Peculiarities of Cyberspace


We used to live in a local world that was divided into geographically demarcated units, like home, office, street, cafe, train, rugby field, or dancing. The internet age seems to have blurred any geographical structure. Yet, the virtual reality of the internet has its own particular geography. It is a geography which is built out of networks and nodes which transport information flows which are created and controlled on special locations. Cyberspace as such is no tangible space, but the information processes which constitute this space are embedded in the local world with brick-and-mortar rooms and hard-wired computers. The information space of the internet is constituted by connections between computers and networks of computers. So internet is not a monolytic or placeless 'cyberspace', but rather a series of new technologies that are used by millions of people on different places of the local world.

Cybergeography is the study on the spatial structuring of computer networks that are connected to the internet. It encompasses a broad spectrum of geographical phenomena, such as the study of the physical infrastructure, the information traffic and the demography of virtual communities. The geographical peculiarities of the internet can be studied from three —complementary— perspectives: the technical geography, the spatial distribution of its users, and the economic geography of internet production [Castells 2001:208].

The technical geography refers to the telecommunications infrastructure of the internet, the connections between the computers that organize internet traffic (routers), and the distribution of the internet's broad bandwidth. Through a myriad of possible routes every node of the network is connected to every other node. The USA used to play a central role in the connections between the countries. The technical structure of the internet was highly concentrated round the USA, but this hegemony has been diminished by the emergence of new powerful nodes (hubs and routers) in other areas of the world, particularly in Europe. The strategic differences between the countries are declining. The highly USA-concentrated structure of the technical geography is gradually replaced by a technical dependency between the metropoles of the world.

The geography of users refers to the uneven territorial distribution of the internet. This distribution is shown in the number of users and in the penetration rate relative to the population of each country. It is not surprising that the use of the internet is highly differentiated in terms of territories and nations. The inequality in the use of the internet follows the patterns of the more general uneven distribution of technological infrastructure, level of economic development, class or profession specific distribution of resources and rewards, and the educational level. The online geography reflects offline social realities. This also implies that the geographic patterns will change in the course of time. The general expectation is that the use of the internet will be diffused on a large scale and that this will certainly happen in the most developed countries and in the metropolitan centers of developing countries.

"It would be too narrow a vision to consider the Internet industry as made up exclusively of Internet manufacturers, Internet software companies, Internet service providers, and Internet portals. The commercial Internet is not just about web companies, it is about companies in the web. Thus, we need an assessment of the geography of Internet content providers at large; that is, of the Internet domains of all kinds that generate, process, and distribute information. Since information is the key product of the Information Age, and the Internet is the fundamental tool for the production and communication of this information, the economic geography of the Internet is, by large and large, the geography of Internet content providers" [Castells 2001:213-4].

The diffusion of the internet in the world may be impressive, but the economic geography of internet production still shows strong disparities. This is not only the case with the production of internet technologies and equipment, but also with the producers of internet software and the Internet Service Providers. The manufacturers of internet hard and software are located in some innovative centers. These 'technopoles' [Castells/Hall 1994] are "dense spatial concentrations of major companies and innovative start-ups, as well as their ancillary suppliers, located in a few technological nodes, usually in the periphery of large metropolitan areas, then linked up with each other by telecommunications and air transportation" [Castells 2001:213]. The geography of the internet is largely determined by the spatial distribution of Internet content providers.

For a sociology of the internet we need to understand the nature and geography of cyberspace. Demographic surveys are designed to get answers to questions like:

red buttonHow many people are there on the internet?

red buttonWho's on the internet in which country?

red buttonHow big is the internet?

red buttonWhat are the usage patterns?

We need statistical information on internet traffic to understand the size and patterns of use. And to feed our imagination we need visualization studies of internet traffic that use geographic metaphors to map that no-space called cyberspace.


How many people?
How many people use the internet and where do they come from?

"Internet service providers and hardware developers are moving aggressively to make it easier and cheaper to access the Internet. Meanwhile, a revolution in active information delivery and easy access to the Internet from new computers are opening the doors for millions of new customers" [Ross Scott Rubin, head of Jupiter's Internet Group].

