25 years ago in Switzerland Tim Berners-Lee developed the basis of what we now know as the worldwide web. With the arrival of this technology the internet would soon cease to be the exclusive preserve of academia, geeks and big business.
Yet according to research carried out by Pew, even in the richest and probably most techno-saturated country in the world, the USA, today 13% of the adult population do not consider themselves to be internet users. The correlation between one’s level of educational attainment, earnings and being online is extremely high.
Surprisingly, while 76% of adult internet users say the internet has been a good thing for society, fully 15% say it has been a bad thing and 8% say it has been both a good and a bad thing in equal measure. So that’s nearly a quarter of adult internet users who clearly have reservations. Respondents were more positive about the effects of the internet on themselves as individuals, as opposed to society as a whole, but even in this group almost 10% thought the internet’s impact was negative.
Can we add non-users to those with negative feelings and get a larger demographic of outsiders and cyber malcontents? Probably not. You could be a non-user for all sorts of reasons and still think the internet was good for society.
Pew doesn’t tell us why people felt one way or another so, at one level, we’re not much further forward. However, since governments can be elected or thrown out on the basis of similar vagueness what we’re left with is an overall impression, and it’s one that we ignore at our peril. Therein lies vulnerability to the vicissitudes of politics.
Taken together I would say these numbers suggest the internet is doing very well, but maybe not quite well enough. My gut feeling is that, at least in part, the problem is that too many people think of the internet as if it was a seamless, single entity. Something bad that happens on one bit of it, or with one application, somehow reflects on the whole kit and caboodle. The internet is still not properly understood on a wide enough basis.
To be a trusted medium, to be truly accepted as part of the warp and weft of a modern society the Pew numbers need to be higher across the piece. The internet needs to be thought of as a public utility, in the same manner as household gas, electricity, water and the highway. If something undesirable happens on one or other part of the electricity grid nobody calls into question its underlying structure or purpose.
The industry ought to appoint a new PR agent but it also has to develop a more convincing narrative which in turn can only be based on demonstrable improvements in several areas. Not an easy thing to pull off in such a heterogeneous, highly competitive environment. But if it was easy it would already have happened.