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Culture | The "gray gap," Washington on the Web, and a new technology marketers love but the market may not

Issue: "Who'll be king of the Hill?," Oct. 7, 2000

The Internet, who needs it? A recent survey reports that more than half the American adults who don't currently use the Internet have little or no desire to get online. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, about 50 percent of American adults said they are not Internet users. Thirty-two percent of that group-or 31 million Americans-said they definitely will not go online. Another 25 percent said they probably wouldn't go online. "There's this other group of folks who say, 'It's not for me,'" said project director Lee Rainie. The Pew survey shows that technophobia is alive and well. Many people avoid the Net because it is complex and interactive. It confuses beginners. Fifty-four percent of all nonusers believe the Internet is dangerous, according to the telephone survey, and 51 percent do not believe they are missing anything. Surprisingly, 14 percent of Americans have a computer but are not online. The study also found 13 percent of nonusers once had access but no longer do. Pew's report refers to a "gray gap": Just over one in 10 of those over 65 has Internet access. While much of this resistance to Internet use is generational, completely universal access may never happen. After all, some people don't have TVs or telephones. For many people, the Internet is unnecessary. They can live without it-and they don't see the extras as worth the cost and learning curve. Some have fears about privacy; those were far more common just a few years ago. FIRSTGOV.GOV SHALL BE LAST
After watching the private sector boom, the federal government has finally tried to figure out how to build a website. The President's Management Council has cooked up a venture to turn 20,000 government websites into one. The bold experiment is called FirstGov, which is supposed to make it easier for people to find government information. Just like a real dot-com, FirstGov plans to "partner" with big Internet services and provide them with customized versions. President Clinton pitched it in a speech: "Go to, and you're just a few mouse clicks away from websites where you can apply for student loans or reserve a campground at a national park." By real-world standards, it isn't much; after all these years the people who think they built cyberspace have discovered the search engine. Never mind that it duplicates tasks already performed by private-sector portals. FirstGov-which boasts of being built in only 90 days-represents the government's best effort at using the Net. But it raises the question: If Washington is so late in trying to properly use the Web, what does this say about its ability to regulate it? CAT-AND-MOUSE GAMES
If you can have a mouse at your computer, why not a cat? A Dallas startup called Digital Convergence cooked up a gizmo called a CueCat that users can pick up for free at Radio Shack. It's a bar code reader like those in supermarkets. When users scan the UPC symbol off a box or a special code placed in ads, a Web page pops up. Consumers can even hook it up to a TV and certain commercials will direct their Web browser to an advertiser's site. Digital Convergence gave hundreds of thousands of these away to Forbes and Wired subscribers in an attempt to find early adopters. Company executives plan to give away 10 million by the end of the year. The point of this is to cross-pollinate real-world and virtual marketing. The CueCat concept puts hyperlinks into the physical world. Those who want to know more about Coca-Cola scan the can and get a Web page. Those who see an interesting ad in a magazine can scan that. Privacy zealots see this as a way to collect gigs and gigs of personal information about people, but the CueCat is really just a glorified version of those reader-response cards in magazines that ask people to circle numbers at the bottoms of ads. The trouble with this technology is that it represents something marketers want, but about which average people couldn't care less. Americans are trained to ignore bar codes. Besides, the Internet is popular enough that almost all users can get a search engine working; if they can't, how will they know how to plug a CueCat into their computer's keyboard jack?

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