Consumer internet access is determined by three main factors: devices, bandwidth, and browsers. The infrastructure of networks is getting better, the bandwidth is getting broader, and internet browsers are jumping over each other in functionality and ease of use, and the consumer oriented content is growing every day. And of course, more and more people go online.

How many people use the internet? And how are these users spread over the world? The next graphic pictures the amount of people in the world that have access to the internet.

How many users? 

Source: NUA Internet Surveys

Although the internet is usually referred to as a 'global' network, for a long time it has been a mainly North-American phenomena. In the early days of the internet about two third of all users lived in the USA and Canada. In November 1998 this was reduced to sixty percent. In 2002 both countries only accounted for thirty percent of the total internet population.

Although the amount of internet users with English as their native language has decreased (45% in 2001), the English web sites keep dominating cyberspace with 78% of all web sites and 96% of the commercial web sites [State of the Internet, United States Internet Council & ITTA Inc]. Only 10% of the world population understands the English language.

The real globalization of the internet will be realized in the first decennium of the 21st century. This will be the combined result of the increasing pc-penetration in the world, the deregulation of the telecommunication industry, and the saturation of the internet penetration in the most developed countries.

The internet is one of the youngest and fast growing media in the world. The growth of the internet is still impressive. This seems to indicate that the internet has not reached her highest period of expansion. On the threshold of the new century internet reached a level where people could concentrate in the content and leave the supporting technology for what it is. The amount of internet users and the intensity of internet use has grown so spectacularly and globally that the architecture of the 'network of networks' had to be adapted with a new IP structure and new top level and multi-lingual domains.

In September 2002 the total amount of internet users in the world is estimated at more than 600 million. Specified in global areas:

(in millions)
Nov. 1998
Sept. 1999
Nov. 2000
Sept. 2002
World Total
Canada & USA
South America

Source: NUA Internet Surveys

Experience shows that predictions on future use of internet are highly problematic — the forecasts fail and have to be adjusted time and again. A NUA graphic presented in 2000 expected an amount of internet users for 2005 that had been surpassed already in 2002.

There have been made attempts to bridge the digital divide on an international scale. But there are still enormous differences between the continents. The use of the internet in Africa seems to have reached the 'take off' phase. But leaving aside the more developed South Africa and North Africa, only one out of 250 Africans use the internet, while in North-America and Europe one in two are internet users.

One of the fastest growers in Asia is China. In 1997 there were only 620,000 Chinese internet users. At the end of 2001 there were approximate 28.7 million Chinese citizens online. At the end of 2002 this amount had already risen to 59.1 million and at the end of 2003 the number of internet users increased with 48 procent to 79.5 million [China Internet Network Information Center- CNNIC]. In 2003 China will probably beat Japan in term of amount of internet users. Next to the USA with more than 180 million internet users, Japan had been the biggest online nation in the world (with an estimated 100 million users in december 2003). With a population of more than 1.2 billion people, China represents the largest potential internet market in the world. Soon China will take over the second place from Japan.

Although the USA still has the biggest internet population, the participation rate (internet use per capita) is not the highest in the world. In this respect the USA is behind on the Scandinavian countries. The internet penetration in Sweden had reached a value of 67,81% in September 2002. The penetration rate in the USA was mid 2002 almost 60% (in the Netherlands it was slightly above 60% and right at the top was Iceland with almost 70%).

The present geographical diffusion of the internet is determined by several factors. The most potent factor that determines internet access and use is the wealth of a nation. There is a clear positive correlation between the gross national product of a nation and the rate of internet penetration.

The geography of the global internet is also structured by the political freedom to have access to the internet and to do whatever you like to do, within the borders of morals and laws that can be justified with a humane and democratic ethic. In some countries in the world these democratic liberties are more or less restricted or repressed. In the worst cases the governments of these states attempt to ban the internet (as in Myanmar) or to restrict and control the access to the internet (as in China and Vietnam). In other countries there are restrictions and censorship on what people can do online (as in Singapore). Most governments, however, recognize the enormous potential of the internet and use it to inform their citizens and to stimulate digital services.

