Home as Information Environment

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In the information age—the frenetic era of the networked computer, the Internet-surfing consumer, and the digital commodity—there have been rapid advancements in information technology (IT). These advancements have increasingly affected the way people interact in their daily living spaces, including the workplace, public areas such as libraries and shopping centers, and the private dwelling known as the home.

While specific definitions depend on the area of research or interest level, IT can loosely be described as any device or service that has an electronic origin and is used by people to process data. This data can be the music from a home stereo system, the picture from a television, the bit stream of a personal computer, a voice from a telephone, or virtually any other thing found in the home. A synonym often used for IT based in the home is "media."

While media has a substantial presence in all three living spaces, IT is most obvious and arguably most dynamic within the home. This statement may seem counterintuitive at first glance; anecdotes about enormous corporate budgets providing employees with limitless access to new and innovative technologies abound. However, on further reflection, viewing the home as the dominant space for the presence and diversity of information technology is understandable since the home serves multiple functions in the lives of most Americans.

The home is capable of serving in any capacity that is desired by its dwellers, thanks to an ever-present environment of sophisticated information technology. The following are some of the more popular functions of the home:

  • entertainment (perform leisure activities),
  • marketplace (purchase goods and services),
  • neighborhood (engage fellow community members),
  • office (accomplish business tasks),
  • refuge (minimize societal exposure), and
  • school (educate oneself).

Most Americans spend the majority of their time in their homes, usually with other people. More often than not, people at home are engaged with some IT appliance. Technology that is devoted to the mundane tasks of cooking, cleaning, opening garage doors, and waking people up blends effortlessly with more stimulating entertainment-based devices. Channeling music from radio stations to home theater systems, sending international e-mail messages from the living room, or viewing real-time stock quotes from a television or cellular telephone are mundane, nearly automatic tasks of many daily household routines. This attention to media is significant. Americans consume on average slightly more than nine hours of IT entertainment media every day of the year—a figure that has remained remarkably constant since the mid-1990s and will likely continue with moderate annual increases into the early 2000s. This saturation of the home with IT has a price. Americans have maintained a significant media spending level—at least $500 per person per year since the mid-1990s, an amount that is likely to double by the mid-2000s.

With this complex portrait of the home as an information technology center being so dominant, it is useful to review the history of IT. Doing so will show that while the modern home is without doubt more sophisticated than its historical counterparts, it is nevertheless still the progeny of a late-nineteenth-century phenomenon—the rise of modern mass media. So while the modern home is a target for aggressively priced personal computers, sophisticated digital home theater systems, and the compelling promises of a global Internet, its function as a primary center of IT-based mass media activity has remained relatively unchanged since the late 1800s.

Origins of Home-Based Information Technology

Few information technologies that affect home users were created solely for the purpose of serving the needs of home consumers without the notion of profit. Purely charitable reasons for inventing, producing, and distributing IT devices and services were and are nonexistent in the history of American IT in regard to the home. In fact, most IT devices slated for the home were designed as lures for corporate business—specifically, to gain their advertising dollars. One advantage of most IT media in the home, with the exception of non-icon components of the Internet, is that user literacy is not required either to buy or to use the information technology. This allows even people who do not have reading or writing skills to have the opportunity to experience a nearly constant stream of entertainment, communication, and information.

The telephone, available to homes in the 1870s, was touted as a tool for commerce and was accepted more rapidly by businesses than home consumers. Today, telephones are still more common in business offices than in individual residences: 99 percent of businesses have at least one telephone versus 95 percent for households.

A decade after news of the Titanic disaster reached American ears via telegraph in 1912 and only two years after Pennsylvania's KDKA in 1920 became the first operating radio station licensed by the federal government, radio broadcasters were selling airtime to advertisers. As the novelty and immediacy of radio entered and grew within the daily routines of home listeners, so too did the presence of advertisers.

