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Virtual Reality – Americans Find it Harder to Imagine Life Offline

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RISMEDIA, March 24, 2008-(MCT)-It may not be the end of the world. But it can feel like it. You open your Web browser, only to be greeted by an obscure error message suggesting something is wrong with your Internet connection. Hit the refresh key.

Nothing.

Reboot. Check the modem. Still nothing.

Then comes that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as the realization sets in: No e-mail. No eBay. No MySpace. No YouTube.

It’s as if you’ve been transported back to the Dark Ages. Might as well take away your electricity and running water, too.

Such has been the transformation of the Internet, which has wormed its way into our lives during the past decade, morphing from accessory to necessity. Never is that more obvious than those times when you want to go online, but can’t.

“I suspect for a lot of people, if you cut that cord, they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves,” said Bob Papper, a media professor at Hofstra University. “They’d be paralyzed without the Internet. They might have to read.”

For decades, the television set has been the centerpiece of the American home. Nothing else challenges it in terms of time spent watching it. But a recent study by The Pew Internet & American Life Project suggests Americans actually place a higher value on their Internet connections.

The December survey-the results were released last week-asked participants which technologies would be hardest to give up. The Internet, at 45%, narrowly edged out TV, at 43%. Five years earlier, a similar survey rated the Internet at 38% and TV at 47%.

For Dan Miller, a freshman at St. Charles Community College in Missouri and an avid online gamer, the choice is easy. He’d give up TV without a second thought.

Five nights a week-Fridays and Saturdays are game-free-he joins five other members of his Skull Gaming team to play CounterStrike, a so-called first-person shooter pitting counter-terrorists against terrorists. Play sessions generally last five hours.

For Miller, access to the Internet and his online friends is critical. There aren’t, he said, many other entertainment options near his home in O’Fallon, Mo.

“If I didn’t have the Internet, that’s five hours where I’d have to think of something else to do,” Miller said. “I don’t know what I would do, actually.”

It isn’t just gamers who find themselves relying on the Internet. Since 2000, Internet activity in the general population has soared. The Pew group has been tracking U.S. usage since March 2000, when 46% of Americans said they spent time online. In December’s latest survey, that number surged to 75%, with more than half of country using broadband.

It is that group-the folks with faster connections-that tends to be most attached to the Internet, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew group.

Dial-up users are more casual in their approach, generally using the Internet for e-mail and limited surfing. But once they switch to broadband, the role of the Internet changes in their lives. It begins to matter more, he said.

“They spend more time online. They do more things online,” Rainie said. “They think online first when solving a lot of their problems.”

Those problems come in a wide range of flavors. Need a recipe for Asian fried rice? Want to settle a bet with a friend over which actor played the lead role in the 1987 movie “The Princess Bride?” Or maybe you just need directions to the nearest movie theater.

Having all that information at his fingertips is nirvana for Nathan Black, who lives in Jefferson County, Mo.

Black spends about four hours online each day and says he’s more likely to reach out to family and friends through e-mail, rather than the telephone.

“It is one of my links to the outside world,” he said. “It allows me to get around and explore the world with my mind.”

Black isn’t able to get broadband service through cable or DSL where he lives. Instead, he uses a fixed wireless network, which, by its nature, is susceptible to storm-related outages. When bad weather sweeps through, he’s never surprised to be cut off. It’s something he takes in stride, within limits.

“I can accept 15 minutes. Maybe an hour or two,” Black said. “But when you are down for a day or a week-that’s another thing. That gets a hold of me.”

The anxiety that accompanies an Internet connection disruption is fueled by more than just the desire for convenient access to information. One of the biggest problems is coping with the feeling that things are happening without you. Your friends are still having fun. Conversations are taking place. Your e-mail box is filling up with messages in need of replies.

“There is a kind of compulsive behavior. It’s the kind of thing where you try to keep on top of it,” said Steve Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

That need to stay current, however, is increasingly more real than imagined.

A few years ago, Jones used to play a game with his students. He would ask them to go 24 hours without using the Internet and to keep a journal documenting their digital abstinence.

Not anymore.

“So much of what they do relies on the Internet,” Jones said. “I couldn’t in good conscience tell them to stop using it.”

That same level of reliance is found in offices across the nation, where workers use the Internet for countless tasks-most of them actually job-related-throughout the day. An unexpected outage can wreak havoc on employees, said Scot Sullivan, an IT consultant with Kerber, Eck & Braeckel, an accounting and consulting firm in St. Louis.

He remembers one day late last year when an AT&T problem left the office, which has a few dozen workers, without the Internet for a full day. A low-key panic enveloped the building.

“They don’t remember not too long ago when you actually had to pick up the phone or write a letter,” said Sullivan, who has been in IT for a decade. “Back then, it was just a minor inconvenience. Today they get very upset. They run around not knowing what to do. I shudder to think what it’ll be like in another 10 years.”

There’s little doubt which direction it’s going. Each year, technology mavens come up with new ways-including laptops, PDAs and cell phones-for us to stay connected to the Internet. Even the days of taking quiet, electronics-free vacations seem to be slipping away.

Consider what has happened at the Garth Woodside Mansion Bed and Breakfast in Hannibal, Mo. Last week, the inn’s owners finally relented and started installing televisions in rooms. Wireless Internet, on the other hand, has been offered since 2004, following requests from the business travelers who make up about half of the clientele.

Still, Sean Rolsen, whose family owns the inn, doubts the presence of free Internet means the difference between winning or losing a leisure traveler.

Unless that leisure traveler happens to be him.

“I wouldn’t even look at a place that didn’t have it,” Rolsen said. “I’d wait for them to offer it, or I’d stay someplace else.”

© 2008, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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