The euphoria on the exponential growth of the internet should not close our minds to the fact that less than 2% of the world population has access to the internet. 88% of the internet users are living in the industrialized countries with only 15% of the world population. In South Asia less than 1% of the people are online while one fifth of the world population is living there [UN Human Development Report, 1999, chap. 2]. In Africa the situation is worse. The whole continent has access to fewer telephone lines than cities like Manhattan or Tokyo. Less than 1% of the Africans has access to the internet. There are more people connected to the internet in the Netherlands, than on the whole African continent. Even if there were good systems for telecommunications, most of the people of the poor countries would be excluded from the internet society because of there illiteracy and lack of basic computer skills. The crucial factor for an effective policy for all new technologies is: investment in education.

How much information?
From a technical perspective the internet is a combination of computer networks that transport flows of information which are created and managed at specific locations. The scale of the internet can therefore also be measured in terms of the amount of information that is transported by the internet. A research group of the UC Berkeley School of Information Management & Systems has attempted to measure the amount of information that is produced in the world each year [How Much Information?]. The total amount of information that is distributed by the internet is divided into the surface web and the deep web. The surface web is what most people know as the 'Web', that is the category of information that is embedded in static, publicly accessible web pages. This is only a relatively small part of the total web. The deep web consists of specialized databases and dynamic web sites. The information that can be retrieved from this deep web is 400 to 500 times bigger than the information on the surface web.

The surface web contains some 2.5 billion document, with a daily growth rate of 7.3 million pages. The average size of the surface pages varies from 10 kbytes per page to 20 kbytes per page. The total amount of information on the surface web varies between 25 to 50 terabytes (including html codes and pictures). The textual information is estimated at 10 to 20 terabytes. The 7.3 million new pages that are added to the surface web are responsible for the fact that each day 0.1 terabytes of new information (including html) is available.

To this we have to add the information that is made available by the deep web - online databases, dynamic web pages, intranet sites etc. It is estimated that the deep web contains 550 billion web related documents with an average size of 14 kbytes per page. The major part of this information - 95% - is public information. When all this information would be stored at one place, it would need 7,500 terabytes storage room. That is 150 times more storage room than would be necessary for the whole surface web (even if one starts from the highest estimation of 50 terabytes for the surface web). Because 56% of this information is actual content (excluding html), it is estimated that there are 4,200 terabytes of data.

The internet is a gigantic ocean of information. We have to learn the art of swimming in this ocean and not to drown in it.

How much traffic?
IDC predicts that the volume of internet traffic generated by end users worldwide will nearly double annually between 2003 and the 2008. Internet traffic wil rise from 180 petabits per day in 2002 to 5,175 petabits per day by the end of 2007. By 2007 internet users will access, download and share the information equivalent of the entire Library of Congress more than 64,000 times over, every day.

One of the drivers of this growth of traffic is the continued rise of the number of internet users worldwide. But the main driver in internet traffic is the adoption of broadband.

How much money?
The growth of the internet will go hand in hand with a growth of the number of users that buy products and services via internet. Here are some figures:

Dec. 1995
Dec. 2000
Internet Devices
Worldwide users buying products or services
24 %
28 %
USA users buying products or services
29 %
45 %
Economic Activity
$ 3 billion
$ 100 billion

Ecommerce revenues are increasing at high speed. IDC Research is expecting that by 2004 the total of ecommerce revenues will be 2.7 trillion dollars. This is a combined effect of the number of internet users that buy goods and services online, and the growth in the average expenditure per transaction.

More recent information on the global demography and geography of cyberspace can be found in the CyberAtlas of Michael Tchong.


The biggest internet nation in the world
The biggest number of internet users is living in the USA. According to the NUA survey of November 2000 more than 153 million Americans had access to the internet. That is 55.8 percent of the total population. In November 2002 the amount of internetters had increased to more than 165 million with a penetration rate of almost 60 percent.

Internet users in USA, numbers and penetration rates

This graphic clearly shows that at the turn of the century there has been a sharp flattening in the growth of the number of internet users in the USA. The internet is still growing, but the growing rates are significantly lower than in the last decennium of the past century.

