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Communication Technology: The Media as the Message, Essay Example

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Essay

Introduction

History has provided ample evidence that evolutions in communication technology create enormous shifts in cultures and international affairs.  Perhaps most notably, the 15th century rise of the printing press revolutionized Western culture in ways going to the foundations of human civilization.  These changes, moreover, were necessarily exponential; as religious doctrines became widespread, for example, entire governments were restructured.  It is all the more interesting, then, that today’s proliferation of Internet access seems to be generating a more internalized “revolution.”  Modern populations, and internationally, are increasingly equipped with hand-held devices that link them to vast information and communication networks.  At the same time, this expanse of a broad network isolates.  Individuals in public spaces no longer occupy those spaces, in terms of being present and aware, because the focus is on the abstract forum and/or the distant connection.  Modern technology, ironically, is distancing human beings from life, even as it enables virtually unlimited access to other forms of it.

Discussion

Given the relative novelty of widespread Internet access, and the even more recent omnipresence of hand-held technology, research on the social consequences of the practices is both ongoing and as subject to variables as the phenomenon of the access itself.  In simple terms, and even as studies are increasingly conducted to gauge impacts, the “target is moving”; every day, it seems, more people worldwide interact with the Internet from either home or in public arenas, and each shift in usage presents new challenges.   These challenges, moreover, are further complicated by the fact that the usage itself appears to be changing behavior patterns.  In the earlier days of the Internet, viewpoints as to its cultural and social consequences were largely based on historic assessments of how any new medium or communication altered behavior; those who felt that television, for example, would create social barriers in personal communication predicted the same consequence from the Internet, just as those more embracing of technology felt that the Internet would greatly promote diversity and enhance social interactions (Katz, Rice, 2002,  p.  3).  What all such viewpoints presented, in fact, was an unrealistic perception, simply because no one could foresee just how universal the usage would become.  More importantly, it occurred to few that the technology itself would allow communication on a level that would transform the accepted parameters of human social behavior.

It would not be long, however, before this new reality would become evident.  Even by the late 1990s, a wide variety of critics began expressing serious concerns over just how Internet activity was affecting all the accepted modes of social interaction.  Studies and books were released in these early years, citing that degrees of community involvement were on the decline; the Internet in the home, it was increasingly perceived, was eroding any sense of civic participation.  More worrying was evidence that this trend encompassed another, in that social distrust was growing as a consequence of “Internet isolation.”  Actual friendships and relationships were in danger, it was seen, as being displaced by an accommodating medium which allows the user to control all interaction.  Internet connections provide gratification, but not the authenticity of literal, human experience (Katz, Rice, 2002,  p.  9).  Nonetheless, and generating greater concern in years to come, it very much seemed, as it seems today, that the public either favors the gratification or mistakes it for authenticity of interaction.  In this way, it may truly be said that the medium has become the message, as the Internet interaction takes precedence over traditionally held values attached to the subjects within the interaction.

It may be that no stronger evidence of how access to the Internet at all times is displacing senses of identity may be seen than in adolescent usage.  In a recent and comprehensive study, hundreds of European students were assessed as active participants.  In-depth self-reporting was used, and virtually all of the teens, not unexpectedly, engaged in texting, messaging, and other forms of Internet communication frequently.  While the study examined compulsive Internet usage, the results go more to social well-being, and reveal strong correlations between depression and loneliness, and time spent on the Internet.  Perhaps most interestingly, there was a time differential involved; feelings of depression and loneliness became more acute approximately six months after consistently frequent usage was begun (Van Den Eijnden, Meerkerk, Vermulst, Spijkerman, & Engels, 2008,  pp.653-654).  In no uncertain terms, young people set the stage for how all cultures will conduct themselves, and it is disturbing to note that a universal embracing of Internet communication is actually generating symptoms of isolation.  Traditionally, learning the layers and dimensions of interpersonal contact is inherently challenging for adolescents; they are simultaneously developing senses of themselves as they experience those layers.  Growing up with hand-held Internet access, then, there is no space in which these basic processes can occur.  More insidiously, as the teen has little experience of real interaction, it is then easy to mistake the virtual as the real, and be unaware of the many differences between the two.  Lastly, and with both adults and teens, there is the issue of actual “displacement.”  Simply, the individual’s focus is not on their surroundings, so the wealth of social opportunity so long offered by this basic reality is lost.

Conclusion

To ignore the immense advantages of Internet technology is irrational. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that so enormous a change in so basic a human behavior as communication must have extreme repercussions.  Research increasingly supports this:  “The interpersonal component of the public sphere has become increasingly private. Participation in activities that are likely to be socially, culturally, and ideologically cross-cutting…are in decline” (Hampton, Livio, & Goulet, 2011,  p. 1033).  In unprecedented levels of communication, people are bypassing the essential elements of human communication itself, and the medium is becoming the only, real message.  Modern Internet technology, ironically, is distancing human beings from real life and human interaction, even as it enables virtually unlimited access to other forms of it.

References

Hampton, K. N., Livio, O., & Goulet, L. S. (2011).  “The Social Life of Wireless Urban Spaces:

Internet Use, Social Networks, and the Public Realm.” New Media and Society 13 (9), 1031-1049.  Retrieved from http://placeofsocialmedia.com/reading/Hampton.pdf

Katz, J. E., & Rice, R. E.  (2002).  Social Consequences of Internet Use: Access, Involvement, and Interaction.  Cambridge: MIT Press.

Van Den Eijnden, R. J. M. M., Meerkerk, G., Vermulst, A. A., Spijkerman, R., & Engels, C. M. E.  (2008). “Online Communication, Compulsive Internet Use, and Psychosocial Well-     Being Among Adolescents: A Longitudinal Study.” Developmental Psychology 44 (3), 655-665.  Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/dev/44/3/655/

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