Every morning, Minnie Simpson wakes up at 7:15AM, reads the Houston Chronicle, eats 3 French prunes, and takes a stroll around the neighborhood.
On her route, the 76-year-old Texan passes by the local elementary school just as parents drop off their children for the day, Across the street, Simpson swishes by in a green nylon windbreaker, shaking her head.
“Everyone’s on phones,” she bemoans. “The kids get out of the cars without looking up, no goodbyes. Their eyes are just glued on the phones, watching internet videos — and the parents don’t notice because they’re online too. They’re all plugged in…”
It’s a world Simpson doesn’t understand, and never will: she’s among America’s fading genus of internet non-users.
The offline population
For most of us, it’s hard to imagine life without the internet.
For better or worse, we’ve become hyper-dependent on the digital universe housed in our screens. We use it on a daily basis to communicate with friends, book flights, shop, skim the news, watch movies and television shows, and stay up-to-date on Kim Kardashian’s derrière.
As access to the internet has improved in the past two decades, the offline population has steeply declined: today, only 11% of Americans don’t use the internet, down from 48% in 2000.
According to data compiled by Pew research Center, these folks skew older, more rural, less educated, and lower-income — but they vary widely in their rationale for not adopting the technology.
We spoke to number of them via telephone. Below is a selected of their stories.
Mark* (58 years old; rural Pennsylvania)
* Note: “Mark” (name changed) was concerned about privacy issues, and to interview him, I had to relay questions through his good friend (and email user), Penny Kalgren.
Mark started working on his parent’s West Central Pennsylvania farm at the age of 5. At 18, he finished high school and began his lifelong career as a bulldozer operator.
In his own words, he’s “quite the old fashioned character.” For the duration of his life, he’s lived on the same “hill,” where he’s enjoyed a rustic lifestyle of farming, hunting, and walks in the woods. He’s never used the internet, and never will.
“When the internet came out, my first thought was, ‘This is going to be the ruination of our society,’” he says. “I didn’t want a thing to do with it then, and those same ideas still hold true today. I believe it makes people lazy and they became dependent on everything except actually using their own mind.”
Part of this stems from several exceptionally bad experiences with technology: His first wife used the internet to “find other men to occupy her time;” his second wife used it to open a credit card online, electronically sign his name, and rack up $10k in debt — all unbeknownst to him, since he didn’t have a computer.
But aside from these bad experiences, Mark simply isn’t interested in being exposed to a digital world he perceives to be morally corrupt.
“The internet probably isn’t bad by itself,” he admits. “But people ruin the internet. When you put evil people on the same platform as the rest of society, they take over… that’s why we have children with access to porn, and why identity theft is an out of control epidemic.”
He uses his 11-year-old flip phone to stay in touch with close friends.
“He’s innocent, honest,” says one such friend, Penny Kalgren. “He knows only what his co-workers and neighbors share with him… he doesn’t have the world’s opinions at his fingertips like the rest of us.”
Anne Evans (80 years old; Naples, Florida)
“I have no idea what happens on the internet — no idea what the hell ya’ll do,” Evans tells me over the phone. “And frankly, I don’t give a damn. How’s that?”
Evans, the grandmother of our esteemed intern, Kyle, has not once used the internet in her 80 years, and offers a variety of reasons for her decision:
- “I’m too old to get involved in something new.”
- “It’s an invasion of privacy.”
- “It’s too impersonal… It’s a machine that doesn’t involve human to human contact.”
- “I like to stick with my old ways. Not because I’m stubborn — I just like it that way.”
Despite the constant lampooning of family members spread across 4 states, Evans has refused to adapt to the internet. But it hasn’t stopped her from communicating: she regularly calls her loved ones on a landline, and sends them letters in the mail.
Evans comes from a lineage of proud non-adopters of tech, and fancies keeping things that way. “My parents were the last on the block to get a TV,” she says, “and it was only because my mother had a crush on President Eisenhower and needed to see him.”
