Communication Technology: Connecting People?

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Although some welcome the Internet as an ultimate solution to everything, others fear its curse. Through this groundbreaking medium, and its related technologies, content and advertising can reach billions of people instantaneously and simultaneously, which for the most part has transformed almost every aspect of our way of life―private, social, cultural, economic and political―to the better.

Nevertheless, it has been criticized of causing addiction among users who spend hours each day “surfing”; hours during which they are away from their family and friends, which can ultimately result in depression and isolation, and further weakening of neighborhood and community ties.

The truth of the matter is that the Internet is the latest in a series of life-altering technological advances that have changed the world in fundamental ways. It could thus be enlightening to review how people initially reacted to and then made use of earlier technological breakthroughs.

In doing so, we realize that each new technological advance in communications over the past 200 years―the telegraph, telephone, radio, motion pictures, television, and most recently the Internet―was met at the beginning with concerns about its potential to weaken community ties.

To begin with, the telegraph had a profound effect on life in the 19th century. Thanks to Samuel Morse’s telegraph, a message from London to New York could be sent and received in just minutes, and people could learn of events in distant parts of the world within hours or days instead of weeks or months.

The connection of Europe and America, in 1858, through the transatlantic cable was hailed as "the event of the century" and was met with incredible fanfare. Books proclaimed that soon the entire globe would be wired together and that this would create world peace. According to one newspaper editorial, "It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for the exchange of thought between all the nations of the Earth".

On the other hand, governments feared the potential of such immediate communication between individual citizens. Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, for example, banned the telegraph as an “instrument of subversion”. Similar raptures and fears have often been expressed, in our time, about the Internet as well.

Later, the telephone, invented accidentally by Alexander Graham Bell in the 1880s while working on a multichannel telegraph, transformed the telegraph into a point-to-point communication device anyone could use, not only a handful of trained operators working in code.

The effect was to increase regular contact between family, friends, and business associates, especially those who lived far away to be visited easily in person, and this had the overall effect of strengthening local ties. Nevertheless, concerns continued to be raised that the telephone would harm the family, hurt relationships, and isolate people. Magazines of the time featured articles such as “Does the telephone break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?”

The radio, on the other hand, freed communication from the restriction of hard-wired connections, and was especially valuable where wires could not go, such as for ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship communication.

However, its broadcast capability of reaching many people at once was a frightening prospect for governments of the time. When Marconi got off the ship in England to demonstrate his new invention to the British, customs officials smashed his prototype radio as soon as he crossed the border, “fearing that it would inspire violence and revolution”.

Eventually, however, radio brought the world into everyone's living room and so eliminated distance as a factor in news dissemination like never before. Indeed, it did soon prove to be a powerful propaganda tool for dictators and democratically elected leaders alike.

The television had the greatest actual, as opposed to feared, impact on community life, because individuals and families could stay at home for their evening entertainment instead of going to the theater or social club.

Sociologist Robert Putnam documented the dramatic decrease in community involvement since the introduction of television in the 1950s. This negative effect of television has been the basis for contemporary worries that Internet use might displace time formerly spent with family and friends.

The Internet combines, for the first time in history, many of these breakthrough features in a single communication medium. Like the telegraph and telephone, it can be used for person-to-person communication; like radio and television, it can operate as a mass medium; moreover, it can serve as a fabulous global library as well.

The variety of functions that the Internet can serve for the individual user makes it “unprecedentedly malleable” to the user’s current needs and purposes. However, the Internet has other critical differences from previously available communication media and settings; two of these differences have been the focus of most psychological and human-computer interaction research on the Internet.

First, it is possible to be relatively anonymous on the Internet, especially when participating in chat rooms or newsgroups. This turns out to have important consequences for relationship development and group participation.

Second, Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) is not conducted face-to-face but in the absence of nonverbal features of communication such as tone of voice, facial expressions, and influential interpersonal features such as physical attractiveness, skin color, gender, and so on. The absence of these features affects the process and outcome of social interactions.

The Internet does not make its users depressed or lonely, and it does not seem to be a threat to community life; quite the opposite, in fact. If anything, the Internet, mainly through e-mail, has facilitated communication and thus close ties between family and friends, especially those too far away to visit in person on a regular basis.

The Internet can be fertile territory for the information of new relationships as well, especially those based on shared values and interests, as opposed to attractiveness and physical appearance as is the norm in the off-line world.

With high-speed computing and encryption technology, the Internet already plays a significant role in crime and terrorism by enabling private communication across any distance without being detected. A step in this direction called for the technology to monitor the content of Internet traffic to be built into the Internet's very infrastructure.

In conclusion, people are not passively affected by technology, but actively shape its use and influence. The Internet has unique, even transformational qualities as a communication channel, including relative anonymity and the ability to easily link with others who have similar interests, values, and beliefs. Research has found that the relative anonymity aspect encourages self-expression, and the relative absence of physical and nonverbal interaction cues facilitates the information of relationships on deeper bases.

At the same time, however, these “limited bandwidth” features of Internet communication also tend to leave a lot unsaid and unspecified, and open to inference and interpretation. Not surprisingly, then, one's own desires and goals regarding the people with whom one interacts have been found to make a dramatic difference in the assumptions and attributions one makes within that informational void.


*This article was published in SCIplanet magazine, Sprint 2013 issue.

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