According to Nielsen/Netratings there were 187.7 million internet users in the USA in November 2002. Each month the average American internet user is surfing the internet for 52 minutes and visits 1307 web pages. The average time a web page is looked at is 1 minute.

Digital divides in a country of unequal chances

"There is a growing digital divide between those who have access to the digital economy and the Internet and those who don't, and that divide exists along the lines of education, income, region and race. ... If we want to unlock the potential of our workers, we have to close that gap" [President Clinton, speech in Anaheim, California, 1999].

Although there is a strong growth in the number of internet users, the digital divide is still there. There are still considerable differences in internet access between various social groups. Americans without internet access mostly likely belong to the lower income groups and ethnic minorities. Non-internet users are more frequently jobless than internet users. Income is a more decisive factor than ethnic background: the relatively well-to-do of the minority groups are using the internet almost as much as the dominant white group. "Highly educated minority households, and those in the higher-income groups, have much greater levels of access [...], but still less than similar groups of whites and Asian-Americans [Castells 2001:249].

The differential access to the internet in the USA is documented in the surveys of the Commerce Department of the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration). The research reports of 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001 are based on the results of the population studies of the U.S. Census Bureau. These reports give a detailed answer to the question whether the gap in internet access has been widened or not. The general trend seems to be that the digital divide in access still remains, but that most gaps are closing as the rates of diffusion reach the majority of the population. Just like the inequality in income declines as the income of the lower income groups increases faster, the inequality in computer and internet use will decline when the use of people with the lowest participation rate is growing faster. This is exactly what the surveys show: the growth rate of the internet use is almost systematically negatively correlated with the penetration rate in each group (such as people with lower incomes, with lower education, belonging to ethnic minorities and older than 60 year. However, the household income is still the main indicator for people using computers or internet.

  1. Income
    Both the computer and internet access have increased in all income categories. Even among people who live in households with lower incomes the access to the internet has grown year after year. Among households with the lowest income (below $15,000 per year) internet access has raised from 9.2 percent in October 1997 to 25 percent in September 2001. Internet access increases faster in the lower income groups. The internet access for people earning less than $15.000 has grown with 25 percent yearly (in the period December 1998 and September 2001). In the same period the group of people who earned $75,000 or more has grown with 11 percent. However, people with high incomes still have a better chance to get access to the internet.
  2. Labor Market Status
    People with paid jobs are using computers and internet more than people who are not employed. In 2001 73.2 percent of the employed used a computer and 65,4 percent the internet. Of the non-employed only 40,8 percent had access to computers and 36,9 percent to the internet.
  3. Education
    The education level is also a major discriminating factor in lowering access to the internet. The higher the level of education, the bigger chance one has to be a computer or internet user. Among people with a bachelor's degree or higher more than 80 percent had access to the internet (September 2001). The proportion falls to 40 percent among high school graduates, and to 12.8 percent among those not having graduated from high school. At the same time access to the internet has grown fastest among people with lower levels of education.

    Descriptive statistics cannot give an adequate answer to the question why a certain group of individuals make more or less use of the internet. The reason is that demographic characteristics are often mutually dependent. For instance, people with a higher income often have a higher level of education. The statistical relation between internet access and level of education could only be an indication that people with a higher level of education often have a higher income. On closer analysis it appears that income and level of education have independent effects on internet access. People with a lower educational level who live in households with a relatively high income, have less access to the internet than people with a higher educational level who live in households with a lower income.

