Gadgets, Internet Get a Big Yawn

Nearly half of American adults have a “distant or nonexistent relationship” with information and communication technology (ICT) such as the Internet, mobile phones and other gadgets, according to a new report by the Pew Internet Project (PIP). The study examined the sort of technology used by adults, how they use it and how they think about technology.

The survey’s results bring the failings of the technology industry into sharp focus, and also highlight the divergent and sometimes contradictory views Americans take on technology and its part in their daily lives.

About 31 percent of respondents said they could not imagine living without their gadgets.

“Some of the earliest adopters of the Internet and cell phones still love the things that drew them into this new universe a decade or more ago, and they have happily evolved in their use since then,” John B. Horrigan, associate director at the Pew Internet Project and author of the report, explained.

“Two groups of technology users have a kind of ‘tech gadget’ remorse,” he continued. “They have more than a fair share of digital appliances. But they aren’t all that satisfied with the flood of information or communication goods and services.”

To Gadget or Not to Gadget?

Using data collected from 4,001 telephone interviews of adults aged 18 and older, Pew Internet Project researchers developed a typology that breaks down ICT users into 10 different groups.

Those groups fall into three broad categories:

  • “Elite users,” is a category made up of four groups who own the most information technology and use it heavily and frequently to access the Internet, stay connected with work, family and friends, and, to differing degrees, engage in user-generated content. Consisting of 31 percent of respondents, this category is in general highly satisfied with the role ICTs play in their lives.

    “They live their lives on e-mail; can’t imagine life without a smart phone; download songs to their MP3 players; and howl at online amateur videos,” Horrigan said. “They don’t necessarily have a blog or tag photos on a Flickr account, but they say it would be very hard to give up any of their digital goodies.”

  • “Middle-of-the-road users” fall into two groups and account for some 20 percent of those surveyed. From their perspective, information technology serves a distinctly utilitarian and task-oriented purpose. For them, ICTs are strictly for communication and are not used for self-expression.
  • Forty-nine percent of respondents fall into a category of adults with “few technology assets.” These respondents indicated that they do not have much use for “modern gadgetry,” which is “at or near the periphery of their daily lives.” While some said they found it useful, others said they would “stick to the plain old telephone and television,” researchers reported.

Device Dilemma

Some 85 percent of adults in the U.S. use the Internet or mobile phones, with most reporting that they use both. Broadband connections, digital cameras and video game consoles are also fairly common. The study found, however, that only 8 percent of adults classified as “omnivores.” Omnivores are those who “exploit connectivity, the capacity for self-expression, and the interactivity of modern information technology.”

The low percentage of users taking full advantage of available technologies did not come as a surprise to Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. “Much of what we have is very difficult to use, which is why there are so few omnivores,” he told TechNewsWorld. “I actually would have expected this number to be lower, which suggests the utility of these devices is forcing more folks to learn how to use them.

“I would have expected this number to be below 5 percent,” Enderle added.

Researchers attributed part of what drives 49 percent of Americans nearly completely away from ICTs to a concern with “information overload.” Another aspect contributing to their uneasy relationship with technology is a sense that “their gadgets have more capacity than users can master” as well as a feeling that blogging or posting home videos on YouTube is “not for them.” Other reasons also include an inability to afford the gadgets and an unwillingness to purchase the devices that would see them join the 21st century’s digital age.

The high number of American adults outside of the technology loop, Enderle said, was expected. With the possible exception of Apple and a few other device makers, technology is currently too difficult and painful to use. Sony, Enderle pointed out, is a good example of a company whose technology is too complicated for users to easily adopt.

“[Sony’s] fortunes are directly related to their inability to grow their market outside of TVs in recent years,” he said.

“If something isn’t compelling, or worse, if it is simply too difficult to get to the promised benefits, folks will not buy it, and the technology market is awash in such products,” Enderle explained. “Often, even if a product is easy to use, it is either under-marketed or miss-marketed and fails to capture the interest of much of the available market as a result.”

Money Not the Only Factor

Although income is naturally a large factor in how gadget-savvy a person will likely be, other considerations come in as well. Education is also a strong determiner, with those having a college degree more likely to be connected than those without. Age also contributes. “[It] is more age than income,” he said, adding, “also, it would appear white users are much more likely to be heavy users than blacks or Hispanics.”

“[Age] range would be from a college age white male (most) to retired black female (least), based on these results. The one big exception was connectors where women dominated [such as] cell phone use. Still it does appear that the more affluent you are the more likely you are to have more high-tech gadgets, regardless of whether you use them or not.”

The lesson for the technology industry, Enderle stated, is that if they want adoption of technology to happen at a quicker pace, then it would behoove them to provide more education about the benefits offered by their devices and the Internet. Young buyers are more likely to be heavy buyers, and this is something that will correct itself over the next several decades, he said, unless there is a backlash.

“If the industry wants it to move more quickly it needs to create products that are vastly easier to use, provide clear benefits, at attractive prices, and then market these benefits to the 49 percent that are currently not embracing the product class.”

Where Do You Fit In?

The Elites

  • Omnivores (8 percent): So-called omnivores have the most information gadgets and services, which they use voraciously to participate in cyberspace, express themselves online, and do a range of Web 2.0 activities. Most in this group are men in their mid- to late-twenties.
  • Connectors (7 percent): Between feature-packed cell phones and frequent online use, they connect to people and manage digital content using ICTs. They report high levels of satisfaction about how ICTs let them work with community groups and pursue hobbies.
  • Lackluster Veterans (8 percent): They are frequent users of the Internet, but less avid about cell phones. They are not thrilled with ICT-enabled connectivity and don’t see them as tools for additional productivity. They were among the Internet’s early adopters.
  • Productivity Enhancers (8 percent): Productivity Enhancers have strongly positive views about how technology lets them keep up with others, do their jobs and learn new things. They are frequent and happy ICT users whose main focus is personal and professional communication.

The Middle-of-the-Road Users

  • Mobile Centrics (10 percent): They fully embrace the functionality of their cell phones. They use the Internet, but not often, and like how ICTs connect them to others. Thirty-seven percent within this group have high-speed Internet connections at home. The group contains a large share of African Americans.
  • Connected but Hassled (10 percent): They have invested in a lot of technology (80 percent have broadband at home), but they find the connectivity intrusive and information something of a burden.

Few Technology Assets

  • Inexperienced Experimenters (8 percent): Respondents categorized as Inexperienced Experimenters occasionally take advantage of interactivity, but if they had more experience and connectivity, they might do more with ICTs. They are late adopters of the Internet. Few have high-speed connections at home.
  • Light but Satisfied (15 percent): They have some technology, but it does not play a central role in their daily lives. They are satisfied with what ICTs do for them. They like how information technology makes them more available to others and helps them learn new things.
  • Indifferents (11 percent): Despite having either cell phones or online access, these users use ICTs only intermittently and find connectivity annoying. Few would miss a beat if they had to give these things up.
  • Off the Network (15 percent): Those with neither cell phones nor Internet connectivity tend to be older adults. A few of them have computers or digital cameras, but they are content with old media.

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