Today, 13 percent of Americans do not use the internet, a number that has changed little over the past three years, according to the Pew Research Center. Compared to 2000, when 48 percent of American adults did not use the internet, the number has clearly shrunk, however there are still those who choose not to be connected, or rather to be less connected, as the ubiquitous nature of the internet still manages to find its way into their lives.
Three of these people, a Head Start instructional aid in her late 50s, a 22-year-old photographer and entrepreneur and a 75-year-old retired teacher and artist, may help to put a face to those who choose, in varying ways, to remain more disconnected than most and why, for reasons other than simply not being able to afford a broadband connection.
Graciela, a North Long Beach resident and Head Start instructional aid in her late 50s, attended the Long Beach Media Collaborative’s digital divide forum on September 21 at the Michelle Obama Neighborhood Library. It happened to be one of the approximate two times a month she stops by the library to email a family member, such as her brother in Mexico, or to research whatever query is on her mind.
Graciela, who asked that her last name and exact age not be published, shared why she chooses not to pay for internet, much less own a computer.
“I don’t have internet at home because it’s not necessary,” she said. “I don’t feel like I have to spend money paying for internet when I really don’t need it too much. If I need something I come here to the library.”
Graciela is within the 16 percent of 50 to 64 year olds and 16 percent of Hispanics, of the aforementioned 13 percent of Americans, who don’t use the internet, according to the Pew Research Center. In California, Graciela is of the 18.7 percent of households without a broadband internet subscription, according to the U.S. Census report, Computer and Internet Use in the United States for 2015.
Living at home without a computer or an internet connection, loneliness or isolation might seem like a side effect. But not for Graciela. Without a smartphone, computer or much of a connection to the outside world except a radio and television, she’s content in her routine.
She does have a cell phone, but only uses it for calls—and the rare occurrence she might need to respond to a text message. For someone who drives to and from work, with an occasional stop at the library, being able to ask a handheld device or computer at home for directions isn’t much of a necessity.
“Usually I don’t drive so far, but if I need something I ask one of my nephews or nieces or sometimes I come to the library for information,” Graciela said. “I know it’s important sometimes to know how to get to different places, but for me I don’t drive too much on the freeways, I just come to my job.”
Graciela does not own a computer, but learned how to use one in order to communicate with her professors and turn in assignments while taking classes at El Camino College, Compton Center. She decided to take a beginner’s computer class (offered at the center) when she was too embarrassed to ask one of her professors what a flash drive was and realized she could use the extra instruction.
“For me it was hard,” she said. “It was so fast that for me I [thought] this must be for somebody that already knows about computers because the class was so fast. Now it’s easier for me, but in that time I didn’t know.”
While she admits she’s still learning, she tackled this task head on, obtaining skills that she says now help her with her job as an instructional aid at a Head Start preschool, yet still chooses not to use the machine at home.
Graciela has never needed the internet to apply for a job, and she receives her news through TV and radio. Social media, she said, is just not for her. She views it as a waste of time that borders on an invasion of privacy.
“I feel like it’s saying too much about your private life,” she said. “I feel like if it’s in moderation it’s okay, but sometimes people stay on it all day. For me it’s like wasting my time. I like to read books, or I prefer to walk and look outside. For me it’s okay to have a few friends and talk to them. Social media is good for some people, but for me, no.”
Although Graciela is part of the third of non-internet users (34 percent), according to the Pew Research Center, who don’t go online because they have no interest in it or do not think it’s relevant to their lives she still acknowledges its significance. She knows that if she needs assistance using it at the library, there’s always someone there to help, she said.
“I feel like sometimes I don’t like technology, but it’s important,” she said. “I see the young people, and they are so intelligent and so smart, they know how to find a place, how to go there, but I see some people they can’t go out of their houses without bringing their cell phone and they can’t live without internet. If I forget [my phone], I don’t care. I just say, ‘Okay.’”
James Morris, a retired art teacher and practicing artist, is a case that many a millennial, especially those born after the 90s, would be hard-pressed to understand. He’s also this reporter’s father.
Often out and about, he doesn’t consult a smartphone for directions, but makes calls on a landline to ask for routes before he leaves the house. After writing down the directions offered by obliging employees or friends, Morris is on his way.
Morris is a part of the group found “most likely to say they never go online,” which is 41 percent of adults ages 65 and older who do not use the internet, according to Pew Research Center.
He does however, have a younger and more connected spouse—the author’s mother—who ensures they’re hooked up to the internet in their Belmont Shore home and occasionally uses her laptop and/or iPhone to help Morris answer a question, print out a document or look up directions if no one answers the phone. But, while the internet is within his reach, you’d never find him using it on his own.
This may be a result of his disdain for using a computer, which is not solely an effect of Morris’ status as a senior or an inability to learn. As a teacher at Millikan High School in the 1990s, as computers were being introduced to the Long Beach Unified School District, he and his wife decided it would be necessary to purchase a Mac for their home to ensure their daughter had the opportunity to learn how to use it.
“I don’t think I ever really used it, maybe once or twice, and then I found that after doing it [that] I could do it better my way—the way I’d always done it—just as fast if not faster,” Morris said. “So for me, it would have been another learning experience that I didn’t care to get involved with. I didn’t have to sit behind a desk, and I didn’t have to have a computer in front of me to do it.”