  4. Age
    The access to computers and the internet is strongly connected with age. Computers and internet are most used by children and teenagers, followed by people between 26 and 55. Older people are using computers and internet least of all. The increase of internet use is distributed over all age groups. This general upward shift in the age distribution is caused by two factors. The first one is the absolute increase on the internet use and the second is a cohort effect. People who were 55 years in 1995 now belong to the category of 60+. It is assumed thereby that people who used the internet when they were younger, probably will keep using the internet.
  5. Gender
    Also in the USA the internetters of the first hour were mainly men. Between October 1997 and August 2000 this gap in internet access between men and women was closed. In September 2001 the internet use rate was 53.9 percent for men and 53.8 percent for women. Some studies even seem to indicate that since 2000 there have been more women on the internet than men, and that women also spend more time online than men.
  6. Geography
    Geography can be a source of division. Urban areas are more likely to have internet access. Between 1998 and 2001 there has been a substantial increase in the internet use of people living in rural areas (24% each year). The internet access of people living in the country is closing in to the national average. In urban areas the internet use also increases, but the growth is not as fast as in rural areas (average 19% each year).
  7. Ethnicity
    The durability of the ethnic digital divide is an indication of the fact that the information age is not blind to color. Each NTIA survey demonstrates that white and Asian-Americans had better access to the internet than blacks and Hispanics. In 2001 60 percent of white and Asian-Americans had access to the internet, while only 39.8 percent of the African-Americans and 31.6 percent of the Hispanics had access. However, also the ethnic digital divide seems to become smaller because the growth rates among nderprivileged groups are significantly higher than among the more privileged groups. The average annual increase of internet use is among blacks 31 percent, among Hispanics 26 percent, among Asian-Americans 21 percent and among whites 19 percent.
  8. Disability
    Almost three-quarters of the disabled Americans do not go online, and 28 percent of them said their disability or impairment made it difficult or impossible to go online [Pew 2003]. Many of the disabled lack access to adaptive technologies that would help them use computers and retrieve information from web sites [Colin Keane and Joel Macht, Neil Squire Foundation]. People with some disability are over-represented in the category of individuals without internet access. This is especially true for people with a visual or motorial disability. "The disparity between those with and without disability declines when income levels rise, while increasing with age" [Castells 2001:250]. It was expected that disabled people could benefit from the use of the internet to overcome physical barriers. The internet offers the promise of greater connection to others, greater access to information and potentially greater mobility through cyberspace. But a disability seems to be a stubborn obstacle in the access to the internet as well. The disabled are less connected than many other groups. This is also the case when other factors —such as level of education, income or age— are controlled.

Internet use
The increasing number of Americans that have access to the internet are using it for very different reasons and perform all kinds of activities. The great majority is using e-mail. The WWW is mainly used to —in declining degree of popularity— find information on products or services; follow news, weather forecasts and sports; play games; look for medical information and services; search for government services; make school assignments; watch TV/films and listen to the radio; chat; online banking; keeping up with shares; looking for jobs; and following online education.

'Veralltäglichung': ordinarization of internet use
More than 60 percent of the Americans have access to the internet and 40 percent is online for more than three years. For them internet has become one of the most important sources of information [Pew: Counting on the Internet]. The internet has become popular and more and more Americans have become dependent on it for their information. Almost two-thirds of all Americans expect that they are able to find information on the web on whatever they want to know. Whether it concerns information on local activities, government services, news or commerce, they expect that they can find all the information they are looking for on the internet. Because these high expectations are based on experiences, many people are using internet as the first place to look when they need certain information.

Non-users may stay away from the internet for many reasons. "Many lack the resources to go online. Others don't live in a social world where internet use matters and still others have no notion that the communication and information functions of the internet can help them improve their lives" [Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project]. Most people simply say they don't want the internet because they don't need it, that they were not interested, and did not have the time to use it. Many people are worried about online pornography, credit card theft and fraud. Others say that internet access is too expensive or that the internet use is too complicated [Pew study April 2003.


Internet penetration in Europe
(November 2000)


According to the NUA survey of September 2002 there were more than 190 million internet users in Europe. That is six times more than in 1998.

Most of the internet users are living in Germany and England, although these countries have a relatively low score in term of participation rate. In August 2002 the penetration rate in Germany was almost 30 percent and in England more than 57 percent.

The Scandinavian countries have the highest participation rate of 65 percent, while the countries of the former Soviet Union form the rear (in 2001: Russia 12%, Romania 4.5%, Ukraine 1.5%). The fact that almost all Scandinavian countries have higher rates of internet penetration than the rest of Europe is no coincidence. PC penetration was largely due to a government policy that allowed companies to deduct the costs of computers from their tax bills. The high rate of internet adoption is the combined result of the high level op pc and telephone ownership, an IT-literate workforce, and the low cost of internet access. And last but not least: Scandinavian people are motivated to use the internet because they are separated by relatively large distances.

