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Science, Maths & Technology

Communication in the digital age

Updated Friday 9th October 1998

How will communication change as we move from analogue to digital discourse?

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Technology is moving faster and faster, changing every aspect of our lives – even the way we communicate with each other. From love on-line to the silver surfer, what are the implications of technology and communications?

Are we on the brink of a technological revolution?

Simon Locke says that there is generally a delay of around 50 years between the introduction of a new development and the time it begins to transform society. With the internet, this period is almost up, which suggests we should begin to feel a real impact over the next few years. However, he argues that we live in too fragmented a society for new communications technologies to make as much of an impact as previous innovations like the printing press and the telephone. While some groups will use tools like the Internet to a great extent, others will be happy not to use it at all – the effect will be much more diffuse.

Nigel Appleton agrees – even in an easily defined group, such as older people, he can see the diversity in the use of technology. Some people, perhaps in their fifties and sixties with more leisure interests, a higher degree of education and a comfortable income find new technologies very useful while some older people, perhaps in their eighties and nineties, find new developments less relevant or more difficult to understand. There is a wide range of experience, circumstances and opportunity to use technology.

However, John Monk argues that the changes we are seeing are wider than the direct use of technological advances, such as the internet – these developments also change our language and the way we see the world. Genetics talks about the ‘information’ stored in genes and terms such as the ‘information economy’ are becoming commonplace. Technology will also change the way we think about our current forms of communication, which we think are important and which we think are less so.

Is the Internet undermining our language?

Simon Locke suggests that this is an elitist and conservative view. Throughout history new languages have been taken up in a variety of different ways and have meant different things to different groups.

John Monk says that there are downsides to every form of communication – people will use the medium that is most useful to them. If a medium becomes untrustworthy, trivial and unhelpful people won’t use it.

Is new technology making us more or less social?

Technology can change our social arrangements – television enabled broadcasters to talk to millions of people simultaneously, the web now means that the audience are beginning to talk back more effectively. While some people are better at face to face conversations, others may be better at writing emails and others may prefer to use the ‘phone. New forms of communication may benefit some people, but there will also be people who don’t feel comfortable using them – the social arrangements may shift, but the fact that some people are good communicators and some people are not so good will stay the same.

Nigel Appleton agrees that new technologies simply bring greater opportunities, for example, grandparents spending time surfing the net to help with their grandchildren’s homework. They are using a new way of doing the same tasks.

Is love online a myth?

Relationships founded through the internet often face criticism that they are less valid than those founded face-to-face.

Simon Locke argues that this is based on the false assumption that conversation is a pure medium. Any system of communication is a symbolic method of expressing ourselves, and virtual relationships are no different.

Is the lack of quality control replacing fact with rumour?

John Monk agrees that the web is prone to furthering gossip – while conversations get forgotten, written communications are much less ephemeral and can get passed on, on a worldwide scale.

Simon Locke also suggests that there have always been academic frauds, unsound research and alternative systems of knowledge competing with ‘legitimate’ sources, such as academic institutions. Perhaps we have never paid enough attention to these alternative voices and the internet is enabling them to come through.

Nigel Appleton suggests that we are in danger of feeling that the only worthy communication is serious communication. Often the banal exchanges that can go on in chat rooms are more important to people’s lives – it’s the contact that matters not the content. Nigel cites one example of a person he knows with physical and vocal disabilities who is put to bed by Social Services by 6.30 each evening and then spends the next few hours on-line, communicating with other people through email.

What’s in the future? What will follow the Internet?

Simon Locke suggests that changes in working practices, such as the paperless office and the electronic cottage, have been talked about for 20 or 30 years and are now genuinely beginning to happen. Some groups, such as the financial industries, are only just starting to appreciate the impact these technologies will have on business communications.

However, he says, until now, advocates of technology have tended to emphasise the positive benefits of innovations, such as working from home. It is only now that people are realising there are down sides, such as lack of space and human contact.

John Monk suggests that optical fibres will be part of the next big sea change. Because their capacity is getting larger and we are able to send increasingly large amounts of data, companies are eager to promote and sell this medium and there is a technical drive behind it.

Further reading

Conversational Realities
John Shotter, Sage

Constructing ‘The Beginning’: Discourses of creation science
Simon Locke, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates


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