Unpacking “I don’t want it”
First Monday

Unpacking “I don’t want it” — Why novices and non–users don’t use the Internet by R. Michelle Green



Abstract
The simple statement “I don’t want the Internet” hides misperceptions and personal beliefs that many novices and non–users hold about technology. Most non–users have limited opportunity to interact with those embracing technology. Inclusion in (and exclusion from) a technologically rich lifestyle creates feedback loops that inhibit technology learning in non–users, while facilitating it in experienced users. Such factors compound, leaving non–users unaware of and uninterested in technology’s benefit.

Contents

Introduction
Methodology
Results
Discussion
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Pew Internet Life statistics (Fox, 2005) show that the percent of “truly disconnected” Americans has remained stable since 2002 at just over 20 percent. These individuals have never used the Internet, and they live in households without Internet access. And despite the recent New York Times article (Marriott, 2006) suggesting that the digital divide is closing, they are more likely to be black, to be older and to be less educated.

Pew’s researchers infer that the United States has reached a saturation point for Internet adoption — that everyone who wants to use the Internet now does. The Pew survey indicates that about 65 million Americans don’t go online. Of this group, only five percent cite money as the reason; 39 percent say only that they’re not interested or it’s a waste of time. What feeds that response? Are these technology rejecters making a knowledgeable decision that reflects their circumstances? Or are they simply unaware of the value computers and networking could have in their lives? Are such decisions based on fact or belief?

Four factors contribute to novices and non–users’ disinterest in the Internet: 1) lack of knowledge about computers and networking; 2) attitudes about technology use; 3) attitudes about technology users; and, 4) social networks consisting largely of other non–users. These conditions together build feedback loops: those adept at technology adapt to new tools faster and faster, while non–users’ frustrating experiences inhibit their infrequent attempts to use technology. With no end in sight to the infiltration of computers and networking into daily life, individual differences in computer and Internet use will likely lead to significant differences in life chances and well–being. Understanding what underlies motivations not to use computers can limit the likelihood of a more or less permanent technology–resistant underclass.

 

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Methodology

During the fall of 2003 and the spring of 2004, I interviewed 21 adults for about two hours each (Green, 2005). Half considered themselves to be adept in their use of computers and the Internet: I call them technology embracers or adepts. Half were technology resisters: non–users or novices at technology use. None of the adults interviewed were technology professionals, simply adults negotiating a society full of evolving technological applications. These interviews offer insight into the misperceptions and misunderstandings that underlie resistance to Internet use. Page numbers refer to the transcript of each subject’s audiotaped interview. Pseudonyms protect each participant’s confidentiality.

 

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Results

This section addresses four major factors involved in inhibiting technology adoption: learning habits, attitudes about technology, attitudes about technology users, and social networks.

Learning habits.
While many studies cite education as a key factor in computer use, it tends to be reported as level of education achieved. Perhaps more relevant than years of schooling is the habit of learning therein acquired: the development of lifelong–learning behaviors. In my interviews, such learning habits are manifest in embracers’ frequent mentions of reading and intellectual curiosity.

“Yeah. I want to know everything. That’s another reason I want to go back as a full–time student. I’d love to take a course in anthropology; I’d love to take a course in this, that — everything. I’m just totally curious about everything — everything excites me.” (Jeri, p. 24)

Note that the reading referenced is not necessarily specific to computing.

Lifelong habits of learning can also manifest in an individual’s desire to experience as much as possible. “I’m kind of the guy who likes to try new things,” says Warner, an embracer in his 60s exuberant about using technology (p. 38). My interviews showed that the sample’s adepts read a lot, and enjoyed an active curiosity about the world and new ideas. The resisters I interviewed never mentioned reading, with the occasional exception of the Bible.