Internet is the fastest growing communication medium ever. The popularity of the internet in Europe increases quicker than TV did in the 60s in the former century. Internet can be used for many creative and interactive objectives. Some countries belong to the avant-garde of innovation and try to use this technology for their progression. Smaller countries can also walk in front in the development of information and communication infrastructures and practices. "For a small nation the internet is the roof of the world" [President Lennart Meri of Estland].

Penetration rate in European countries, 2001

The European internet users are also more inclined to pay for digital content. According to a study of Jupiter Research online Europeans will spend about 2.5 billion Euro on digital content in 2007. One third will be spent on the downloading of games and the online gaming. With a worldwide gambling population of more than 50 million people this is hardly a surprise.


Growth of internet

in millions
Sept. 1997
Jan. 1998
Apr. 1998
Nov. 1998
Mrt. 1999
May 1999
Feb. 2000
Sept. 2000
Nov. 2000
Jul. 2001
Aug. 2001
Feb. 2002
Sept. 2002
May. 2003
This statistic is based on data of Nua, IDC,
Nipo, ProActive and since September 1999
of Niels Netratings

Also in the Netherlands the internet lives and grows. How big is the internet in the Netherlands and how fast does it grow? The next table contains the basic data on the absolute and relative amount of internet users in the Netherlands.

As in many other countries the number of internet users in the Netherlands has shown an explosive growth. The one million users in 1997 were more than doubled in each of the next three years. At the end of 2001 there were 8 million internet users in the Netherlands, and in May 2003 the threshold of 10 million was crossed. With a penetration rate of more than 61 percent, the Netherlands belong to the top-5 of European countries. Most users have access to the internet from their homes.

The high participation rate in the Netherlands seems to have reached its point of saturation. The next graphic shows that the growth of the number of internet users in the Netherlands has been flattened in the last years.

Penetratiegraad in Nederland

The internet use is still growing, but the growth rates are a bit flattened. This declining growth goes along with a less intensive use of the internet. Internet users are less often and less long online. There are several explanations for this phenomenon.

  • People are using the internet more pragmatically or goal-oriented. Many experienced internetters confine their use to e-mail and some really interesting web sites, such as newspapers. At first a novice internetter fanatically tries to surf the whole internet. In course of time he builds up a series of pages which are then visited at more or less regular times. The playful character of the adventurous web surfing disappears in the course of time. The web actions are getting more functional.
  • The internet use is getting more or less saturated. Some researchers (such as Kivit of Multiscope) even expect that the market will be saturated at the end of 2003. Just like in the case of television and refrigerators there will come a point of time when everybody who wants the internet, also has access to the internet.
  • The internet is still immature and too amateurish. Potential internetters are waiting till the internet has grown up. Internet access by cable or other broadband connection is not an option for everybody and is often only possible on a local scale. The online supply of products and services of enterprises and government is still modest.
  • Many people hesitate to go online because they are worried about online pornography, credit card theft and fraud.

As long as no specific research is done into the possible causes of the flattened growth rates in the Netherlands, we can safely presume that all three suggested causes will play a certain role. 

Domain names
The number of registered .nl domain names and the growth of this number is a good measure for internet activities. The first .nl domain name was registered on May 1, 1986. This was done by the Center for Mathematics and Information in Amsterdam, which organized the distribution of domain names at that time. In the following years few new domains were registered. In 1989 only one new name was registered, and in 1990 there were five. The explosive growth started in the 90s, especially because of the rise of the WWW. In 1999 the one hundred thousandth .nl domain name was registered, and at the end of 2002 there were more than 800,000. The Stichting Domein Registratie Nederland (SIDN) expects that in 2004 the first millionth domain name will be registered.

.nl domain names

The climax of the growth seems to lie behind us. The most explosive growth was reached in 2000: 241 percent. At the end of May 2000 each week almost 25,000 new domain names were registered. At this moment the growth is about 3,000 to 4,000 per week.

Using the internet for what?
What are the Dutch doing when they are connected to the internet? Just like in other countries people like to surf: more or less random searching for interesting sites. At a great distance is the use of applications that support interpersonal communication, such as participation in news groups or chatting.