Television was designed less for the enjoyment of home consumers and more as an advertising vehicle for corporate customers of the television networks. Cable television initially extended that idea and later added other channels on a subscription or pay-per-view basis. Commercial advertising rates have grown exponentially as a result of the popularity of television. Corporations have become willing to pay millions of dollars for single commercials during major sporting events such as the Super Bowl.

Overview of Information Technology in the Home

The home has never been completely isolated from new technology, nor has it ever been a completely safe haven from the pressures of work or the offerings of the entertainment industry. What has changed most markedly about IT in the home is not its basic functions—creating entertainment, promoting communication, and organizing information—but rather the type of information technology. The telephone allowed voice conversations, and the Internet allowed instant text communication via e-mail and instant-chat software. Broadcast television gave viewers several video channels to view. Cable television later provided dozens of such channels, and satellite television promises similar channels in bundles numbering in the hundreds.

As early as 1880, IT in the home was touted as revolutionary. In reference to the telephone, Scientific American saw the new device as "… nothing less than a new organization of society—a state of things in which every individual, however secluded, will have at call every other individual in the community" (Marvin, 1988). Similar proclamations have been made about every new technology since that time, even those that no longer exist, such as the videotext and videodisc, or those that have yet to enter mainstream use, such as high-definition television (HDTV) and Internet-based telephony. However, it was the telephone with its straightforward design and simple instructions that first put IT into the homes of the American public.

Patented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, the telephone made its way into the first home a year later, and it has captivated users ever since. Its resilient design, still basically the same as when it was first invented, has allowed people in disparate areas to communicate in ways that were unimaginable prior to its invention.

Yet, even though the telephone generated attention and had at its inception a unique ability to "cheat time," it did not diffuse rapidly into American homes. It took eighty years from the time of its invention to penetrate 75 percent of homes, and it was not until 1970 that it reached a penetration level of 93 percent.

Minority household penetration rates consistently rank 8 to 10 percentage points lower than their white counterparts. According to Alexander Belinfante (1998), the telephone gap between white and minority households in 1984 was approximately 13 percent. In 1999, white households had a national average telephone penetration rate of 95 percent, approximately 8 percent higher than the black and Hispanic rates of 86.9 percent and 86.7 percent, respectively. Such differences persist with respect to other IT devices as well.

Radio, the next technology to diffuse within the home, would show the vast potential for Americans to consume IT in their homes. It is still the benchmark by which all subsequent devices and services are compared; its low one-time price, immediate value to the consumer, and astonishingly fast acceptance by home consumers created the first ubiquitous home IT device.

Even the Great Depression, with its effect of diminishing personal expenditures on information goods and service by 25 percent, failed to slow the growth of radio receivers in the home. In 1929, less than a decade after commercial radio programming was introduced and only five years after national broadcasting began, the household penetration of radio was above 30 percent. In 1931, that percentage had jumped to more than 50 percent. By the end of the 1930s, close to 80 percent of all U.S. households had at least one radio. In 1950, that percentage was at 95 percent, and by 1970, radio penetration was at 99 percent, where it has remained constant. Approximately 12,000 FM (frequency modulation) and AM (amplitude modulation) radio stations transmit their signals to home users in the United States.

Television, while more expensive initially than radio, diffused even more rapidly into American households. In 1950, barely a decade after its public display at the 1939 World's Fair, television was in 9 percent of households. In twenty years, that percentage had increased more than tenfold to 95 percent. Since then, its household penetration has remained identical to that of radio at 99 percent. Yet even with the launching of two new broadcast television networks in the 1990s—the United Paramount Network (UPN) and the Warner Bros. Network (WB)—fewer than half of all television viewers watch the major networks. Instead, viewers are turning to cable television.