Establishing lifelong learning habits is harder when the traditional educational path is disrupted, or ends prematurely. Resisters in the sample mentioned discontinuities in their learning trajectory and negative memories of teaching experiences more than the embracers interviewed. Though the reasons ranged from back surgery to shotgun weddings, resisters were more likely than embracers to have had to leave school in order to deal with life’s circumstances. Many resisters, like Kurt (p. 12), expressly linked interruptions in schooling with their difficulties in using technology. Others told stories of unhappy schooling experiences (e.g., bad teachers, or in–class humiliation), inspiring them to quit school as soon as possible. Insofar as they associate technology with schooling, or the state of being educated (Cheveux, p. 28), such experiences would inhibit the use of technology.

“The plasma TV set is not a good life.”

Attitudes about technology.
Seven of the ten resisters interviewed had negative early memories of technology use. In that light, it is impressive that most resisters have not demonized computers. Sophie had the most extreme views, associating technology with irritation, (p. 12) and frustration (p. 29). She also sees in technology use a repudiation of life values for the accumulation of technology toys: “The plasma TV set is not a good life,” she admonishes (p. 21). Most articulated a profound skepticism, distrust, or fear of technological tools, despite consensus that technology was a good thing for society in general, and for everyone (else) in specific. Even Sophie felt it had a role in her future — when she became physically incapable of interacting with the world, then (and only then) technology could serve (pp. 6, 23).

If any aspect of technology was demonized, it was the Internet. It’s too huge, too complex, to be accessible. “I don’t want my name in there,” said Cheveux (p. 6), as she described her rejection of ATM cards and credit cards as well as computers and the Internet. Though her inclusion of credit cards may appear extreme, she represents the concerns of several other resisters. Technology stories that subjects referenced included the self–aware murderer HAL in the movie 2001, and the Matrix trilogy, where networked computers malevolently rule. When explicitly asked, almost no one among all 21 interviewed could mention benevolent images of computers and technology in popular media, with the exception of robots (i.e., the star of the Short Circuit movies, and Robin Williams’ character in the film Centennial Man).

Many non–users say that they may use computers some day — they’ll just use it at some undefined future point. They have no clear idea how they would use information technology, but nevertheless feel a duty to do so, some day. This attitude is visible in words like ‘ought to’ ‘have to’ ‘everyone else has’, etc. Sula, the oldest subject interviewed at 83, bought her computer without any idea what she would do with it (p. 13).

SULA: “Everybody was telling me I needed a computer.
Primary Investigator (PI): What did you think you were going to do with it when you bought it?
SULA: That’s what I wonder.
PI: But you bought it.
SULA: I thought I was going to use it for myself.
PI: But to do what with?
SULA: Whatever they are doing with them.” (p. 16)

This kind of imprecise and non–utilitarian assessment of a computer’s value was often echoed in resisters’ general comments about computing’s positives. “[Everyone says] you can do anything with it,” notes Cheveux (p. 17). This omnipotence, coupled with a lack of specificity, contributes to technology’s mystery, however. Though Tim considers himself inexperienced, he is the most technologically capable of the resisters interviewed. He explains technology succinctly (p. 5): “It’s a big mystery, until it’s not.”

Of the ten resisters, only Sula and Tim have new computers, and Sula’s is still in the box after several months. Even the study’s biggest Luddite, Sophie, had purchased a second–hand computer four months before the interview. It, too, is still in the box. The other resisters either have no computer of their own, or are using old equipment (handed down to them, or publicly accessible in a not–for–profit location). Using old or poorly maintained equipment may contribute to feelings of skepticism about the value and reliability of technology. For novices, difficulty with computing is often constructed as ‘I am not capable,’ rather than ‘my equipment is flawed.’ Typically, with adults learning alone in their homes, there is no one present to tell them otherwise.

