Two recent major technological advancements have impacted the way people communicate: the “Living Web” (McNeill, 2013, p. 11) and mobile broadband Internet. The nature of Internet connectivity and the ability to have always on, always present devices have shifted the process and experience of interpersonal communication. For this paper, I will review how the nature of these technological advancements has impacted communication for those with an online presence, then explore the benefits and drawbacks. While I believe that these advancements have the potential to greatly improve interpersonal communication and human connection, I believe that we must proceed cautiously as we navigate this time of transition.
Historically, technological advancements have impacted human communication and have stirred the concerns of societies and cultures as to their potential negative impact. The rise of “machine-assisted-communication” (McNeill, 2013, p. 12) is no different. The advent of the printing press, radio, motion pictures, and television, each brought fear and trepidation to Western culture that values and morals would decline as a result (Vuong, Smith, Rusher, & Watkins, 2014). While society did not collapse with these technologies, the ways in which people with access to these technologies communicated did change. Societies moved from a one-to-one, face-to-face model, to a “few-to-many model” (McNeill, 2013, p. 12). While interpersonal communication remained primarily one-to-one, the addition of mass publication/communication models allowed organizations and entities with the necessary financial means to “push” information to the masses (p. 12). However, the recent addition of computer-mediated communication to the machine-assisted model has radically changed this few-to-many, unidirectional model to a multidirectional, “pull” model allowing anyone to be a publisher of information.
This multidirectional pull model did more than change the flow of information to mass audiences. Not only did this shift allow anyone to push information out to the masses, the technologies of personal computers and mobile devices resulted in a change in “the various geographical, temporal, and spatial borders” (McNeill, 2013, p. 13) that had previously bound communication. While a telephone call (via land line) may have broken geographic borders, it could not break temporal borders—both parties had to be on the line at the same time. However, the technological advancements of voice mail, email, chat, and texting all a shift away from “real-time and temporal notions” (p. 12) as two-way communication can be an asynchronous event. Additionally, no longer must audiences wait for a push of communication; Internet technologies allowed audiences to select and filter the information they want to receive and when (and how) they receive it.
This shift in the nature of the Internet, from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, the “Living Web,” fostered this move to the pull model. Deleuze and Guattari (as cited in McNeill, 2013) propose a rhizomatic model to describe the effect of Web 2.0 technologies. The term rhizome comes from nature; “rhizomes connect other plants in a living network—feeding each other nutrients and producing additional roots—for survival” (p. 17). When applied to the Internet, we see the connections of a “living network” (p. 17), where parts interact without formal structure and traditional hierarchy. Users are able to enter and exit the network through various entry points, moving around “through links and traced projections” (p. 19). As parts of the network are cut-off or removed (ruptured), new pieces organically develop. Thus, even as platforms change, entire networks can shift, re-form, and adapt. Online communication has become a fluid, organic experience.
The nature of the machines themselves in machine-assisted communication has also impacted the way we communicate. The development of the “4th screen” (McNeill, 2013, p. 13), the mobile device, has made online communication intimate and personal. As of 2013, 58% of Americans owned a smartphone (Vuong et al, 2014). This trend is developing globally as international telecommunications companies are bypassing land-line broadband infrastructure and going straight to mobile in developing lands (GSMA, 2014). The size and ease of use of mobile technology make these devices seem an extension of the person (Vuong et al, 2014). Combine the living network of Web 2.0 with the personal proximity and intimacy of the mobile device, and online communication becomes an “always on” experience that becomes an extension of the daily life of the individual user.
This sense of personal online network creates both benefits and drawbacks. From the positive perspective, individuals are no longer bound by time and space to maintain relationships. People can live, work, and love on a global scale and manage it all in the palm of their hands. With a lowered barrier to entry as an online publisher, individuals can build communities that are either supported or exist entirely online (McNeill, 2013). Further, individuals can chose to enter and exit communities at will, making community membership and participation a choice, not an accident of birth or location. Access to a broad range of networks and information allows individuals to have direct communication with experts that they may not have access to locally, expanding educational and employment opportunities beyond geographic boundaries.
However, all of these ongoing connections and the never-ceasing flow of information can be problematic. Being constantly connected can become an obligation rather than a convenience. This is particularly true in the world of work, as employers expect employees to check email and take phone calls after work hours. The demands of “digital multitasking” (McNeill, 2013, p. 15) are driving people to distraction and perhaps even making people less intelligent, making users “unable to form complex thoughts or to think through the information we are subjected to through texting, messaging, and email” (p. 15). The demand of the device can cause individuals to miss out on face-to-face interactions happening directly in front of them as their attention is focused on the screen rather than other people around them (Vuong et al., 2014) giving people the sense that they are missing out on “true interpersonal exchanges” (McNeill, 2013, p. 12). There are now official psychiatric disorders associated with Internet use (Gaming Addiction) (Vuong et al., 2014), and it is quite common these days for people to speak about the need to take a “digital cleanse” (Vuong et al, 2014) or in some way or another untether from their digital connections. Many experts express concern about the impact on children to early exposure to digital devices, worrying that we are raising a generation of children that will not develop in-person social skills.
From my perspective, the impact of technological advancements on communication is a both/and scenario. These advancements both expand and contract connections. These advancements both make us smarter and dumber. These connections both facilitate closer interpersonal relationships and create interruptions in face-to-face communication. We are in a period of transition with new technologies, and as these technologies develop so will the human capacity to use these tools as just that, as tools for communication, to create and support the kinds of communication we as users desire. Global mobile technologies have the potential to bring the Internet to regions of the world that lag far behind the West in access to web technologies. The potential for individuals on a global scale to have access to information, education, and other people presents limitless opportunities for the benefit of the human condition. However, like any new technology, there will be pendulum swings of overuse, misuse, and general malaise over the technology. I sincerely believe, however, we will pass through this time of transition to a time when digital access and digital literacy enter the realm of global human rights, all for the betterment of humankind.
GSMA. (2014). Accelerating the rise of the female digital economy: Event guide. Atlanta, GA: Author.
McNeill, S. (2013). Concepts in new media: Online communication, culture, and community. Boston, MA: Pearson Learning Solutions.
Vuong, A., Smith, S., Rusher, R., & Watkins, C. (2014, April 23). What’s new in high tech? [Video file]. Retrieved from http://video.pbs.org/video/2365229651/