Ducking and diving

Broadband is a pervasive feature of some people's lives. So how exactly are they using it?

Picture these Broadband Britons. Mr Locke of Manchester pops home in his lunch break to attend to an auction on eBay. He cannot access the site at work but needs to feed his "addiction": he is currently bidding on a garden bench. In Sidcup, Mrs Russell logs into her daughter's e-mail account from work to purge it of spam, offers of Viagra and other unsuitable messages. Returning from work, Mr Jones switches on his computer and launches his e-mail and internet browser as instinctively as others might flick on the television after a long day at the office. He checks his e-mail and finishes some internet research he failed to complete earlier.

For these three individuals and many others, broadband use is moving beyond the desktop to become a pervasive feature of their lives. For so long, the language of broadband was technical and practical. Above all, it was about provision and availability. Finally, as these various everyday users illustrate, we can talk of a broadband sensibility. For them, broadband is not just always on, but always there. Rather than hiding the computer away in a cupboard like a scary monster, households are welcoming them downstairs and into their lives. Broadband is central to this process of domestication.

So how exactly are families such as the Lockes, Russells and Joneses using broadband? The simple answer is quite instinctively and, most of the time, with little of the fuss that was presaged in the BT "dinosaurs in pipes" advertisements. Research has found that broadband supports well-developed uses of the web and, in time, encourages a whole series of additional uses and experiences. First it changes how people use their PC and the internet. Later it begins to change their behaviours, online and offline. This shift from uses to behaviours is a journey from a narrowband to broadband mentality.

The journey is not fast or straightforward. In fits and starts, broadband users add uses to their repertoire. The impact is not immediate. The advertising, with its focus on speed, leads some users to expect something dramatic: "It's quicker, but it's not instant. I thought it would be instant." Broadband helps people do many of the mundane tasks of life such as finding a plumber more smoothly, perhaps even pleasurably, than narrowband did.

Look hard at the use of broadband and it can start to appear pretty unremarkable. There is little that many do that is impossible without broadband. But broadband is the oil that makes the internet a better experience. Younger family members download music and compile discs for their friends. Mr Locke's wife collects teapots and china dolls that are displayed in the kitchen as trophies of her internet use; eBay is nudging aside car boot sales as their main second-hand market. The grandparents come over to dabble, too. Three generations unite around the broadband-enabled computer.

Initially, broadband replaces unwieldy telephone directories or Ceefax, or the wet and cold of a boot sale, but then it encourages users to do new things. The Spencer family, for example, already took digital photographs. Now they are easier to share, and their friends, now broadband-enabled, have stopped complaining about the wait for large images. Broadband use begets broadband use for families and their social networks.

Broadband makes using the internet in part quicker, in part more enjoyable. It encourages use and, in time, use changes the way the technology is incorporated into family life. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this is a son asking his mother to bank online for him: "Alan has not got a computer in his flat and is too lazy, so he rings me up to look at his balance on the net and then transfer money over from one account to the other."

An evening at the Spencers can best be described as "tag-team computing". Family members dart between their bedrooms and other living spaces to "snack" on the internet. Their teenage son Peter refers to this as "ducking and diving". There is no logging on and logging off. Broadband encourages a more fluid type of use. As Peter explains: "Sometimes I like to check the Autotrader site because I'm well into my cars and can quickly compare prices of cars and spare parts, but the other day I found myself quickly going upstairs to check on a mini disc I was recording in my room, downstairs to check the TV for the Arsenal score, then back to the website."

For families like the Spencers, high levels of use have encouraged an "always there" mentality. Google is the oracle in the corner to be probed at any time. Sending an image to a friend here, a little instant messaging there, checking film times while on the phone to a friend with an eye on Eastenders in the other corner of the room: broadband use is about multitasking.

Many broadband households are journeying to the ducking and diving, snacking behaviours of the Spencers. Yet there are some whose computer use is quite unaffected by the acquisition of broadband. For them, broadband is like the luxurious off-roader that barely does more than mount the pavement. But they have it and they are venturing, at different speeds, towards a different outlook and set of behaviours.

Slowly the technology becomes taken for granted and the question of use begins to appear odd. There was probably a time when asking how people used the telephone or electricity was interesting and important. That time, for many, has past. For some, but certainly not the majority of broadband households, the question of use has become irrelevant. For them, broadband has become invisible, a utility they could not be without.

Simon Roberts is an anthropologist and founder of Ideas Bazaar (www.ideasbazaar.com)