Morris said he feels similarly about smartphones and keeps a flip phone turned off and buried in the back of his car’s glove compartment in case of emergencies, but otherwise has little interest in owning anything more technologically advanced. He’s considered obtaining an iPhone for the sake of being able to use its camera, or to be able show photos of his work to potential patrons of his art, but has yet to make the jump.
Smartphone ownership among Americans ages 65 and older has increased 24 percent since 2013, according to Pew Research Center. However, Morris is among adults in their mid 70s and beyond where smartphone usage drops off. Only 31 percent of 75- to 79-year-olds say they use a smartphone compared to the much higher 59 percent of 65- to 69-year-olds who own smartphones, according to the data.
Unsurprisingly, Morris is also averse to texting.
“You’re not really seeing that person, you’re not really talking to that person, you’re texting them and that’s a lot different than word of mouth and being able to laugh about something, you’d have to write in ‘laugh’ or ‘I’m laughing now,’” he said. “To me it’s not as personal as talking on the phone, you don’t get the same intonation, you don’t get the same excitement shown.”
How does he answer a question or satisfy a curiosity? Certainly not through Google.
“If I had a specific question about something that I was reading or that I was working on as an artist, I would probably go to the library first and then if I couldn’t find what I wanted there I would go to some place like Barnes & Noble,” Morris said. “I depend on other people to some extent and that just depends on what information I’m wanting at the time.”
When asked if it’s sometimes frustrating to depend so heavily on others’ knowledge or access to information, Morris replied, “Ninety-nine percent of the time, I get the information I want by calling the person that I think is going to be able to give me that information.”
Nash Keanu Jacquez
Twenty-two-year-old Nash Keanu Jacquez has lived in a studio apartment in Long Beach’s Wrigley area without a broadband connection to the internet for the past three years, and it’s not because he can’t afford it. With an iPhone 6S and an unlimited Sprint data plan just over $100 a month, Jacquez sees paying what would be $70-plus per month Charter Spectrum bill as a waste of money, time and productivity.
In Long Beach, Jacquez is a part of the 9.5 percent of residents who lack broadband access at home and are only able to connect to the internet through a smartphone; another 15.8 percent of households have no home access at all, according to findings from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey.
However, Jacquez prefers it this way.
“I like it [being disconnected at home] because when I get home I’m not sitting on my computer diving into someone else’s life,” Jacquez said. “I’ll get home and work on my photo project or I’ll get home and make a new zine or get home and fingerboard or make art, it’s just all me, I’m not distracted.”
Jacquez partially attributes his choice to live without a broadband connection at home to being raised without it in the small town of Visalia. His parents didn’t have cable or internet installed in their home until his freshman year of high school, and by then, he was too busy traveling as a competitive cyclist to be able to spend a great deal of time in front of a screen.
“During that time in Visalia, I don’t even really remember having a computer,” Jacquez said. “You went outside to play, you rode your bike, your skateboard, whatever. I think that’s why now today I don’t feel like I need it. I’ve never had that connection to TV the way some people do.”
He remembers applying for a job at the local movie theatre as a 15-year-old at the library, where if you said you were filling out an application you would receive two hours of free internet. Now as a full-time employee at a local bike shop, running a business on the side and practicing his film photography, you’d rarely find Jacquez slouched over his laptop on the couch.
While Jacquez chooses to be disconnected at home, he has relied heavily on his iPhone 6S to run two lucrative businesses over the past four years, a bicycle courier service (which he left in July) and, currently, Sorry for Fingerboarding, organizing competitions for a skateboarding subculture where 400 to 1,000-plus enthusiasts participate.
The demands of these jobs have included invoicing for hundreds of deliveries, dispatching couriers throughout Long Beach, posting to the @sorryforfingerboarding Instagram to keep followers apprised of upcoming contests, updating the website, Skype conference calls, messaging on Slack and so much more, which Jacquez has managed to accomplish all via a 4.7-inch display in his hand.
“My dad always told me your cell phone, the internet, your computer is a tool, they’re not toys, and I think that taught me how to value it then,” he said. “They’re tools, they can make me money. And that’s where fingerboarding came along, the courier thing came along, photography business and shows like that, that all came through understanding that my phone was a tool.”
Jacquez is also part of a group using smartphones that the U.S. Census Bureau says may be a key to “crossing the digital divide.”
While internet access across the country generally follows a pattern of younger, wealthier households having the greatest connectivity, meaning having “three key computer and internet items: a desktop or laptop, a handheld computer or smartphone, and a broadband internet subscription,” households that lack a broadband connection are using smartphones or other handheld devices to connect to the internet, according to the October 2017 article which cited findings from the U.S. Census Bureau report, Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2015.
Jacquez, who described himself as Mexican American, takes his laptop to coffee shops when he has to transfer a large file such as a flyer design for an upcoming fingerboarding contest or pay his bills online.
“When it comes to income and race and Hispanic origin, the pattern is reversed,” Camille Ryan, a demographer in the Social, Economic and Housing Statistic Division, said in a statement. “Although low-income households had the lowest overall connectivity, they had the highest proportion of ‘handheld only’ households — that is they relied solely on a handheld device or smartphone to connect to the internet. As mobile devices continue to evolve and increase in popularity, it will be interesting to see what happens with this group.”
“I’ll just continue not [having internet] until I really feel it’s a necessity,” Jacquez said. “I think I live pretty basic, I choose to just live off mainly experiences in life, and that [internet] to me is a huge distraction. You just get so buried in what other people are doing, and I want to be out there doing my own thing.”