A Culture of Connectivity: Control and Marginalization

The chapter “The Sad Irons” in Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power illustrates not only the interplay between culture and technology but also the consequences of lacking connection to a technological network (Caro, 1982). Due to geographical isolation, Texas hill country received electricity long after the rest of the nation. The lack of electricity and associated technological innovations resulted in a vastly different regional culture from much of the rest of United States. In addition, the absence of electrical lighting inhibited educational opportunities which further marginalized the region’s inhabitants. We are currently faced with an analogous situation to the development of electrical networks with the proliferation of the internet. Internet technologies not only have the potential to impact our culture and behavior in profound ways but inability to access the internet may serve to marginalize individuals who already live in some ways on the fringes of our society.

Technological determinism is the belief that technology limits and constrains human ability to think and behave in an innovative manner because we are unable to think beyond the logic which created these technologies. However, this position can be seen as an oversimplification of the relationship between culture and technology. Technological developments undoubtedly influence how we think and behave. Carey (1998) states that “when technology functions as a master symbol, it operates not as an external or causal force but as a blueprint: something that makes the phenomena intelligible and through that intelligibility sets the conditions for their secondary reproduction” (120). Therefore, technologies are capable of providing us with frameworks through which we view the world but do not necessarily constrain our behaviors.

Technology has often proven a useful analogy for humans to employ when making sense of the world. However, rather than producing strict limits of logical thought, we adopt these frameworks when useful and discard them when they are not. For example, early models of communication had much in common with telephony. There existed a sender transmitting a message along a channel, that suffered from noise, to a receiver. With the rise of cognitivism in the 1970’s many communication theories, such as the theory of reasoned action, resembled computer programming with concrete variables that described how individuals would receive certain messages. This is not to suggest that technology does not affect our behavior and culture but merely that it does not determine it. It is useful to realize that technology, rather than being something separate from our evolving culture, is embedded within it (Carey, 1998). This false dichotomy between the culture and technology is a relatively recent phenomenon. Furthermore, as neither culture nor technological developments are static, one should expect changes in one to produce a response from the other.

One place that the interaction between culture and technology is especially evident is in the concept of networking. Human beings have always built networks in the sense that we are social creatures that seek to develop connections to those around for both utilitarian and social purposes (Jones, S., Lecture). Therefore, it is unsurprising that in many ways internet usage is inherently social. Online gaming, work, student collaboration, and the internets “killer app,” email, all involve social interaction. Despite the common perception of societal fragmentation as a result of new media and technologies, these technologies can be used to build bonds between us and others. Internet technologies have provided us the opportunity to extend our social networks beyond temporal and geographical barriers. We are no longer constrained to our immediate neighbors or even those who are awake and present. Via asynchronous communication we have the ability to askew presence in favor of convenience and to maintain larger circles of acquaintances than were previously manageable. In short, the attraction of the internet may not lie in its content but rather in the level of social interactivity it provides.

The internet has introduced to us a culture of connectivity. Its proliferation is significant because communication technologies can function as a conduit for culture. For example, the Chinese government is currently concerned with preventing access to many western internet sites for fear that exposure to information about other cultures could foster cultural change (Garfinkel, S.). This example is particularly disturbing because it acknowledges that technology can be used to control a population. Individuals using the internet are constrained in their actions by the limitations of their hardware and the code of the software that they use. As such, this gives creators of these technologies a disturbing amount of control over our lives. Although it may be true that the characteristics of a media and its ultimate use are determined by interaction among the end users, the end users are subject to the technologies made available to them.

The current nature of the internet and digital technologies, however, shows some potential to be resistant to complete control. Open source projects and wikis allow individuals to author content and adapt programming for their needs. On a much more fundamental level, the hypertextuality of the internet circumvents some forms of control. Content is not necessarily viewed in a linear manner but is subject to some user control in the selection of links (Walther, Gay, & Hancock, 2005). This allows individuals to reorder information in innovative and personally relevant ways to meet their needs. As television becomes digital and digital video recorders are introduced into the mainstream, this reordering and creation of content may even circumvent traditional broadcasting network structures with individuals reordering and creating content of their own (Highfield, 2005). However, this is of course contingent on adequate technologies being made available initially.

An additional implication of technology serving as a conduit for culture is that we as a society risk marginalizing those without access to the network. Persons unlikely to have access to the internet are those who are already disadvantaged such as the poor and residents of the inner-city and rural areas. A lack of access to the networks may hold some fairly drastic consequences. Individuals who lack access to the internet in the future are likely to have smaller social circles and therefore may find it more difficult to function in society (Jones, Lecture). On a more basic level, though, they may find themselves cut off from critical information. This is especially probable as the internet is predicted to revolutionize publishing houses and news agencies in the near future (Anderson, Fox, & Rainie, 2005). Those who have access will find information has become easier to access; those who do not have access risk being uninformed and ultimately disenfranchised.

The internet is a fairly new technology whose final form is still being negotiated. Now is the time to ensure that the internet remains a truly interactive medium. This can be done by encouraging open code projects and discouraging corporate software monopolies that have the potential to introduce inappropriate levels of control. Additionally, access to networks in rural and urban inner-city areas should be subsidized by the government. Several large cities, such as San Francisco and Philadelphia, have considered wireless projects that would offer free internet. While these proposed solutions may sound simplistic, naïve, and overly idealistic they are logical steps that could be taken to circumvent problems before they arise.

Anderson, J.Q., Fox, S. & Rainie, L. (2005). The future of the Internet. From Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Carey, J. W., & Game, J. A. (1998). Communication, culture, and technology: an internet interview with james w. carey. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 22(2), 117-130.

Caro, R. (1982). The years of lyndon johnson: the path to power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Highfield, A. (2003). Tv’s tipping point: why the digital revolution is only just beginning. Retrieved Jan. 17, 2006, from http://www.paidcontent.org/stories/ashleyrts.shtml.

Walther, J. B., Gay, G., & Hancock J. T. (2005). How do communication and technology researchers study the internet?. Journal of Communication,632-657.

One thought on “A Culture of Connectivity: Control and Marginalization

  • January 18, 2006 at 7:54 am
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    I’m very glad you brought up the notion of “control,” it’s one the internet has had to deal with, but less forthrightly than it perhaps ought to, and nowhere more forthrightly than in the WSIS meetings (and meetings associated with it). We should talk about this today (Wednesday), it bears much scrutiny (much more than we can give it in the short time we have!).

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