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Winter 2000
'Net Worth
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In the first comprehensive study of the sweeping changes produced by the Internet, researcher Jeff Cole chronicles our love-hate relationship with a technology that is altering the world as we know it.

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Illustration by Gina Triplett

When Jeff Cole '75, M.A. '75, Ph.D. '85 released the findings of his landmark UCLA Internet Report in October, it snagged news headlines from coast to coast. And why not? With this ongoing report about the global impact of the Internet, Cole, director of UCLA's Center for Communication Policy, intends to document the political, social, cultural and economic changes that have been wrought by a new technology he asserts is no less revolutionary than the printing press.

The first year of the study, which looks at 20,000 users and non-users of the 'Net, created a snapshot of American attitudes toward technology that Cole and his researchers plan to turn into a moving picture as the study continues. Their multifold findings illustrate that, in the year 2000, the Internet is a technology embraced by many but still mistrusted, shunned by non-users yet still appreciated by them as a growing presence in daily life. He spoke with Lynn Lipinski, media-relations director of The Anderson School.

Q: Why did you begin this project?

A: I began with the belief that the Internet is going to change everything, and I wanted to watch that change at ground level. A few years ago, I saw that for the first time in the history of television, the number of children viewers had dropped. Kids were watching less TV. They had finally found something they liked more - the Internet. And I realized that while television is about leisure and entertainment, the Internet's about work, school and play. And it's going to transform our society. There's not a business or activity that will not be affected. Most will be transformed. And that transformation will occur in dozens of ways we can predict - commerce, communication patterns - but also in thousands of ways we can't even begin to imagine. I really believe this is the most exciting, important development of our lifetime.

Q: Imagine if someone had done a study like this when television came onto the scene.

A: Television is the most important cultural influence of the second half of the 20th century, and it truly is a lost opportunity that no one went into households before and tracked how it transformed our leisure and entertainment and affected commerce and family life. But television didn't transform all of society, and the Internet will. What we are seeing with the Internet is a communication revolution on par with the acquisition of language and the invention of the printing press. We launched this study believing that the Internet's influence will dwarf that of television. The era in which we live will be known as the beginning of this interactive technology because the Internet will be integrated into every element of our lives.

Q: Why is it important to include users and non-users in this study?

A: First, that is another way that our study is different from some of the others that have been done. Personally, I wish that no one was using the Internet and that we could watch everybody start to go on-line. It's too late for that in the United States. But it's not too late for that in some countries. The good news, though, is that we will be able to watch American households move from dialing into the Internet via modems to accessing it through broadband connections. I think that high-speed broadband access, currently only in 2 percent of U.S. households, has the potential to change our entire relationship with the Internet. With direct connection, users will most likely be on the Internet probably 25 times a day for two to three minutes, as opposed to hour-and-a-half sessions as we see now with modems. Then I think we will see the computer or the Internet access device move out of the bedroom or the office and into the kitchen. People will walk in and out of the kitchen, check e-mail, send a message, look up a piece of information and then move on. Then the Internet may end up displacing television - or maybe just television advertising - even more.

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