Cybill focused on attitudes fostered by poverty (rather than income per se) as inhibiting the use of technology (pp. 30–1). You can have money and still be driven by habits and attitudes acquired while poor. An axiom of computer purchasing is to spend as much money as possible on the most advanced components available, since the technology becomes outdated so quickly. People accustomed to buying the cheapest or generic product would experience on average more problems using old or off–brand equipment than a comparably skilled user with a new computer. It would affect not only the learning curve experienced with technology, but also the total cost of ownership for older computing tools.

The perceived complexity of computers and networking repulses most technology resisters ...

The perceived complexity of computers and networking repulses most technology resisters, who alluded often to a love of simplicity over complexity, and a comfort in old–fashioned approaches and objects. Complexity appears in participants’ concerns with ease of use. Several male resisters felt very comfortable with game platforms, citing the ease of ‘plug and play’ setup, and the use of the television screen rather than a monitor.

Several technology stereotypes play into these subjects’ continued challenges with technology. Computers are often seen as uncontrollable.

“ … how long can your luck run … I’ve been very lucky … That’s probably why I won’t use a computer. I’m sure it will blow up.” (Sophie, p. 29)

An unpredictable computer may feel human, betraying you when the system most needs to behave. Benjamin felt the computer conspired to frustrate you, and enjoyed playing a particular spades program because he could beat it (p. 11). Even a bit of control could offset some of users’ feelings of fear or anger. Resister Francine no longer felt like “flipping out” at failure once she learned some basic troubleshooting steps (p. 11).

Attitudes about technology users.
Resisters were more likely to ascribe special powers and qualities to people capable of easily controlling this unknowable tool. Sophie defined nerds (her term for those who are computer capable) as people able to program computers in their heads (p. 18). This is not an attractive state to Sophie, who associates technology with commercialism and acquisitiveness (p. 21). Lina is, by her own account, irrationally concerned that using computers and the Internet will somehow fundamentally alter her (p. 19). “If I get into technology, I would suddenly become like a technological person … ” Computer geeks are more patient than Francine could ever be (p. 6).

How can these resisters abandon such misperceptions when even embracers like M. Chris share them? M. Chris would not call herself a ‘techie’ (p. 34), adding that she had too much she wanted and needed to learn. The converse implicitly defines the computer techie as all–knowing, a status unachievable by ‘regular’ people. In such a paradigm, technologically capable people are blessed with innate gifts — unachievable by mere humans. Arthur C. Clarke has said that any sufficiently technological culture will appear as magic to a less advanced one (Clarke, 1972). The analogy applies to individuals, where an impossible task for a novice is accomplished with magical ease by someone who knows the tool.

... technologically capable people are blessed with innate gifts — unachievable by mere humans.

Such beliefs can be powerful inhibitors to computer or Internet use. Believing you can’t use technology makes it difficult to ever try. Conversely, the belief that technology can be learned appears helpful in encouraging technology use. Even though Lina explicitly admits that technology frightens her (p. 10), she thinks she can learn it, once she wants to (p. 26). Francine, stammering here where she typically did not, echoes both this ambivalence and the learning expectation.

“Well, I’m, I’m, I’m — going to be starting getting back into the job market and I notice that technology is … especially with my back problem I can’t do the type of work that I enjoy, so what’s left for me is; you know, in that field it’s very tech–, you know, technical. I mean you have to know Excel and Microsoft Word and PowerPoint and things like that, I mean, the computer. And I’m, I’m just; I’m not as comfortable with it you know. Whereas my bro–; both my brothers have always been more — they’ve embraced it more. They’ve been more open to it. It’s taken me a while to accept it … Yeah, I’ve learned Microsoft Word and a little bit of Excel, but not, not to, not– to the point where I think I’d feel comfortable working in an office and being on my own with it, not quite yet … I think it’s learned; because I’ve improved a lot and a lot of it is just getting comfortable with it …” (Francine, p. 10–11)

Compare this with resister Benjamin’s statement about technology learning:

“Well … the way technology is right now, it is sort of, it’s becoming so advanced, I just wanna; I just think of it like this, I just hope that I can be a part of it. Do you know what I’m saying?” (Benjamin, p. 24)

Benjamin’s words convey his doubt that he can participate in technology’s evolution. Francine may be tentative about learning to use computers, but has evidence that she can do so.

