As users we will come to rely on our handset as a single device to manage not just communications but much of our lives. It will truly become a “remote control for life,” with massively enhanced capabilities, advanced methods of user interaction and in-built tools . . . The substantial change that end users are going to witness has become possible more because the underlying infrastructure has become stable than because it is rapidly evolving. (Webb 2007, 35)
This quotation offers a technologist’s view of the potential of technological advance for new modes of communicative interaction based, in this instance, on innovations in handset technology. In this view, by the early part of the twenty-first century technological innovation in the fields of engineering concerned with the underlying communication infrastructure had stabilized, offering a foundation for current and yet-to-be-imagined applications (Gilder 2000). This observation echoes many of the technologically deterministic views that are frequently criticized in the humanities and social science literature that considers the relationship between technology and communication.
Dimensions in the Relationship Between Technology and Communication
In the humanities and the social sciences it is generally understood that research and theory building in this area must be historically situated. Thus Smythe argued, for example, that technology and its relationship to communication are dynamically interrelated and best understood as having a number of constituents:
one part is bureaucracy (in both the private and public sector) . . . The second part is science which is being taken over increasingly by the third part, capital. The fourth part is tools and machines created by engineers. The fifth part is ideology which provides the raw materials with which the sixth part, propaganda, seeks to mould public opinion to accept the myth. (Smythe 1984, 2)
This definition embraces not only the technical features, but also the human and social dimensions of the relationship between technology and communication. The technologies of human communication are those that enable the establishment of communicative relationships virtually by creating a sense of co-presence or when participants in such a relationship are physically present. Analytically, the implications of the relationship between technology and communication for human development might begin at any point in human history, with, for example, the Phoenicians and their development of an alphabet, with the Sumerians and their development of cuneiform writing, or, indeed, with the Egyptians and their development of hieroglyphic writing – all between 3500 and 2900 bce. Historically, many types of information and communication technologies (ICT) have been used to mediate human communication (Innis 1951). The first wooden printing press was invented in China in 305 ce, with newspapers appearing in Europe in 1450. The first telegraph line was invented in 1793 by Claude Chappe, while 1876 saw the patenting of an office copying machine by Thomas Edison and the electric telephone by Alexander Graham Bell. Marconi transmitted the first radio signals across the Atlantic Ocean in 1902. The Internet (ARPANET) started in 1969, IBM’s personal computer was first sold in 1981, and the world wide web became available in 1994 (see http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/bl_history_of_ communication.htm).
In the media and communication field there are many perspectives upon which one can draw to highlight the complex historical and current relationships between technology and communication. For instance, the way politics influences the relationship between technology and communication may provide the focus for research. Sussman’s (1998) Communication, technology, and politics in the information age examined the intersections between politics, society, and technology. Alternatively, a sociological approach may encourage a focus on cultural specificities and the ways new technologies become embedded in society. Marvin’s study When old technologies were new notes that “a recurring theme in the study of literacies past and present is how skill and technique for performing particular literate practices are transferred from communities of adepts to less skilled communities. What is not so easily transferred is the specific cultural setting” (1988, 14).
Another approach that is common in the literature on the relationship between technology and communication is that of the futurologist. In this case emphasis is often given to forecasts about the timing of inventions entering the consumer market. Innovations in ICTs have been forecast over periods as long as 60 years such that, for example, Neild and Pearson (2005) speculate that by the 2030s, learning will be superseded by transparent interfaces to a smart computer, by the 2020s network-based telepathy will be in use, and by 2017 the first bacterial computer will be available. No single disciplinary approach encompasses all the facets of the complex relationships between technology and communication.
In this overview entry, emphasis is given to ICTs that incorporate microelectronics or digital technologies, and an effort is made to embrace a broad spectrum of theoretical perspectives that bear on the relationship between technology and communication.
Technology and Communication: Analytical Frameworks
Interest in the emergence of the information society (Machlup 1962; Porat 1977), in which there is an increasingly intensive relationship between ICTs and the potential for new modes of communication, has grown since initial efforts to document a shift in the wealthy economies from their reliance on manufacturing to services. The spread of the Internet and access to the world wide web, together with the convergence of communication services around digital platforms since the mid-1990s, has intensified that interest. For some, it is an article of faith that ICTs hold the solutions to economic, political, and cultural problems. These people argue that if ICTs make information easily accessible from multiple sources and on multiple platforms, then the information needs of all segments of the population worldwide potentially can be met. Others have argued that the many forms of digital divides make it unlikely that these technologies will alleviate deeply rooted social and economic problems (Golding 2000).
