This question may be one that we all have to address sooner than we realise. Some Internet service providers are already putting in place plans to make us pay not just for the general service, but also for the volume we consume (see Washington Post report). That makes sense in terms of the real costs involved, but will we just take it that sensible means acceptable? While we may accept block pricing that does not really change with volume of use, many would balk if they saw higher use involve increased costs. We take for granted many aspects of Internet use and have a hard time when we have to consider metering of that use. Online providers of content, such as news agencies are seeing how consumers react to the idea that you have to pay to read news or get other information. We often bristle when we find that online services like bill paying and banking incur costs, and bristle more if it costs more than other options that involve direct contact with staff. It will be interesting to see how demand changes as such schemes become the norm: indications are that people are unwilling to pay.
We know from casual observation how the Internet is changing what we do and how we see what we do. I’ve commented before about the ‘texting or talking while [fill in the blank]’ phenomenon. I spoke to a teenage boy yesterday, whom I had seen the week before walking behind his mother with his laptop in hand and seeming to be tapping on the keys. They are both members of my church congregation. I asked what he had been doing, and he told me that he was doing a history project. I asked him how important it was to walk and do this. He said it was very important. What if the laptop dropped or was knocked out of his grasp as he walked along? It was fully insured, and though young he would deal with the administrative issues if needed. Also, his work was ‘on the cloud’ so was being automatically backed up. He had geared up for a seamless Internet experience, of a sort.
Those of us who have children know or are getting to know how easily they deal with the world of modern computing, including the Internet. We do not need to monitor how Wikileaks and those who support its activities are not something that can be easily policed or controlled. In many homes it’s a hope that parents can limit what children use on the Internet. Good guidance and parental controls may help but who can give more than a few minutes of observation to ensure that what we see as undesirable material is not a regular part of the diet? I would love it if our computers were sensitive to user and let off a piercing shrill of my little daughter went onto a site that I did not like. But, dream on.
All the good things that the Internet allows have eased life in many ways, but we hear concerns about how much that has replaced what was once more consistent personal contact. I was amused listening to a young film director talk about how she was astonished when reading her mother’s diary (that became part of a film) how little social networking there used to be in the 1960s. What she meant was that when people wanted to meet, they could not just send a text message or link via a social media site. They would have to go ahead with the plan to see if the other person respected the arrangement, or pass by the person’s home or workplace to check with them. That’s an interesting view of what was and is social networking: the modern view being that actually contacting someone was less social than sending a message.
But, our acceptance of many of the facilities is really because it comes with no direct cost, and we have a hard time understanding what the costs are and how at the margin we consumers add to them. Indications are that people are prepared to pay for some access but not all. Also, different types of users (by gender, intensity, type of activity) have different attitudes to being charged. Many understand the need to pay, but not that it need come directly from the consumer: that’s one reason why we will accept pop-up adverts. But, imagine, for example, if every posting on Facebook rang up a charge.
Before the uncomfortable questions get asked by our bank accounts, perhaps we ought to try a little personal cost-benefit analysis to see what we do and for what we would be prepared to pay. What would you be prepared to give up to keep the Internet services you have now if you had to pay for them? Who are you prepared to battle with inside the household or in the workplace if decisions had to be made about personal use? Do it before Christmas. It may make for a happier new year.