Limitations of non–user networks.
Agency in seeking help is facilitated by contact with those who understand technological tools. Embracers appeared to know few resisters, and vice versa. Though several embracers spoke of teaching others, several actively repudiated evangelism, saying that technology should not be forced on others. Though resister Francine wanted tech evangelists to “mind their own business” (p. 16), resisters like Kurt, Benjamin, Theodore and Cybill commented that they were waiting for someone in their network to help them use technology.

Concurrently, the adepts I interviewed sometimes expected the few novices they knew to have neither an interest in technology, nor any agency in using it. Complexity is not a hurdle for many embracers, but they can still construct it as one for elder relatives. Adepts within resister Lina’s family actively chose not to provide a computer for a housebound but mentally sound elder, deciding without her input that it was too complex for her age (p. 33). As an adept, Buffy is similarly dismissive about her elder relatives.

“My grandparents live in Palm Springs and they don’t go online, they don’t e–mail. They’re just old. They don’t even know what it is, so it definitely makes it harder. I have to put more effort into communicating with them … I mean they’re 86 years old. They don’t even know what a computer is pretty much … My mom just started using it a couple of years ago, but not my grandparents; they’re just too old.” (Buffy, p. 16–17)

This creates an implicit hurdle where communication between these groups is minimal, and the messages sent may not be understood.

The negligible overlap between the lives of embracers and resisters puts special pressure on those embracers available to novices. If a novice learner is too technologically needy, even compassionate embracers may tire. The helper may weary of offering assistance, coming to feel the learner’s requests for help are either too frequent or too simple to merit assistance. Simultaneously, the resister’s willingness to use his or her own agency can wane (I may break it, I’ll wait). Theodore’s experiences are most illustrative of this dynamic. Of the resisters interviewed, only Theodore has a pressing technology need at the time of the interview … he cannot find work without using e–mail.

“All these jobs are computer–literate, computer savvy, computer skills and I’m just about computer–illiterate — Excel, we did that so briefly in class. A lot of that is holding me back. I was telling you about that one job for the [film] reviews for the magazine just wanted us to e–mail the reviews to them. I don’t know how to do that, I don’t have that. I bought that thing [modem] last April and it still sits in the box. [probe: someone to help you?] Just my one friend, the condescending one who doesn’t have time for me. The other friend for some reason he said he was not going to talk to me anymore, doesn’t talk to me at all. My cousin who initially was sending everything from her computer at work, but once I got my computer she brought over the diskettes with the templates on it and she can’t do anything with her new job, her new boss. He’s an eagle–eyed guy. He keeps firing people. She’s got all this seniority and she can’t even take phone calls anymore at work, much less send out … she can’t even send e–mails out anymore from work. So I’m being held back by my computer ignorance.” (Theodore, p. 21)

That the cousin can no longer send e–mails from work is highly suspicious. It is more likely that she is withdrawing her support now that he has a computer. In the families of resisters Lina (p. 33), Tim (p. 12) and Kurt, relatives who are using computers sometimes actively withhold their knowledge from those less skilled:

PI: “ … you were saying you have to listen to your wife because she has computers.
KURT: Yeah.
PI: What does she say to you?
KURT: She won’t teach me.
PI: She won’t?
KURT: I don’t know why.
PI: Did you ask her?
KURT: Yeah.
PI: She said no?
KURT: She said, “I’ll show you one day.”
PI: One day! okay.
KURT: I said you know, it would be something as simple as setting up the household budget you know. That way, I can go in there and I can punch in things. I don’t think she wants me to know about the way things are run. [PI chuckles] That’s why.” (p. 24)

Such behavior can build a reinforcing loop, where knowledgeable people learn more, and more quickly, while those who are inexperienced are derided and isolated from knowledgeable others.