In fact, the relationships between technology and communication (including changes in the production and consumption of ICTs) are embedded in institutionalized power relations. This has implications for the way they become implicated in the workplace and in the everyday lives of their users. These power relations are rarely symmetrical or stable, and it is therefore important to examine the dynamics of change empirically to understand their implications for the changing ways in which communicative relationships are mediated by technology (Mansell & Silverstone 1996). Broadly, there are two main conceptual frameworks that inform research in this area: the exogenous and the endogenous frameworks.
An Exogenous Framework
The question as to whether technological innovation in the ICT area is exogenous or endogenous to a social system is central in differentiating between alternative assessments of its implications. One school of thought treats ICTs as if they are objects isolated from the social, political, and economic environment in which they are produced and consumed (Bell 1973; Drucker 1961). The way in which ICTs come to be integrated within societies is assessed within this framework in terms of whether a particular technology is a progressive, regressive, or neutral force. Sometimes there is an attempt to find causal relationships between the appearance of new ICTs, for example, such as satellite technology, and social change (de Sola Pool 1983).
This approach tends to isolate technology from its socio-economic context. Thus, if a technology such as a computerized database is found to have negative effects, the problem can be attributed to the software design. The result is a mythical understanding of technology, which is taken for the purposes of analysis to exist in an external relation to society. This view is sometimes also found in literature informed by legal perspectives (Barrow & Manelli 1969).
It is assumed within this framework that social relations leading to the production and distribution of ICTs act on society in rational or logical ways. Is it the human being or “technology” that directs social change? As ICTs pervade ever more aspects of human endeavor, it is easy to claim that it is technology and not the human being that is “out of control” (Beniger 1989). If it is technology that is the determining factor in social organization, then what is left for the researcher is an observer role. For example, Ellul argues that “our civilization is constructed by technique, for technique and is exclusively technique” (Ellul 1964, 128). Similarly, Bell, who coined the term “information society,” argued that “technology is the instrumental mode of rational action . . . Technology has created a new definition of rationality, a new mode of thought” (1979, 15). Here, the emphasis is on the efficiency and rationality of technology, and social, cultural, political, and economic factors are relegated to secondary positions.
In addition, from this perspective, it may also be assumed that technology has universally similar effects regardless of where it is implemented; that technology is self-generating and goal-oriented (Winner 1977). The goals of efficiency and productivity are seen as being embedded in an autonomous technological system where there is little room for human decision-making or agency. Research tends to focus on the activities of technicians, engineers, and scientists to assess how ICTs or new information (or knowledge) are generated, rather than on the interests (economic, political, social, and cultural) that are at stake. In fact, it is institutions, individuals, and groups that are influential in the development of the ICTs.
This exogenous framework tends to be used to attribute responsibility for positive or negative economic, cultural, and other effects to each successive wave of ICTs. Researchers become preoccupied with facilitating the promotion and expansion of technology, without critically assessing the way ICTs become woven into the fabric of life – in terms of morality, the economy, culture, or the political. As Williams (1977, 80–81) argued, abstract analytical categories of idealist thought, “almost unnoticed, become substantive descriptions, which then take habitual priority over the whole social process to which, as analytical categories, they were attempting to speak.”
The notion of exogenous or autonomous technology appears throughout the literature on ICTs. It offers the possibility of avoiding critical assessment of the human factors that give rise to opportunities and the disadvantages associated with each new generation of technology. In contrast to Shallis’s (1984) deterministic account of the microelectronics revolution in The silicon idol, Braverman’s comment on technological change is pertinent to the investigation of innovations in ICTs and the way they mediate communicative relationships: “The key innovation is not to be found in chemistry, electronics, automatic machinery . . . or any of the products of these science technologies, but rather in the transformation of science itself into capital” (Braverman 1974, 166).
An Endogenous Framework
When the endogenous characteristics of technology and communication relationships are considered, it is feasible to investigate the specific, material conditions under which technology is produced and consumed within society and to focus on the everyday aspects of its organization. Technology, in this framework, is regarded as part of the social fabric in which actors sanction certain forms of change and not others. Common to the work of those contributing to this framework is an emphasis on the structural factors, external and internal to a country or region, that result in unequal distributions of power. Power is usually located in the interwoven alignment of state (administrative and military), private capital, and civil society interests. In this view, the emphasis is often on the way technology mediates human relationships and on the set of limiting constraints that distort benefits that might otherwise accrue to those who are not at the center of economic and political power (Silverstone 2006). Mattelart (1979, 17), in his analysis of the media, for example, calls for an examination of the process of transnationalization that “can only be understood in a complex correlation of national and international or even local and regional forces, crisscrossed by the existence of resistance, adaptation, recuperation, offensives, and mimicry.”
