America Offline

There are still about 47 million people in the United States who don't have an Internet connection.

The motherboard of an Apple Macintosh Classic (Dado Ruvic / Reuters)

The population of people in the United States who don't have an Internet connection is down to 15 percent, new data from Pew Research shows. That's the equivalent of about 47 million people, which at first sounds like a lot—at least to someone immersed in all things online most of the time.

Another way to think about it, though, is to see just how quickly people have adopted the Internet compared with other technologies over time. In the span of 15 years, the United States has transformed into a mostly-Internet-connected country. Back in 2000, a full 48 percent of Americans told Pew they did not use the Internet.

In general, consumers are adopting new technologies at a much quicker clip than they used to. A few years ago, The New York Times published a fascinating graph illustrating this effect, and it’s worth revisiting in this context. The adoption of telephones and of electricity are represented by lines that slope gradually upward over time. Technological consumption isn’t so measured by the time we get to color televisions, microwaves, cellphones, and the Internet—all of which are represented by lines that shoot pretty much straight up. (Computers, on the other hand, show a gradual adoption rate in the 1970s and 1980s before spiking up in the 1990s.)

“Over time, the offline population has been shrinking, and for some groups that change has been especially dramatic,” Pew wrote about its recent study. “For example, 86 percent of adults [age] 65 and older did not go online in 2000; today that figure has been cut in half. And among those without a high-school diploma, the share not using the internet dropped from 81 percent to 33 percent in the same time period.”

It’s worth pointing out, too, that those changes overlap in some key areas with smartphone adoption. Pew’s most recent data on smartphone ownership—from October of last year—shows 64 percent of American cellphone owners use smartphones. Among smartphone users, 10 percent of people reported that the device represented their only way of getting online.

So who are the Americans who still don’t use the Internet at all? From Pew: “Rural Americans are about twice as likely as those who live in urban or suburban settings to never use the Internet. Racial and ethnic differences are also evident. One in five blacks and 18 percent of Hispanics do not use the Internet, compared with 14 percent of whites and only 5 percent of English-speaking Asian-Americans—the racial or ethnic group least likely to be offline.”