Driven by poor reception of traditional broadcast network television and relaxed regulation, the relatively dormant cable television systems that originated in the late 1940s and early 1950s saw explosive growth in the 1970s, the decade when cable was first present in at least 10 percent of American homes. By 1980, cable penetration had doubled to 20 percent, and by the end of the 1990s, cable penetration as measured by subscribership was approximately two-thirds of all households, although 97 percent of all households in the United States were wired for cable. If the newer Direct Broadcasting Satellite (DBS) services are included, virtually all households in the United States are capable of receiving network or cable television programming; close to 1 in 10 households have DBS service, often coupling their satellite offerings with standard cable service that provides local news and programming. All in all, home television viewers on average watch more than four hours of television-based programming a day. For those who are under eighteen years of age and over sixty-five years of age, that number jumps significantly to more than six hours.

Coupled with the explosion of cable programming in the 1970s and the interest of home consumers in watching theater movies at home, the time was ripe for the introduction of the home videocassette recorder (VCR). In 1975, Sony introduced the first commercial VCR, dubbed the Beta-max. Its format was soon replaced by the VHS standard, and by 1982, close to 10 percent of homes had VCRs. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that taping commercial broadcasts from a television to a VCR within the confines of one's home was legal, promotion of and use of VCRs skyrocketed, reaching more than 50 percent of U.S. households by the mid-1980s. By 1999, that percentage had jumped to 90 percent. Alongside this trend of VCR use was a similar one for the use of a camcorder (portable video camera), which has resulted in one in five households owning a camcorder.

Video games also drew people, especially those under eighteen years of age, who were looking for hands-on electronic entertainment that was not being offered by broadcasting technologies. David Sheff, author of Game Over (1993), describes the rise of the video game industry beginning with the first commercially successful game. Pong, the first commercial video arcade game, was introduced outside of the home in 1972. Two years later, it was officially inside the home. A little more than a decade later, in 1986, Japan's Nintendo officially introduced the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) to the United States. Led by a strong marketing effort and enchanted young users, its popularity soared. In 1990 alone, one in three households owned a Nintendo Entertainment System, at the time the most popular home game console ever created. Subsequent home video game consoles sport CD-ROMs and other technologies that rival those of personal computers. However, it is the Internet (an ever-newer technology that involves elements of video games, radio, television, and even traditional text media) that has taken the American home by storm.

In 1991, only 500,000 homes were connected to the Internet—less than 1 percent of the total homes in the United States. Yet by the end of 1999, more than half of all homes in the United States were connected to the Internet. Two main reasons for this gigantic increase in Internet penetration were the World Wide Web (WWW) and the fixed monthly rate subscription fees offered by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The WWW, the graphical icon-based interface used by people to access the Internet easily via graphics and icons, was invented in 1989 and became popular with the introduction of the first web browser, Mosaic, in 1993. The web browser simplified "browsing" or "surfing" the Internet for items of interest. Low-wage overseas labor markets, improved production methods, faster product development cycles, and frenzied competition among the major home computer manufacturers are likely to keep the home penetration of the Internet on the rise.

Of note regarding penetration rates of IT in the home is that the rate of adoption depends on whether home users make a one-time purchase or whether they must commit to subscription pricing. For example, the gap between those who owned a radio and/or television (one-time purchases) and those who did not quickly closed, while the gaps for telephone and cable television (subscription services) have not. In other words, the penetration rates of the telephone and cable television have remained lower than their broadcasting counterparts. Moreover, while personal computer ownership and modem usage have skyrocketed among all sectors of the population, minority households still trail their white counterparts in online access. This phenomenon is partly a result of income, but it is also due to geography, ethnicity, housing, marital status, and a multitude of other personal demographics. One striking example is that the 314 U.S. Native American reservations and trust lands have an average telephone penetration rate of 46.6 percent—less than half of the national average. Only six of the forty-eight reservations with five hundred or more Native American households had telephone penetration levels that were above 75 percent—none exceeded 85 percent.

In short, IT devices—goods—penetrate households more quickly than services, even holding constant the total yearly cost of obtaining the good or service and the advertising levels of corporate advertisers. This goods-services dichotomy is arguably the result of households on the margin. In these households, the decision to pay a monthly fee is a difficult one that has to be made each month, which results in a condition that is not conducive to uninterrupted media services for those with limited or fixed resources.