An endogenous framework is also present, for example, in Smythe’s work on the concept of “cultural screens.” Cultural screens were defined as those “aspects of a national culture or ideological system which serve to protect its cultural realism against disruptive intrusion” (Smythe 1981, 232). This idea drew researchers’ attention to questions about whether it is feasible, given power relations at all levels, to create a space for distinctive cultural development in a technologically mediated world.
Researchers whose work embraces an endogenous framework have emphasized historical and recurrent patterns of ICTs. With respect to changes in ICTs and the organization of media and communication markets, Marvin (1980, 18), for example, has emphasized the idea that “the prediction that all development in communications technology will only lead to greater concentrations of media ownership and less and less information diversity is as classic as the alternative prediction that new communications technologies will inaugurate an era of perfect democracy and well-being.” With respect to the implications of advanced digital technologies, an analysis of power relations in the wider economy has been shown to be important for understanding whether and how changes in technology are accompanied by particular changes in the way industrial markets are organized (Mansell & Steinmueller 2000).
With the appearance of new social movements mobilized by civil society actors, the endogenous framework accommodates analysis of the opportunities and constraints offered by innovative technologies. Thus, rather than assume that open source software and networks, for example, automatically give rise to newly empowered virtual communities, researchers critically examine how the rise of networks is implicated in changing power relationships (Kubicek & Wagner 2002). In this framework it is feasible to allow for the fact that the embedding of technology within communicative relationships may be either empowering or disempowering and, depending on the level of analysis, to examine whether they might be both simultaneously. Remaining open to this possibility brings the Janus-faced character of technologically mediated communication relationships to the fore.
Theorizing Technology and Communication
The specific relationships between technology and communication can be marked at any time in human history. In this entry the focus is mainly on the period from the 1970s to the present, when the term “information society” gained currency across the disciplines of the social sciences and the humanities (Webster 2006). Terminology varies, with some scholars insisting on the “information society” label, while others stress diversity, coining the term “information societies.” Still others prefer the term “knowledge society” or “knowledge societies,” emphasizing the potential of digital technologies to enhance learning and economic development. The literature reflects ongoing disputes about whether the rapid spread of digital technologies constitutes a shift to a new mode of organization of society. Some focus on the growing quantity of information and its implications for the economy, while others give greater emphasis to the ways that these technologies mediate the construction of symbolic meaning, identity, and cultural development. Terms like “network society” (Castells 1996–1998) and “information society” serve as focal points for discussion of the changes associated with intensely technologically mediated societies.
A key concern is the political implications of the information society for democracy. In this area research is polarized between those who regard developments in ICTs and the media as having the potential to strengthen democracy and those who regard these developments as disruptive of democratic practice. There have been debates about the relationship between communication technology and democracy since the time of the printing press, but the spread of digital technologies and the Internet has raised new questions about alternative models of democratic participation (Cammaerts in press), about the role of the media in formal electoral processes (Scammell 1995), and about whether a “right to communicate” should be enshrined in international law (McIver et al. 2003).
The implications of investing in the production and consumption of ICTs are examined by those working in both the neo-classical and institutional economics traditions. Economic analysis tends to focus on the diffusion of ICTs, that is, on the pathways for the take-up of new technologies and their impacts on firms, specific industries, and the economy as a whole (Greenan et al. 2002). ICTs are classed by economists as general purpose technologies (GPTs), suggesting that as they become central to the ICT-using sectors of the economy, they are associated with major transformations – paradigmatic shifts – that are reflected in productivity gains across the economy (Freeman 2007). The implications of technological convergence for industrial dynamics and the embedding of digital technologies in local economies, as well as for the increasing contribution of knowledge-based services to economic growth (Boden & Miles 2000), are key areas of research in the field of the economics of innovation and technical change.
Economists sometimes acknowledge that the implications of advances in ICTs cannot be understood fully without recourse to insights from other disciplinary perspectives. Within sociology, two approaches have helped to reveal factors influencing the production and consumption of communication technologies: the social construction of technology and the domestication of technologies. The former understands that artifacts result from processes in which outcomes are not prefigured (Bijker et al. 1987), and provides a basis for a critique of technological determinism that is often present in economics approaches. The domestication of technology approach examines the appropriation of older and newer media and ICTs in everyday life, focusing on processes of commodification, imagination, appropriation, objectification, incorporation, and conversion (Silverstone & Hirsch 1992).