 

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Discussion

User and non–user networks most often intersected within families. Those relationships, however, did not appear to mitigate the disdain or benign neglect non–users experienced. As a result, even when knowledgeable technology assistance is accessible to novices, it may not be considered helpful or even available. Those offering help may unwittingly inhibit the learning process by doing for the novice rather than assisting him or her to learn. Lina (p. 10), Cybill (p. 7) and Francine (p. 8) all mention family members with tech skills in contexts implying that they therefore had no need to learn to use computers or the Internet. Kiesler’s study of computer and internet use in the home (Kiesler, et al., 2000) showed that when computer problems occurred, only the most knowledgeable IT person in a family requested tech support. That person, often a teenage boy, gained in IT skill across the study period, while the family experienced no net gain in skill. Said differently, over time the gap in skill level between the most and least knowledgeable family member widened. This finding echoes the impact of feedback processes within novice and embracer networks observed in my analysis.

In the United States, technology’s embracers are typically segregated physically, professionally, and personally from non–users. Communication today is so mediated by technology that it virtually prevents interaction between these groups. Consider the ways in which a technology–rich lifestyle may approximate a culture, and this segregation of resisters and embracers becomes less surprising. Gee (1989) called culture “saying–writing–doing–being–valuing–behaving combinations.” Technology as a culture is manifest in in–group/out–group differences in language, behavior, resources and thinking. Even as designers and manufacturers try to make the computer easier and more accessible, they presuppose by necessity that their users have physical skills (mouse use), language (streaming video, flash plug–ins, FAQ, ripping and burning CDs, text messaging), and conceptions of use (send/end on cell phones, drag/drop, auto–fill menus, right click, download/upload, tagging) that you cannot acquire overnight. Even instructional manuals are written using the presupposed skills and language. The novice or late adopter as a result confronts significant barriers to IT use. These behaviors, language, and conceptions of use are all markers in a technological culture.

Cultures are fluid and evolving, defined more by in–group and out–group status than by other more tangible boundaries. Interactions at technology’s cultural border are not always diplomatic. Members of a culture are typically drawn to other in–group members, and dissociate from out–group members. Resister Lina alludes to this us–versus–them feeling in her assertion (p. 18) that “they all know the lingo.” In–group members can be condescending and dismissive about others’ ignorance with respect to technology. Such behavior discourages informal learning. Tim, the most computer–ready of the resister sub–sample, readily expressed disdain and derision of his wife (pp. 4, 12, 20) and his mother (p. 11), both less technologically capable than he. His comments are particularly noteworthy, as a recent learner might be expected to have more empathy for a novice’s challenges than an experienced user. This makes having peers and friends adept at technology a double–edged sword.

The picture these results paint can look very bleak. The typical resister in this study had unpleasant memories of their first experience with technology. They were unable to complete their schooling in a timely manner. Their lives as adults do not typically include secular reading or interactions with technologically capable peers. As a result, the misperceptions and misunderstandings they hold about technology are rarely challenged. For many, they can neither imagine computing’s value, nor find the personal or social resources to adopt computing and the Internet. Resisters’ efforts to use technology can be met with condescension, or ignored completely. Opportunities to incorporate powerful tools like the Internet into their lives are few and far between. No particular subject interviewed experienced every circumstance described. However, this does capture the range of challenges faced by a hypothetical resister.

Several limitations of this qualitative study of individual differences bear noting. First qualitative research can promote understanding of observed phenomena, but cannot explain them. Further, individual difference data do not tend to yield broad–based solutions or interventions. Nonetheless, the findings have very specific implications for people trying to broaden technology’s reach, whether professionally or in their private lives. Adepts must work at reaching out to novices and non–users. Technology users can find small ways to provide initial coping tools to novices (e.g., how to reboot, close frozen programs, or use more than one browser). When something goes wrong, these tools can help show that the novice is not at fault, the computer is. In this manner, novices grow more confident in their own ability to recover from inevitable technology problems.

