected in Southeast Asia. The virus, known as Cabir, infects mobile phone software and could be used to steal information from mobile phone address books.

Despite such difficulties, technological innovation is showing no sign of slowing down. It is likely that within the next decade, Americans will be carrying powerful portable computers that are nearly as small as present-day organizers. Price tags at the grocery store will give off radio signals that will automatically register the merchandise on a credit card when the buyer leaves the market. Robotic appliances, such as lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners, will automate some of the more tedious domestic chores.

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