Although people are more and more looking for functional sites, visiting amusement sites is still the most favorite activity. Netpanel has published these numbers: 

60 %
film & television
29 %
29 %
eroticism or pornography
28 %
science fiction
23 %
cars & motor bikes
22 %

Source: Netpanel

The most visited Dutch amusement and leisure sites are the site of Veronica, Formule-1 (of Jos Verstappen) and Heineken. We want to be young and dynamic and like to race at full speed to Amsterdam with a glass of beer in the hand.

The visitors of corporate sites prefer the more functional sites. Most mentioned are the newspaper sites (Telegraaf, Volkskrant and NRC), the telephone guide (PTT-Telecom), the weather forecast (KNMI) and the road service (ANWB). The most bookmarked companies are KPN, PTT and IDG's Wereldweb.

Nielsen/Netratings estimated that in May 2003 there were 10.4 million internet users in the Netherlands. The average surf session takes half an hour and per month more than 9 hours are spent on the internet. Each month 60 unique sites are visited and the average time people take to look at a page is 45 seconds.

People spend less time on watching tv, listening to the radio, making phone calls, and reading [Adformatie, 30.9.2003]. In comparison with five years ago students of the age of 12 to 16 watch 3 hours less television. Weekly they spend 15.5 hours watching tv and 6 to 7 hours online [Studie Keuze Monitor 2002].

Diversity: closing digital divides

Globalization and Polarization

We have seen how fast the internet has spread around the whole world. This globalization of the internet however is marked by distressing disparities in prosperity between and within different nations and curtailed by governments and political cultures that restrain the freedom of information and opinion or make it a farce. On the internet the geographical barriers for communication are radically broken, but at the same time there are new barriers emerging. It is an invisible barrier that looks like the world wide web: it embraces those who are connected in the network of networks, and silently excludes the rest.

Global communication has a high potential to inform and emancipate people and to increase their productivity. But it also demonstrates the risks of the division and polarization of societies: the deprived will become even more marginalized. The promise of the internet was an all-and-everybody encompassing connectivity. But the internet is a selective network that parallels the physical geography and economic development.

Within national states the access to the internet is restricted by social inequalities and exclusions of the local society. It isn't too muscled to say that there are no social inequalities in the local society that have no effect on the participation in and liveability in the virtual society.

Barriers for internet accessThe barriers that limit the access to the internet can be summarized in the following way.
  1. Income buys access. When an average inhabitant of Bangladesh wants to buy a computer it will cost him/her more than eight years of income. The average American however will only have to pay the salary of one month. Many non-users say cost is the major reason they remain offline.
  2. Education is an admission ticket to the network society. Internet users generally have a higher education than non-users. Non-users with lower education and income levels more likely to believe that the internet is too complicated and hard to understand.
  3. You must understand English. The dominant language used in websites is English, a language that is spoken by less than 10 percent of the world population.
  4. You can publish anything, but will someone take notice of it? The crucial question is not whether you can publish something on the web, but if there is anybody who reads it. What counts most is what is most scarce now, namely attention [Goldhaber 1997, The Attention Economy and the Net].
  5. There are other social cleavages that mark the use of the internet. In most countries the internet use is dominated by relatively young, autochthonous men. The entry barriers for the internet are relatively strong for women, seniors and ethnic minority groups.
The prototypical internet user on world scale is male, younger than 35 years, with a good education and high income, living in a city and speaking English.

Digital divides: falling through the net

The more the internet penetrates into the social, political and personal life, the more it can become a new source of social inequality and exclusion. Internet not only provides opportunities for freedom, productivity and communication, but can also generate a new dividing line between the 'internet-haves' and 'have-nots'. The victims of this digital divide are people without or with limited access to the internet, and people who are not able to make effective use of the internet. So the digital divide not only refers to the inequality in the access to the internet, but also to the disparities in speed of the internet connection, and to the unequal knowledge and skills necessary for an effective use of the internet.

