A Pew Research report published yesterday makes sober reading for techno-utopians. It reveals that Internet usage in the US has stalled. Half of the population doesn't want the Internet and doesn't care less about what it might be missing.
"Missing out on the most popular movement of the 1990s didn't seem to bother the unwired survey respondents. More than half of those surveyed said they don't want Internet access or don't need it," reports the Washington Post in a neat precis.
I can't imagine how this will play with The Second Superpower - the imaginary world that exists in the minds of a small handfull of Blog-lobbyists.
Cost, and the intimidating experience of PC technology are cited as reasons by Net-refuseniks. Shockingly, many of the poor and disadvantaged took pride in preferring other forms of information, socialization and entertainment to wrestling with Windows viruses or closing one popup window after another.
But what a contrast this makes with Japan, which as The Guardian reports in an extensive, must-read feature, wireless technology is a smash hit. Cheap, popular phones reach the parts that the lumbering, PC-centric Western tech can't reach.
In Japan, The Guardian reports, the phone "is killing the conventional internet. While business users still like to use the PC for email, the younger generation is forgoing the desktop PC for the mobile phone."
Phones are used for shopping, for news, but most of all for communication. Social software in the truest sense. The low cost and ubiquity of phones brings wireless technology to all parts of what is, admittedly, already a very egalitarian society. Which is why you hear so little talk of a "digital divide" in Japan. These small computers are very personal indeed: for all the talk we've heard about "wearable" technology, the only technology more wearable than a phone is a chip implant.
We must make a few caveats. The Pew report is a snapshot of a point in time. Today's net-savvy affluent kids will age, and the number of Net users may eventually become a plurality. And when content creation and experience matters, the personal computer remains a remarkably versatile tool. And of course, Japanese culture is unique.
But it isn't so unique as to be exclusive.
Phones with "Shopping" buttons are becoming increasingly common in Asia. Socialization of technology is very important - it's the last thing theorists and lobbyists and ideologues seem to understand. Pie charts and PowerPoints are little help, here.
The great commercial imperative, everywhere it seems, except the USA, is on the "last yard" - luring phone users to useful services. Many have failed, but the dialog between punter and technology provider is refining itself gradually, with personal phone technology very much the arena where big money is won or lost.
This may come as a shock to some. It shouldn't.
"A lot of cyber-idealists thought the Net was becoming our new common space. That hasn't happened. Nasty teenagers, spammers and greedy corporatists have made common turf on the Net either too expensive, hostile or annoying for most people to spend much time on," wrote a poster on Kuro5hin this week.
But here in the US, techno utopians are in full-cry, once again, with a well-heeled lobby demanding deregulation of the wireless spectrum "to bring the Internet to the masses"; oblivious to the fact that elsewhere in the world, it's already happened.
Giving renewed vigor to the WiFi/deregulation lobbyists are Microsoft and Intel, who have failed to make the transition. (Rather unfairly, perhaps, in Intel's case because its XScale platform is technically excellent. Then again, it might not be Intel's fault that no one wants to make Intel phones. That in itself is another story).
A case in point
A long weekend beckons and as I'm on a savings binge, I must forgo a trip into Northern California's beautiful countryside. Which is a shame, as I like pines and eucalyptus and fresh air.
So I'm going to the park instead, to catch up on some reading. I'm well behind. There's a Russian poet called Mayakovsky, who I'd never heard of until this week: a surrealist and futurist who was both punished and praised by Stalin. And David Sedaris, who is funnier than a one inch hospital, and a book of short lit crit by Amis Jr., much of which is from the days before he aged into a pompous ass. And best of all, the new William Gibson which I'm reading slower and slower because I know the end is coming, and it has been such a real sensual pleasure to be in his hands, that I'm trying to prolong the experience as long as I possibly can.
I'll certainly be taking my P800, because I like talking to people: either directly, or via an IM client (which in this case is called TipicME, but it does give you all the main IM services, so your friends are right there in your hand). In theory I can reach the whole Internet via the Opera browser, and it may be hard to resist my daily dose of Robot Wisdom and Cryptome - which are two unfailingly good pointers to great reading, but other than that, I may not miss the Internet at all.
And when you're in the park - hey, there's always the possibility of charming a bewitching stranger.
(Flirting is quite the par - and not a sign of moral degeneracy)
The moral is: my iBook stays at home.
Content is indeed king, and most of the content isn't on the Internet. And what Internet we have that's useful, I can take with me.
It's now in a phone. ®