In examinations of the relationships between technology, communication, and society, when the diffusion of ICTs is uneven or where the distribution of the gains as a result of investing in them is uneven, this is often referred to as a digital divide. This concept is strongly criticized in some branches of the literature for its oversimplification of the factors that give rise to inequality. Research designed to understand the key determinants of these divides takes the form of surveys or case studies focusing on skills and cultural difference and various forms of exclusion and their consequences. Research on information literacy or media literacy is concerned with the skills sets needed to interact effectively with ICTs and with digital information, with an important emphasis on critical literacy.
Although standards for literacy are being devised in some countries, agreement has yet to be reached. This has major consequences for economic competitiveness and for fostering inclusive forms of democracy (Livingstone 2004). Research in this area also is concerned with weaknesses in the capacity to process or understand information, and there is a risk that “information overload” may occur. This term has its roots in the literature on computer-mediated communication (CMC), and it is a problem that indicates the need for high levels of literacy in information management and for the capacity to distinguish relevant and reliable information.
Technology, Communication, and Organization
Although there is no stable definition, the term “virtual community” generally applies to online interactions that give rise to new forms of relationships and new organizational forms. These communities also offer new platforms for research that seek to map the architecture of networks and to understand new forms of social relations or “communities of practice.” The fields of human–computer interaction (HCI) and personal communication by CMC touch on these issues. HCI is the study of how people interact with computational devices and the design implications of digital media, whereas studies of personal communication via CMC address the same technologies, but generally focus on the perceived positive and negative features of this mode of communication. This is an area particularly in need of empirical study, since the evidence is mixed, as is the case for research on online media. Here the aims are to examine the directionality of communication, synchronicity, content modularity, interactivity, personalization, and meaning construction, with issues around user-generated content or Web 2.0 applications providing a focal point for research.
New digital means of interacting online have given rise to interest in the implications of the Internet for language development, for the growth of personal online publishing, and for the development of open access journals. In the case of language, research is particularly interested in text-based, interactive modes of communication and may focus on “standard” or “netspeak” languages. Empirically it makes use of large datasets that are contextually classified and archived data. In the case of personal publishing, attempts are made to understand the motivations of publishers and the sustainability of these online initiatives. Open access publishing refers to the practice whereby the owners of a journal grant the right of free access to digital content and to new models suggested by free or open source software development.
These developments have not only supported online networking activities for individuals, they also have given rise to the “networked organization”, characterized by reciprocal and lateral communication ties. Such organizational forms enable virtual teamworking and, increasingly, outsourcing. They also raise issues about the ownership of the creative capabilities that firms need in order to compete effectively. New business organizations and models are also at the core of the development of electronic commerce, the term used to describe Internet-based ways of engaging in economic exchange. Research in this area focuses on pricing strategies, marketing and strategic behavior, consumer behavior, privacy, and trust. In the case of e-government services, research tends to focus on models, public confidence in services, and whether new forms of interaction are consistent with democratic practice, sometimes described as “digital-era” governance (Dunleavy et al. 2006).
Changes in the economic and political spheres corresponding to changes in the relationship between technology and communication have been accompanied by cultural developments associated with opportunities for the development of sexual relationships and pornography online. “Cybersex” appears to hold the promise of sensitization in a virtual reality where the body is invisible. In addition, there are studies of the role of technology in mediating consumer fashion, and developments in this area have implications for the structure and organization of markets for consumer goods such as the iPod or the mobile phone as well as for the advertising industry.
Technology, Communication, and Governance
Disruptive technological innovations are often tightly coupled with debates about the positive or negative implications for the global order. The relationship between technology and globalization is immensely complex, with research on ICTs emphasizing links between local and distant places and the sometimes unifying, and at other times fragmenting, consequences. Differences in views about the relationship between technology and communication in this context give rise to discussions about hybridity and the asymmetric, unpredictable links in the global– local system. Within the globalization debate, the governance of ICTs is an issue that influences how these technologies become embedded in society. In analyzing the relationships between technologies and communication, many authors, for example, are concerned with the relationship between globalization, the nation-state, and the deterritorialization of media.
