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PC World

What's ahead for the Net (and us)?

June 10, 1999
Web posted at: 2:09 p.m. EDT (1809 GMT)

by Christian McIntosh

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(IDG) -- Writers of a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode imagined a pervasive communications medium of the future called the Interlink, and its roots were clearly the Internet. But how will the Internet really affect our future? A team of futurists and researchers is preparing a forecast.

The Center for Communication Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles is examining the Internet's impact on international society. The UCLA Internet Study will conduct year-to-year comparisons of social and cultural changes as more people use computers and the Web, says Jeffrey Cole, the study's principal investigator.

Researchers will survey Internet users and nonusers in the United States, Singapore, and Italy. Organizers plan to expand the study to include at least 15 countries in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa over the next three to five years.

The Center for Communication Policy will administer the domestic Internet surveys and help coordinate the international projects. Cole hopes to publish results from the maiden study by the end of this year.

Diversity promised

In the United States, researchers have already started interviewing people from 25,000 households. They hope to reach their target of 2000 households within eight to ten weeks, Cole says.

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Researchers will revisit the same 2000 households annually and track them until Internet technology becomes as pervasive as television, Cole says. "I think it will last for a generation at least. We'll probably continue tracking these households for 15 to 20 years," he says.

The study sample is drawn from all phone numbers--listed and unlisted--in the United States to ensure maximum diversity. And the study will evaluate 500 additional households every year on a one-time basis. Those added households will be a control group to maintain statistical validity, Cole explains.

"With such a large, totally random sample, we are assured of equal representation of age, income, ethnicity, and a certain percentage of households from each state," he says.

The Web's pervasiveness warrants closer scientific evaluation, according to Cole. He likens the online explosion of the late twentieth century to television's impact in the 1950s and '60s, and notes that the Web extends well beyond TV's leisure niche. "While television is primarily about our leisure time, the Internet is already transforming work, school, and play," Cole says.

No time like now

Amid a booming global Internet economy and a steady increase in Web users, now is an ideal time to conduct such a survey, say those close to the project.

"The 50 percent of U.S. households with computers--a number that is growing rapidly--is large enough to examine changes in behavior and attitudes that are already occurring," Cole says. He hopes to use the shrinking segment of nonwired households to determine why certain groups are not using computers or flocking to the Web.

More importantly, researchers will examine social and cultural shifts among people who don't use computers, and follow those people as they eventually transition to life with the Internet.

"We want to establish their behavioral patterns before they have Internet technology," Cole says. "Then we can see what happens after they get wired. We can see how their lives and household habits change."

UCLA plans to host an international conference after each year of the study, beginning in 2000. Administrators will compile year-to-date results and publish an analysis of their basic findings.

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