In the early 1980s, Americans started spending more time on the telephone. From 1980 to 1987, the number of minutes spent on the phone increased by 24%, three times the rate of population growth. At first, the reasons first seemed mysterious. Yes, fax machines were entering the workplace and the personal computing revolution was getting off the ground, both of which might have spurred growth voice traffic. But these factors were thought to account for no more than 10% of the growth.
The cause? The telephone answering machine. Although just 28% of homes had answering machines for their telephones in 1987, these new devices meant once-missed calls were returned and now-completed calls encouraged more phone calling.
This episode shows how relatively small changes in society’s technology portfolio in one area can have significant impacts in a related one. The answering machine served as an accelerant in to Americans’ existing calling patterns.
In a similar way, mobile internet access is drawing people into more frequent online use. The information nugget initially discovered on the handheld device might prompt a user to open the laptop at home to explore further. Conversely, the fascinating blog post discovered on the desktop at home might be pursued further on the mobile device on the train to work and then taken along new pathways once online at the office.
This finding that mobile internet access is drawing people further into the digital world is the cornerstone of the Pew Internet Project’s second typology of information and communication technology (ICT) users. Some five groups in this typology – making up 39% of the adult population – have seen the frequency of their online use grow as their reliance on mobile devices has increased. Across those groups, there is a lot of variation on what these changes mean to users. Some find this extra connectivity a platform for self expression. Others are not entirely positive about ICTs’ impacts on their lives.
Then there is the other 61% of the adult population who do not feel the pull of mobility – or anything else – further into the digital world. Across the five groups that make up this part of the population, several have a lot of technology at hand and have seen their tech assets grow in recent years. Yet ICTs remain on the periphery in their lives, suggesting that some adult Americans reach a plateau in their technology use. Some groups are content with this distant relationship to technology. For others, even a little modern gadgetry is too much.