Non-Users Also Matter

Sally Wyatt, “Non-Users Also Matter: The Construction of Users and Non-Users of the Internet”, pp.67-79 in:
Oudshoorn, N., Pinch, T. (Eds.), 2003. How users matter: the co-construction of users and technologies. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
The reasons why private companies selling Internet-related products and services wish to promote the Internet as a universal medium are self-evident; the reasons why policy makers support them are less clear.
Users have been neglected for too long. Including them helps to overcome the problems associated with approaches to science and technology studies and innovation studies that emphasize the roles of powerful actors such as scientists, engineers, politicians, and financiers in producing technologies.
But restoring the dialectic between production and consumption by establishing the importance of use and users may introduce another problem: by focusing on use, we implicitly accept the promises of technology and the capitalist relations of its production.
Users are increasingly introduced into technology studies to counterbalance the emphasis on producers found in much of the literature, but all categories involve exclusions. Therefore, users should be seen in relation to another, even less visible group, that of non-users.
The car was a paradigm case of a symbol of modernity in the twentieth century. To many people, cars reflect wealth, power, virility, and freedom. The Internet promises many of the same attributes on an even larger scale, with its possibility of global reach. The symbolic value of having Internet access is often presented as a sign of inclusion in a high-technology future.
According to the trickle-down view, there may be inequalities of access and use during the early stages of a technology, but these disappear, or are at least much reduced, as the technology becomes more widely diffused.
Similar claims can be found in much literature and in policy statements about industrialization and modernization more generally. Individuals, regions, and nations will “catch up”; those not connected now will be or should be connected soon. This is the real annihilation of space by time: the assumption that the entire world shares a single time line of development, with some groups ahead of others but with everyone on the same path.
The stereotypical user remains a young, white, university-educated man.
There are differences in patterns of use, men spending more time on line and logging on more frequently.
Will the cyberworld come to dominate the physical world to anything like the same extent as cars and the associated socio-technical system? Is it possible to turn off the machine? Or will everyone’s choices come to be shaped by the Internet, just as many people’s transport choices are influenced by the automobile whether or not they own one?
People who stop using the Internet are poorer and less well-educated. People who are introduced to the Internet by family and friends are more likely to “drop out” than those who are self-taught or those who receive formal training at work or school. Teenagers are more likely to give up than people over 20.
There are different categories of non-use. As Bauer (1995: 14–15) points out, there is a difference between passive “avoidance behavior” and active resistance. Also, care should be taken to distinguish between non-use of a technological system (such as the Internet) as a whole and non-use of specific aspects of it (Miles and Thomas 1995: 256–257).
[description of four types of non-users: resisters, rejectors, excluded, expelled]
If Internet access is seen as inherently desirable, this might be accompanied by the provision of measures to facilitate access. Another possibility is to accept that some people will never use the Internet. This could lead either to a focus on existing users or (moving away from the perspective of the suppliers and promoters who see non-use only as a gap to be filled) to policies that would make alternatives to the Internet available to people who want or need them.
Once one has made the step of including “former user,” as well as “current user” and “never a user,” it is not too much more of a leap to begin to take apart the notion of “user.” What exactly does it mean to be a user?
The Internet “user” should be conceptualized along a continuum, with degrees and forms of participation that can change. Different modalities of use should be understood in terms of different types of users, but also in relation to different temporal and social trajectories.
Many authors have pointed to the ways in which producers and designers of technology draw on the “I-methodology,” using themselves as the paradigm of a user (see the chapter by Lindsay in this volume), or the singular, undifferentiated user, or users in the plural as a homogeneous group. Including the variety of non-users also helps to open the way for subtler description and analysis of the multiplicity of users.
Analyzing users is important, but by focusing on users and producers we run the risk of accepting a worldview in which adoption of new technology is the norm.
Cars are not simply wheels, engines, and steel; they exist within a sociotechnical infrastructure that includes test centers for drivers and vehicles, motorways, garages, the petrochemical industry, drive-in movies, and out-of-town shopping centers. The more people use cars, the greater the infrastructure to support them, and the lessening of car-free space.
Similarly, the Internet is not just web content. It includes many other applications as well as computers, telecommunication links, routers, servers, educators, and cyber cafés. The more people use the Internet, the more pressure there is to develop user-friendly interfaces and to provide more access equipment, greater bandwidth, and faster switching and routing. But there is a paradox here: as the network expands and becomes more useful, it may also become more difficult to create well-working communities.
It is thus important to analyze the Internet not only along a single dimension or characteristic but as a large technical system (Mayntz and Hughes 1988; Summerton 1994; Coutard 1999).
At the beginning of the chapter, I highlighted the importance of incorporating users into technology studies as a way of avoiding the traps associated with following only the powerful actors. Another way of avoiding such traps is to take non-users and former users seriously as relevant social groups, as actors who might influence the shape of the world.
The use of information and communication technology (or any other technology) by individuals, organizations, and nations is taken as the norm, and non-use is perceived as a sign of a deficiency to be remedied or as a need to be fulfilled. The assumption is that access to technology is necessarily desirable, and the question to be addressed is how to increase access.