We are not born knowing how to negotiate the Internet — these skills are learned.

Adepts must overcome the tendency to belittle the steepness (perceived and real) of the learning curve. We are not born knowing how to negotiate the Internet — these skills are learned. Technology designers need to recognize that novices and adepts learn differently, attending to different issues, and interpreting the information seen in different ways. Nancy Blachman recognizes this in her GoogleGuide instructions for search (http://www.googleguide.com/, unaffiliated with Google), with one path for the experienced Internet user and a different path for the novice.

Community–based interventions promoting technology will find greater success using locations where novices and adepts still meet (e.g., churches, barber shops, beauty salons and neighborhood recreational locations). Word of mouth and personal discussion with other users can help offset novice concerns about technology.

Designers or marketers who wish to encourage resisters to try technology solutions must embrace traditional broad–based communication methods. Casual reading is unlikely, so cable TV channels, radio and other broadcast media must serve. Media use has its drawbacks. Press releases alone cannot suffice, as news and general interest television shows tend to highlight the Internet’s dangers, and take for granted its benefits. Such news stories often reinforce novice fears about the Internet and computers. Information targeting novices should acknowledge common misperceptions and offer strategies for managing fears about computers and the Internet.

 

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Conclusion

This analysis demonstrates that the simple statement “I don’t want the Internet” hides many myths, misperceptions and misunderstandings. Unfounded beliefs and misinformation, coupled with limited interaction between technology resisters and embracers, create feedback loops that inhibit technology learning in non–users, while facilitating it in experienced users. The implicit cultural barriers associated with inclusion in (or exclusion from) a technologically–rich lifestyle magnify these feedback loops. Though inequities in life are inevitable, an inclusive society should make every effort to minimize them. I argue that the first step in combating the invisible privilege conferred by technological skill is recognizing its existence and associated ramifications. Only then can individuals, communities and governments take the proactive steps necessary to limit technological inequity. End of article

 

About the author

R. Michelle Green received her Ph.D. in 2005 from Northwestern University’s Graduate School of Education and Social Policy. Her research program for the better part of a decade has examined why adults embrace or reject information technology (IT). She is particularly concerned with the ramifications of technological inequity on those who are poor, older, or non–white. Dr. Green, recently a post–doctoral fellow at TERC in Cambridge, Mass., is currently Visiting Faculty (School of Cognitive Sciences) and Dean of Student Services at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.
E–mail: rmgreen [at] hampshire [dot] edu

 

References

A.C. Clarke, 1972. The Lost Worlds of 2001. New York: New American Library.

C.S. Dweck, 2000. Self Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development. Lillington, N.C.: Psychology Press.

S. Fox, 2005. “Digital Divisions,” at http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Digital_Divisions_Oct_5_2005.pdf, accessed 6 February 2006.

GoogleGuide, at http://www.googleguide.com/, accessed 15 March 2006.

R.M. Green, 2005. Predictors of Digital Fluency (pp. 272): Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University.

S. Kiesler, B. Zdaniuk, V. Lundmark, and R. Kraut, 2000. “Troubles with the Internet: The Dynamics of Help at Home,” Human–Computer Interaction, volume 15, pp. 323–351. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/S15327051HCI1504_2

M. Marriott, 2006. “Blacks Turn to Internet Highway, and Digital Divide Starts to Close,” New York Times (31 March).


Editorial history

Paper submitted 13 April 2006; accepted 15 July 2006.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2006, First Monday

Copyright ©2006, R. Michelle Green, All Rights Reserved.

Unpacking “I don’t want it” — Why novices and non–users don’t use the Internet by R. Michelle Green
First Monday, volume 11, number 9 (September 2006),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_9/green/index.html





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