Thus, in the American home, IT breeds IT. As a new technology is developed, marketed, and accepted by people in the homes, it does not replace a previous technology, even if it serves a similar function. For example, the telephone provided a simple way for people to communicate. While it did much to reduce daily traffic from one house to another for social calls, the telephone itself was not replaced by Internet e-mail, which in many cases serves the same function. Likewise, the introduction of television, while hurting the motion picture industry outside of the home, did not eliminate the use of the radio within the home. The personal computer has not sunk the home video game industry, even while similar game titles are available on both IT devices. Network television survives despite aggressive growth in the cable television and the DBS industries. From the historical record, it is clear that Americans layer their home IT technologies, favoring abundance and choice of IT over pure efficiency, cost, or aesthetics.

Trends of Information Technology in the Home

The traditional media, such as broadcast television and radio, have a limited array of contents and a fixed rigid schedule to which users must conform. These characteristics exist partly because early IT devices were more concerned about functionality than about aesthetics. New media, such as the Internet, offer a wide range of content and greater flexibility for user customization, and home consumers are flocking to technologies that offer this customization.

The telephone is a representative example of this customization trend. Unlike the numerous color options and designs that exist for modern telephones, the original telephone design was available in exactly one color: black. Furthermore, the black telephone could not be bought; it had to be rented from the telephone company, which also numbered but one: AT&T. Specialized cords and adapters, now common, were not options until well into the latter half of the twentieth century. The modern telephone can be had in dozens of shapes and sizes, from numerous distributors. Those people who wish to make a telephone call can do so with the traditional desktop telephone, with cellular or satellite-based telephones, and even over the Internet—all for prices that are, even accounting for inflation, lower than ever. And the wonders continue.

From William Gibson's science fiction cult classic Neuromancer (1984), to more recent writings such as What Will Be (1997) by futurist Michael Dertouzos, to Erik Davis's media-studies-inspired Techgnosis (1998), writers have had little difficulty devising future IT devices and services for the home. According to these authors and the popular press, smaller, more personal devices that merge user and interface will likely dominate the IT environment of the home into the future. Function, as always, will be important, as will the ever-present concerns of privacy, security, and ease of use. Aesthetics, too, will play a more significant role than they have in the past as multinational conglomerates vie for the eyes, ears, and pocketbooks of household consumers. After all, if a company cannot differentiate its product from competitors, it will have difficulty becoming or remaining a successful company. The most frequently mentioned characteristics of future IT items for the home include the following:

  1. ability to safeguard personal information using specialized security features,
  2. ability to personalize received information depending on user-define preferences,
  3. voice and data transmission using traditional and higher bandwidth networks,
  4. entertainment capabilities such as electronic games and hyperlinked text documents,
  5. customizable visual interface,
  6. control of household appliances and timing devices,
  7. datebook-type functions, including calendar, to do lists, and alarms for scheduled events,
  8. location-neutral functionality, so the device can be used throughout the world,
  9. low power consumption and the ability to recharge for repeated and prolonged uses, and
  10. affordable cost both in time to learn and cost to buy.

The shaping of the American home is a continuous process. Innovation in home-based IT is rapid and will likely become more so in the future. The available IT provides nearly instantaneous access to the workings of a home and its associated systems. For example, a home user can start the dishwasher, turn on the oven, monitor children and pets, and even open the garage door using simple IT devices. While such features may seem common in the modern home IT environment, they were fantastic ideas even in the 1950s. Much of the modern IT ideas are equally farfetched, but they will likely produce tangible results. Either way, the evolution of information technology will continue, and American consumers will continue to experiment and accept many, if not most, of the new devices and services that are created and offered to the public.

See also:Cable Television; Cable Television, History of; Information Industry; Internet and the World Wide Web; Radio Broadcasting; Radio Broadcasting, History of; Technology, Adoption and Diffusion of; Telephone Industry; Telephone Industry, History of; Television Broadcasting; Television Broadcasting, History of; Video and Computer Games and the Internet.


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Scott C. Forbes

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