“If if doesn’t involve man-to-man communications, or something physical — a cocktail, a pen, a piece of paper — I don’t want any part of it,” she reasons. “Sitting around and pushing a bunch of buttons is not a very personal relationship, in my opinion.”
Nothing pushes her buttons more than going out to dinner and seeing couples hunched over their screens. “Young people — my stars!” she adds. “What’s the point in going out with your friend, if you’re on a machine the whole time?”
Still, Evans cedes that there is probably more to the internet than she wants to admit.
“I know that i’m cheating myself by not availing myself of the knowledge of that machine,” she says. “But I’m also very satisfied with the way I do things.”
Before ending our call, Evans makes me promise to tell her grandson to print out a hard copy of this article and mail it to her in physical form.
Minnie Simpson (76 years old; Northern Texas)
Born in Arkansas 2 weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Simpson later embarked on a 30-year career in secretarial work.
Despite being around some of the earliest computers, and continually adapting to technological changes in her early age, she was weary by the time the internet came around.
“We bought the first family computer in 1998, and the kids would sit around all day, tinkering on the internet,” she says. “I watched them go from playing outside with friends, riding bikes, talking to each other, to being obsessed with the machine. It was like a switch flipped in their heads.”
While her children and husband became accustomed to the internet, Simpson brushed it off as an “unnecessary evil.” Aside from an unfruitful and frustrating attempt to find a local plumber using Ask Jeeves 19 years ago, she’s completely refrained from logging online.
How does she get by?
“It’s really not that difficult,” she says. “I don’t need to see a picture of my brother’s parakeet on Facebook. I don’t need to buy a shirt on ‘the Google,’ or whatnot. I don’t need to be aware of things instantly… I have no need for the internet in my life.”
Rafael Santos (48 years old, New York)
For some, staying offline is a lifestyle choice — but for 6% of non-users, it isn’t.
Nationally, 11% of Americans don’t use the internet — but this figure jumps to 19% for those making under $30k per year, and as high as 35% for those with less than a high school degree.
In the Bronx, New York, residents line up every morning to make use of the public library’s free Wi-Fi. With broadband rates averaging $55 per month, the internet isn’t a luxury everyone can afford: some 25% of the city’s households don’t have access.
Rafael Santos, a construction worker and father of a newborn, has been online a handful of times in the past decade, but the internet remains a foreign world to him.
“Friends use the internet to practice English, look for jobs, and say hello to family members,” he tells me, in Spanish. “I could use the internet to learn and be better, but I don’t have time.”
More often than not, Santos’s work hours don’t align with the library’s, and home access is a financial burden he can’t justify. Recently, he considered purchasing his first smartphone (equipped with internet and a data plan), but decided against it.
“Diapers are more important than internet,” he says.
The last of the digital detractors
The stories here represent only a small sample of Americans who don’t use the internet, and the reasons why.
Data tells us that the majority of non-users are elderly, but this shouldn’t endorse the trope that old people are technologically challenged. There is certainly no dearth of octogenarian techies, like my grandfather, who was the first in line to buy a PalmPilot in 1997 and has been at least 3 steps ahead of me on the gadget front ever since.
In fact, 51% of of 65+ citizens have broadband internet at home, and 34% are active on social media. In case you need an uplifting anecdotal addition to this, two of the world’s oldest men — Walter Breuning (114), and Alexander Imich (111) — were reportedly frequent and adept internet users until they died.
And though some of the rationales the folks we interviewed seem a bit like stubborn rants, they do have merit: the internet has negatively effects on face-to-face communication, creativity, attention span, social anxiety, and depression — and in light of recent scandals like Cambridge Analytica, data and privacy concerns are certainly valid.
Regardless, it is projected that more than 95% of America — and more than half the world’s population — will be online by 2030.
And someday, in the distant future, when the world is a digital, hyper-connected cosm, a cyborg historian will look back fondly at folks like Anne Evans and conclude, with computed certainty, that they were the last of the digital detractors.