  • "The network society is creating parallel communications systems: one for those with income, education and —literally— connections, giving plentiful information at low cost and high speed; the other for those without connections, blocked by high barriers of time, cost and uncertainty and dependent on outdated information. With people in these two systems living and competing side by side, the advantages of connection are overpowering" [Human Development Report, 1999].

More than 80 percent of the total world population has never heard a telephone ring. And they most certainly have never surfed on the internet. There are some stubborn indications that the gap between the information-rich and information-poor is getting bigger. The secretary generalof the UN Kofi Annan has warned for the danger of exclusion of the poorest on the world from the information revolution:

  • "People lack many things: jobs, shelter, food, health care and drinkable water. Today, being cut off from basic telecommunications services is a hardship almost as acute as these other deprivations, and may indeed reduce the chances of finding remedies to them" [Telecom 99 in Geneva, Switzerland].

The digital divide doesn't only refer to the exclusion of people and countries because they are not or marginally connected to the internet. It also refers to the fact that just because of their internet connection people are getting dependent on economies and cultures in which they have less chance to find their own way to material prosperity, political autonomy and cultural identity [Castells 2001:248]. Participation in the internet doesn't automatically and under all conditions imply that people get better chances or that the social disparities are reduced. Information and communication technologies are only a potential force for human development for everyone who is connected.

The fundamental digital divide cannot simply be measured by the number of internet connections or penetration rates, but by the social consequences of both connectivity and lack of connectivity. The reason in simple: the internet is not just a technology. "It is the technological tool and organizational form that distributes information power, knowledge generation, and networking capacity in all realms of society" [Castells 2001:269].

New users: towards digital inclusion

The internet is not only a new technology that diffuses faster than ever, it also is a technology that develops at a pace that is almost as fast. The majority of new internet users will come from the developing countries (where more than 80 percent of the world population is living). The fastest growing area in the world is Asia (China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South-Korea). But also in countries with high internet penetration rates there new users will go online, while the internet itself will keep evolving.

New internet users are confronted with a series of options of which their predecessors could not dream of a few years ago. The speed of the connections has significantly increased, there is a large diversity of hardware to connect to the internet, the internet software is much more sophisticated and user friendly, and there is a much broader supply of information and opportunity for interaction. The commodification of digital information has paved the commercial way for profit-based companies and new business models for the informational stage of capitalism. At the same time the growing internet population has generated a rich diversity of non-commercial content with a high use value and relevancy.

The internet use of today is quit different from the typical web surfer in the last century. The typical internet user of the first hour was a relatively high educated, well-off, white and young man. In this day and age the typical internet user has become more diverse in all these respects. There are more users with different ages, genders, economic and ethnic backgrounds and educational level.

The time internet users spend online is dependent on the amount of years they already have been online. The longer people are online, the more activities they perform online. They communicate with friend and colleagues, they gather personal and professional information and news, they play games and chat with 'unknown others' and they buy products and services online.

The use of the internet is getting deeply embedded in everyday life. The next generation will forget the consequences of the internet as fast as the present generation has forgotten what streaming water or electricity is — until the water pipes are breaking or a disturbance of the electricity occurs. A century ago all houses were provided with electricity. The houses of the near future will be equipped with stable and super fast internet connections. You don't have to be a prophet to predict that information storage and retrieval on the internet will be organized in such a way that we can use intelligent agents which will support us to find information, to communicate or to shop. When we are able to give 'meaning' to the information we put online that can be understood by computers ('semantic web'), we can construct and use programmes that are 'intelligent' in the sense that they can substitute and/or support our human intelligence and creativity. Home networks will be able to communicate with suppliers of products and services and negotiate about prices and delivery conditions. Mobile equipment can easily send messages to your home to adjust the temperature of your house when you return from your work. Tell your grandchildren how it was before the internet existed. They will look at you with the same face I must have had when my grandmother told me about her life without electricity.

The new users of tomorrow will differ from those of today. New users are not afraid but careful with financial or commercial transactions on the internet. They are concerned about the safety and privacy when they use credit cards on the internet. They don't like it when their information and communication tool is polluted with commercial messages and irritating filth. New users seem to prefer to use the internet less as a tool for amusement and leisure and more as a source of information.

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