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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Web Realities
Who does what online, and why?

The commercial internet has only been visible since 1995 and mobile phones didn't appear until 1989. In just a decade the PC, internet and mobile phone have become accepted and dominant business tools and modes of communication. With the benefit of hindsight, and real data on the Internet and its contribution to society, all the past media debates, arguments and objections now seem quaint and a total waste of time. They also mirror previous debates re typewriters, telegrams, recorded music, radio and TV.

Recent studies show a surge in online sales and the abandonment of security fears regarding the use of credit cards, and a realisation that the internet is one of the safest forms of financial communication. It has also been discovered that the internet is dominated by educated and professional people with a higher than average disposable income and not a bunch of nerds in bedrooms and workshops. Men and women seem to spend almost the same amount of time on the internet, but women focus on academic pursuits and their jobs, while men look to entertainment, commerce, games, music, purchasing and banking.

Surprisingly the internet is not dominated by the young, the age distribution is actually bimodal with a suck-out of around about 35 to 40 years. Young and old seem to be on the web in roughly equal numbers and the middle group tend to be disadvantaged by work and the need to earn to support both!

The internet veterans predominately gain access for news, trading and stocks, and have a work focus; while the newcomers tend to focus on hobbies, music and entertainment. It appears that the majority of the non-internet population want to get online and feel that they are being left behind.

In complete contrast to the fears of many, those who use the internet actually read more books and newspapers, listen to more music and radio, make most phone calls. And children exposed to PCs from the age of three upwards appear to gain about 20 IQ points by the time they are 15. In short they become smarter and not dumber as the pundits predicted. Engaging in computer games seems to engender a higher level of strategic thinking and adaptability, perhaps even making children more compatible with a world that is fundamentally chaotic.

In the USA less than 40 per cent of all homes have a computer, in much of Europe it is even higher, and across most of the Western world 60 per cent of peoples have access to computers and the Internet at their workplace.

One big surprise emerges from the online population is that they are most likely to see pornography and security as non-issues, and less than three per cent of the online population express any concern. Parents on the other hand feel that they have to police their children's PC and TV time, and specifically, the subject matter. But the children don't agree and get to do and see what they want anyway by bypassing their parents and their wishes.

Over 80 per cent believe that they spend about the right amount of time online, and have not given up any of their non-screen activities such as sport, socialising and hobbies. They consider that their lives have become more productive because they have gained from the computer and even more from the abandonment of TV. And internet users are far more optimistic about the advantages of IT technology than non-users.

Those people not yet online record scores that are more or less an inversion of all of the above, and those that have declared no interest in the internet (around 16 per cent) say they would never buy a computer or go online at any price. Overall it seems that 84 per cent of those online have email accounts and over 40 per cent check their email more than once a day. Most have an 80 per cent satisfaction level with the internet, the speed of access remains the key dissatisfaction parameter and the lack of broadband connectivity a major problem.

There now seems to be a new (positive) breed of anecdote contributing to the internet growth. Looking back we can trace a similar progress with the steam engine, automobile, telephone, radio and TV. I can remember TV debates about the bad influence of television programmes depicting nudity, violence, pop music, and the use of unacceptable language. Today it all seems so tame and society doesn't seem to be any the worse for it. Perhaps what we are learning is that freedom actually works.

Out of all of this seems to come a single useful constant - 10 years. Over our recent technological progress during and since the industrial revolution, it always seems to take about 10 years for society to accept the new. Cheque books, credit cards, standing orders, direct debit, internet payments, computers in the home, mobile phones, digital cameras, VHS, CD, DVD et al all took about 10 years to be accepted and established. But at every transition point the luddite lobby has always mounted an energetic campaign to stop progress. Typewriters will see people unable to use a pen, television will turn everybody into zombies, computers will wreck education, pornography on VHS will corrupt the population etc. Of course there is a grain of truth in all of the objections, but the upside always proves to be far greater than the down.

The reality, and great success of the internet is that having transformed the way we do business it has become invisible in less than a decade. It is everywhere, accepted, the business and society norm, and proving highly beneficial. Only a few luddites remain to be convinced, but they are now in the minority and fast becoming insignificant. Perhaps the useless and pointless debates will rapidly go away too!

This column dictated to tape while travelling between Cambridge and Ipswich on the A14, typed by my PA on her Apple notebook, dispatched to me via broadband from her home, picked up by me on the Ipswich to London Intercity train via my GSM phone and G4 laptop, edited as soon as I had finished breakfast, and dispatched to via the same path from the same train.