We Use Information Technology
by Reid Goldsborough
January 1, 2004
Surveys can be tedious affirmations of what we already
know. Sometimes survey authors extrapolate conclusions
from raw data that you wouldn’t necessarily agree
Yet at their best, surveys can reveal new or only partly
recognized truths about our collective behavior, which
can cause us to reexamine our individual behavior and
possibly even change it for the better.
The latest study by the Pew Internet & American Life
Project on information technology, titled “Consumption
of Information Goods and Services in the United States”
and available as a free download from Pew’s Web
site at http://www.pewinternet.org,
is a bit of all this, though it’s considerably more
insightful than not.
One of the main conclusions of the study, which was funded
by the Pew Charitable Trusts, is, “Americans’
love affair with technology is one of the defining characteristics
of their culture.” No surprise there. From the time
of the Industrial Revolution, the U.S. has been at or
near the forefront of technological innovation.
The study’s author, John Horrigan, a senior research
specialist with Pew, then sorted Americans into eight
distinct groups in relation to their use of technology,
ranging from the “Young Tech Elites” to the
In a telephone interview, Horrigan shared what he found
most surprising about the data: The heaviest information
technology users—the Young Tech Elites—are
the ones who feel least burdened by information overload.
“They’ve developed coping mechanisms to deal
with the wealth of information that’s out there,”
These mechanisms, Horrigan discovered, range from using
spam filters and creating multiple folders to manage legitimate
e-mail to simply knowing when to keep your cell phone
Other survey tips I’ve found useful are using a
Web clipping service, such as My Yahoo!, at http://my.yahoo.com,
that automatically delivers news and other information
about only those topics you specify, learning to use a
Web search tool’s advanced procedures, and keeping
e-mail and other online discussions to an appropriate
The study also discovered that the Young Tech Elites,
whose average age is 22 years and who are largely male,
well educated, and financially well-off, are more likely
to get their news and other information from the Internet
than the rest of the population. That also isn’t
But what I found surprising is that even among these cutting
edgers, TV is still the most frequently used news medium,
as it is for the population as a whole. The reign of the
boob tube isn’t over by a long shot.
The Internet and newspapers are still important for the
Young Tech Elites, and they in fact are the only group
that’s as likely to get news from the Internet as
a newspaper. This, Horrigan concluded, “means that
a newspaper’s online presence will only grow compared
with its print presence.”
This and similar conclusions about the predictive importance
of the Young Tech Elites, however, may not be warranted.
Historically, it’s not true that the early adapters
of new tools and techniques pull the rest of society along
with them, said Nathan Ensmenger, an assistant professor
in the Department of History and Sociology of Science
at the University of Pennsylvania.
Telephones and radios are two examples, said Ensmenger,
who specializes in the societal implications of technology.
The telephone was first marketed strictly as a tool for
urban male businessmen, but what drove its adoption were
rural women who used it to chat up friends and family.
And radio, like computers, was first popular among young
male hobbyists who used it primarily for the technology
itself. Yet society found uses.
The same will likely happen with computers and the Internet.
It’s not geeks like me who will define the future
of information technology, but soccer moms, guys who watch
football all afternoon Sunday, and kids trying to get
ahead in the world.
The Pew study also showed, as have previous studies, that
the Internet isn’t nearly as revolutionary as some
Net pundits have suggested. The Net hasn’t broken
down barriers among groups with respect to age, gender,
race, and income, said Ensmenger. Divisions still exist
in society. And these divisions are reflected in the different
ways that people use information technology.
“We’re not all becoming an Internet society,”
Finally, the study suggests a lot of continuity between
old media and new media. The Internet is evolutionary,
existing on a continuum with newspapers and magazines,
telephones, radio, television, CDs, and other media. The
Internet in all likelihood will supplement, not replace,
what came before.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author
of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org