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Communication and Culture

An Analysis of the Dangerous Effects of New Communication Technology on Society

Technology is making communication easier in today's world, but often at the expense of personal contact as many people choose to socialize in front of a computer screen. What dangers are there for a society which depends on computer screens rather than face-to-face contact for its main means of communication? This paper will analyze the effects of today's communication technology (social media, chat rooms, networking) on society and culture.

Michel Metz (1995) argues "that cultures are both possible and prevalent among communities connected only by computer as the preferred mode of communication" (p. 1). But Metz is writing perhaps too soon. The explosion of social media in the 21st century has essentially redefined the way we communicate and form relationships -- which no longer require face-to-face encounters; they can exist globally, with face-to-face simulation offered via Skype or cellular android devices or iPhones. Nonetheless, this virtual world (albeit with its own culture and customs) does carry with it a certain departure from reality: as Cheryl Stafford (1995) states -- in the same year Metz makes his argument, "Even now, it is difficult to look back and decide what was real and what was falsely facilitated by the Internet."

Tara Lindros and Cate Zolkos (2006) offer a study that attempts to balance the two opposing viewpoints concerning the positive and negative consequences of new computer technology on society: "The Internet has potential for encouraging democracy and civic participation; however, it may also cause people to disengage from real life. There is also a growing concern that in roughly five to ten percent of users, Internet use results in addictive behavior and facilitates virtual relationships that contribute to the demise of authentic interpersonal relationships." These effects are not only being monitored in the West -- they are also being noted in other cultures as well: for example, in the Middle East, one of the primary causes of divorce in Arab marriages is addiction to Internet pornography by males and female participation in online chat rooms (Causes of Divorce in Saudi Arabia 2009). What these findings indicate is a universal departure from real-world relationships for the quick-fix, one-click relationships proffered by the virtual world.

Michael J. Bugeja (2005) makes the claim that media technology is doing more than simply drawing people away from reality: it is splitting the consciousness. Split-mind is the definition of schizophrenia, and if any disease characterizes modern society better than schizoid, it remains to be determined. Composer Charles Ives conducted some of the first musical representations of modern schizophrenia with his discordant harmonies, or "schizoid music" as David Allen White (2000) calls it. Ives was an early 20th century composer and insurance salesman who already had a grasp on the effects of what we today would call basic technology. A lot has changed since then, and if anything can be certain it is that social media has "skewed perception" of worldviews (Bugeja 2005, p. 87): "Too many of us have become addicted to media and technology, wasting precious years in lonely but wired rooms or in oblivious virtual environments. That has a domino effect on our values and awareness without which there can be no empowerment" (Bugeja 2005, p. 114). Elsewhere, Bugeja notes that "the medium (has become) the moral…Patrons (pay) more attention to the 'ringing in their ears' than the people 'under their noses,' (causing one to feel) displaced and affronted by the split consciousness" (p. 138). The observation, of course, refers to the modern cellular devices that allow one to conduct business, communicate, or entertain oneself at a complete remove from surroundings -- essentially inhabiting space in the real-world, but living and operating completely in the virtual. As Lindros and Zolkos state, "People are living virtual lives, which creates a distorted perception of values…and are neglecting the real communities around them."

Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill (2000) provide data analysis of young people who spend more time in front of computer screens than outdoors or in real-life face-to-face communication relationships. One of their findings is that because of so much time spent on the computer, "a substantial majority (66%) of children and young people aged 9-17 think there is not enough for them to do in the area where they live" (p. 3). Nonetheless -- and most interestingly -- Livingstone and Bovill assert that young people only rely upon computers and social media as a second-best alternative to being in the real world; that is to say, young people would actually prefer to be having face-to-face communication relationships: "While media are inextricably part of children and young people's lives, they generally prefer to be outdoors in the company of friends rather than to gaze at a screen, unless they are tired or want to fill a gap between activities" (p. 5). What Livingstone and Bovill argue is that computer-based reality cannot replace the meaning and fulfillment that actual reality serves. One indication that this argument is substantial is the fact that many online relationships lead to actual face-to-face meetings. If the virtual world were sufficient, such meetings would not be necessary. The danger that virtual worlds such as Second Life and online gaming communities pose is that they serve as a replacement for actual life.

However, this danger is offset by what some researchers call the positive side of computer-based interaction. Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff (1993) argue that technological advances in business and social media are revolutionizing the way we interact with one another -- and that one of the biggest obstacles that new communication mediums face is the increased possibility of minority views and opinions to reach a larger audience. Essentially, the widespread use of social media allows unpopular voices to rise in popularity: "Many of the strong inhibitors to the spread of technology are the considerations people do not wish to express. They have to do with potential changes to power and authority at all levels of an organization or a society" (Hiltz & Turoff 1993, p. xxix). These potential changes, however, are of course theoretical. What remains to be seen is the transition from that which is asserted in virtual reality to that which is practiced or made manifest in actual reality.

Actual reality presents a number of challenges to interpersonal communication that computer-based communication simply cannot achieve. The subtleties that can make or break real-world relationships are an art: they affect the way we interact just as much, if not more, than mere ideas. Again, Cheryl Stafford provides us with the key to understanding the way in which face-to-face interaction actually differs from computer-based interaction: "In face-to-face exchanges, both verbal and non-verbal channels are employed. One study found that 93% of social meanings conveyed in face-to-face communication were non-verbal; whereas in computer-mediated conversations there is no non-verbal channel. Hence users must translate these so-called social meanings into a verbal mode that can be expressed over the keyboard."

Non-verbal communication is not the only difference, however. Stafford illustrates the degree of subtlety that can affect face-to-face communication by pointing to the significance of vocalization: tone, inflection, pitch, voice level, sharpness -- each of these are qualities that can alter the way we perceive and/or understand. None of them can be simulated in computer-based interaction via chat rooms. Skype or video-calling channels may allow some of these qualities to be used. But there is also the element of body language that says so much: even in video-calling body language can be difficult to decipher.

Still, the opportunity to present one facet or one side of oneself on the Internet appeals to many. Hugh Miller and Jill Arnold (2003) report that "the World Wide Web gives anyone with a computer and an Internet account the opportunity of publishing whatever she or he wishes to an enormous public around the world" (p. 74). The disclosure implicit in face-to-face communication now is limited to what the online user wishes to express: information can be disseminated but in a way that keeps exposure to a minimum, thus divorcing reality from factuality. Facts may be accumulated from online sources, but the collection of empirical data does not constitute knowledge or wisdom (Weaver 1984, p. 14). The Internet may be merely facilitating a process of learning that does not require the use of the intellect -- meaning, rather than having to employ reason and elements of common sense, the online community participates in a virtual world where reality is what users choose to make it. Objectivity is replaced by subjectivity. When ideas formed subjectively are thus confronted by an objective reality, the consequences may be a complete shutdown. Just as a computer can crash, so too can social relationships that fail to adjust to real-world settings.

Such is the thesis of Bugeja's Interpersonal Divide, at least. Lindros and Zolkos' review of the researcher's analysis identifies 6 major dangers that face a society that relies heavily upon new communication technology rather than face-to-face communication. 1)…[continue]

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