Chapter 8:

Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding

Use of Computers and Computer Technology in the United States

There has been a marked increase in the number and variety of sources providing information about science and technology. (See chapter 9, "Significance of Information Technologies" and sidebar "Where Americans Get Information About Science and Technology.") Computers and computer technologies have become important in facilitating access to these new sources of information. According to the 1999 NSF survey, just over one-fifth of American adults have searched for science- or health-related information on the World Wide Web.

A number of indicators show the growing and widespread use of computers and computer-based technologies in the late 1990s. The increase in the number of home computers is particularly noteworthy.[24]  In 1999, for the first time ever, a majority of American adults (54 percent) had at least one computer in their homes. The percentage has been rising steadily since 1983, when only 8 percent had them. (See figure 8-16 and appendix table 8-30.) In addition, among all adults,

The average amount of time spent per year using a home computer rose from 103 hours in 1995 to 153 hours in 1999. (See appendix table 8-32.) This increase, however, is almost entirely attributable to growth in the number of home computers. The average amount of time each person spends using his or her home computer remained relatively stable during the late 1990s, around 300 hours per year. (See figure 8-18.) However, a shift occurred in how that time was spent. More time is being spent on the Internet and less on other activities, for example, word processing. Among all home computer users, the amount of time spent on the Internet increased more than tenfold between 1995 and 1999 (from 15 hours per year to approximately 160). In addition, for those with Internet access, the amount of time spent on Internet activities, including using e-mail and visiting Web sites, increased from an average of 80 hours in 1995 to 269 hours in 1999. (See figure 8-18.)

The number of people with access to a computer at work has also been climbing, but the increase has been less dramatic. In 1983, one-fourth of the NSF survey respondents reported using a computer at work, and about one-third said they did in 1990. The proportion was up to 42 percent in 1999. (See figure 8-16 and appendix table 8-30.) In addition,

The number of people without access to a computer either at home or at work fell between 1983 and 1999-from 70 percent down to 35 percent. In 1999, for the first time, there was no gender gap in lack of access. (See appendix table 8-30.)

Differences in computer access, the so-called "digital divide," are quite visible when level of formal education is taken into account. More than 70 percent of those who lack a high school diploma had no access to a computer either at home or at work in 1999. In contrast, only 30 percent of those who graduated from high school, and only 8 percent of those with at least a bachelor's degree, lacked access. Although access has been rising in all three groups, the pace is significantly slower for those with less formal education, and what increase there has been is entirely attributable to home computer acquisition, not access in the workplace. As an illustration, in 1983, less than 1 percent of those without high school diplomas had computers in their homes. By 1990, the proportion had grown to 7 percent, and by 1999, it had increased to 22 percent. During the same 16-year period, access to computers at work did not rise above 10 percent. Clearly, there is a difference in computer acquisition between those who did not finish high school and those with more formal education, but there is an even greater disparity in the use of computers in the workplace. (See figure 8-19 and appendix table 8-30.) For more information on this subject, see the section on "Information Technologies and the Citizen" in chapter 9.



[24]  In a poll conducted in 1996, 43 percent of the respondents said they were very interested, and another 33 percent said they were somewhat interested, in learning more about computers. Among this same group of respondents, 45 percent thought that home computers would make it easier to do things like shopping, paying bills, making travel arrangements, and looking things up electronically instead of going to a library or buying books or newspapers; 16 percent thought using a computer would make doing these activities more complicated (Roper 1996).

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