The different framings of the relationship between globalization and communication technology find their echoes in research on the nature of the governance regimes that are required on a global basis to enable the production and consumption of ICTs and media content locally and globally. For production and consumption to be feasible on a global basis, governance regimes for technology standardization are essential, especially since compatibility standards are needed when interactivity is required (David 1985). The spread of the Internet has made it necessary to find innovative ways of governing the technical means by which computers are able to “find” each other. The governance of Internet domain names offers an illustration of the way these complex issues are played out on a global scale. The phrase “code as law” is associated with Lessig’s (2006) work, which argues that the Internet is “regulated” by the values embedded in the software code (Murray & Scott 2002).
Governance issues arise with respect to specific online behaviors as well. For example, when users access computerized systems, there are many questions about whether there should be sanctions for “bad” behavior. Research on “hacktivism” examines this question, where hacking refers to techniques combined with political strategies. From a governance perspective, whether hacktivism is seen as legal or illegal is a question of the values in a given context (Jordan & Taylor 2004). When it comes to the relationships between crime, terrorism, and communication technology, the issues and the evidence base are strongly contested. In both cases, there are attempts to control crime and terrorism using law enforcement and criminal justice as well as to “design out” crime through technical measures. The evidence base for claims about the potential for “cyberterrorism” is especially weak (Schmid 2004).
Innovation, Technology, and Research
New ICTs raise many issues with respect to ethical conduct within the humanities and the social sciences. Guidelines with respect to Internet-related research have been developed nationally and by organizations such as the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR). Different methods raise concerns about the risks involved to researchers and to those they study. There are also conflicting views of ethical conduct, for example, with respect to online pornography, suicide pacts, or hate speech.
Analysis of the historical online record or memory requires an archive of the contents of the world wide web. Although web-harvesting programs have been available since 1995, there are many outstanding questions in this area, such as the representativeness of the results of web crawling and issues of standards, privacy, copyright, and ethical conduct. The results generated by Internet ratings systems also generate controversy, although the demographic and behavioral data are used by the advertising industry and by the research community. The profiles of users and of digital information can also be discerned through log-file analysis. There has been little analysis in the social sciences of the implications of these systems for markets or for public policy. Another online research tool is Link Analysis, or the study of hyperlinks between and within websites, giving rise to concerns about the sampling of links and the selection of content.
In the social sciences and humanities the technological foundations of mediated communication are sometimes neglected, but by the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century there was a consensus that research should focus on relationships between online and offline activity (Orgad 2007). In essence, the Internet refers to a technological base and a set of standards upon which software applications rely in order to provide users with communication tools. The Internet is a cluster of technological innovations, infrastructures, applications, and social organizations that would not exist without its underlying communication infrastructure, upon which media and communication services operate. Innovations in ICTs have progressed with improvements stemming both from “technology push” and “demand pull” factors. Their application has been accompanied by debates about technological convergence and about competition between standardized digital platforms.
Although digitization has been found to contribute to the blurring of boundaries between segments of the media and communication industry, this does not always imply media convergence, that is, the convergence of networks or fully integrated and seamless communication between networks, services, and terminals. Since the Internet revolution in the late 1990s the boundaries between these platforms have become blurred, leading to changes in commercial leadership in ICT markets, with many new firms appearing on the scene.
The spread of digital networks, large increases in information-processing power, media convergence, and the growth of Internet-based communication have supported three key developments – search engines; P2P networking; and open source software development – that have called into question the sustainability of traditional business models and the legitimacy of information ownership protected through copyright legislation. The use of wireless communication is also enabling the growth of mobile communication, which, in turn, has substantial implications for the mobility of data, information, and people. Taken together all of these developments set the parameters for what some envisage as an age of ubiquitous computing. This refers to networking and computing technologies that are small, fast, interconnected, and cheap enough to be embedded in the environment and in everyday objects. Ubiquitous computing research – when it is grounded in the humanities and the social sciences – resonates strongly with the literature on cyborgs (a term for a biological, usually human, being enhanced by artificial components), especially with respect to debates about ethics and gendered relationships.
With respect to renewed interest in cyborg developments and related developments in the technological sphere, there is also considerable emphasis in the literature on technology and communication on technology assessment. Some approaches to technology assessment embrace a critical examination of the underlying values and norms that become part of the fabric of everyday life. Constructive technology assessment (CTA), developed largely in Europe, is one line of this work, and is complemented by “early warning” assessments, developed mainly in North America. Technology assessment methodologies seek to evaluate the risks associated with new technologies. In the research literature there is controversy over which approaches work best and about the role of power in influencing whether and how the recommendations of these methodologies filter into policymaking and technology designer practice. Technology assessment methodologies, informed by theories drawn from across the social sciences and humanities, continue to be essential to the ongoing investigation of the historical, present, and future relationships between technology and communication within society.
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