In our opinion: The Internet wave: Utah leads the way as most wired state

Published: Monday, July 23 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

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Every 10 years the U.S. Census provides data that reveal interesting and sometimes surprising social trends — few as provocative as the recent analysis that shows Utah is at the top of the upper echelon of places where people have household access to the Internet.

More Utah homes are proportionately "wired" than California households, or those in any other more populous and urban place. Only New Hampshire scores higher on the percentage of homes with online access. In Utah, it's more than 85 percent, significantly higher than the national average, which hovers near 76 percent.

The Census doesn't explain why the numbers are what they are, though it does offer some insights. Relative affluence, the density of main population centers and high education levels are all associated components.

Such rankings are popular fodder for bloggers, magazine editors and morning talk shows. The temptation when such data is revealed is to pursue an exercise of assessing whether it is good or bad for individuals or the general welfare. In this case, it may be both, or neither, depending on the prism through which you choose to view it.

What is not in dispute is that we are in an age of incredible technological proliferation. Our homes are wired, and so are we. Many of us carry telephones with computing power greater than the first garage-sized processors built with military money only a few short decades ago. One indelible fact about technology is the more we have it, the more we want it and, as a corollary, the more we find ways to use it.

A study this month by the Pew Research Center shows half of all people who have smartphones use them while they are watching television — sometimes to find out what other people think about the same program. One might interpret it as evidence of our enduring need to connect, interact and maintain our social bonds. As such, you could argue anything that facilitates human interaction is a good thing.

On the other hand, there is the concern that technology is rendering human interaction much less personal, often occurring in a sterile sphere of electronic isolation. Will families no longer gather around the TV to enjoy a program if they grow accustomed to watching it separately on a tablet computer and texting their reactions, even from the next room, to Mom and Dad?

It's instructive to recall that television, that now ancient-seeming technology, itself once spawned concerns over whether it would lead to isolation and social disconnection.

No doubt, people spend a lot of time watching television, as they spend a lot of time online in an ever-growing variety of digital venues. Is it too much time?

That's for each of us to answer. As we are increasingly tethered to devices that amuse us, inform us and make us more accessible to each other, it's important to remember that technology, at the end of a day, is only a tool. Its use and abuse is a matter of governance for families and individuals.

That Utah has risen to the top of the list of most-wired states certainly says many positive things about our culture and economy. It also offers a nice opportunity to pause and consider, as we ride on top of this wave, exactly where it might carry us.

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