Social transformations and divisions through new technologies

The collection of readings regarding communication and new media provides looks forward (Carey, 1998; Neas, 2005; Fox, Anderson, & Rainie, 2005) as well as backwards (Cato, 1982; Marvin, 1998) in our adoption of new technologies and their effect on our lives. From the printing press, to the introduction of electricity and telephony, computing technology, and new emerging technologies, there is no doubt that technologies have significant transformations on our social lives. These processes of “social adjustment around new technology” (Marvin, 1998, p. 233), are intriguing.

The Fox et al. (2005) and Neas (2005) pieces provide previews of the future of emerging technologies, although this is a short-term predictive view eyeing only the next 5 or 10 years. Technology usage is expected to be marked by mobility, ubiquitous access, global connectivity, and the introduction of virtual and immersive environments in play (gaming) and work (simulation) tasks. As with all significant new technologies, adoption continues to grow and widen, although this adoption is still marked by divides.

In fact, the most interesting contrast drawn in these works is the paradox between the transformative powers of new media in juxtaposition with its divisive powers. There is a unique tension between the fact that new technologies are liberators and social transformers, and at the same time wedges that force new divisions between those that do not have access to such new technologies.

This point is personified in Cato’s story (1982) of residents of Hill County Texas in the 1930’s. My great-great-great-great (or so) grandparents on my mother’s side were residents of a neighboring county of Hill County in Texas. My g-g-g-g grandfather was one of the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence and served as Texas’ first Secretary of Navy under Sam Houston. But my g-g-g-g grandmother’s story (actually published as an historical novel) of being a pioneer woman as the state of Texas was newly settled made an early imprint on my life. There was no question life was hard on the prairie in the mid 1800’s, and the fact that she gave birth to 21 children, only 4 of whom survived childhood, was just one measure of this.

Cato’s chapter (1982) gives a historical sense of the bleak and difficult conditions of daily living before electricity. Particularly, the absence of electricity affected home life more than working life – which outside the city, was primarily outdoor work anyway. But the shocking part of Cato’s story is that it is illustrates lives in 1937 and not the mid-1800’s. Thus, not only does this story illustrate the remarkable hardships of life without electricity, it suggests how disadvantaged those without access to new technologies became in relationship to their contemporary peers in other locales. This was especially evident for women, who were unable to move beyond the extremely demanding and exhausting domestic work.

It was also evident for children of that era that lived without electricity, who were disadvantaged in comparison to their peers who were able to read and study by evening (electric) light, thus making it extremely difficult for those children to receive an equivalent education and pre-determining their future through this technological disadvantage. (That educational success dramatically improved when electricity was introduced in Hill Country speaks to this point.)

We can draw parallels today in our modern-era digital divide, where there remain sharp divisions between those with and without access to new computing technologies.

Marvin (1998) addresses these issues as well, in discussing the shifts in space, time, and difference with the emergence of new technologies. She acknowledges the themes of “social boundaries in transition” as a result of the introduction of (dramatically) new media (Marvin, 1998, p. 193).

The question arises, then, whether new technologies – in their capability to free from confining boundaries, and forge connections not previously possible under fixed space and time constraints – in fact annihilate or exacerbate differences. In the case of electricity, we found an extremely liberating technology – freeing individuals from domestic slavery and physically destructive labor. At the same time, those without access to this new technology were disadvantaged economically, educationally, and even physically in terms of health.

And so we have this paradox of instruments of opportunity that can also be instruments of oppression. Carey (1998) confirms that the “consequences of technology are always profoundly contradictory” (p. 127). He suggests there are persistent patterns and cycles through history of what he calls “reincarnated technology”, and these cycles exhibit “recurrent patterns of consequence” (p. 119). Pointedly, Carey suggests that in each cycle, technology displaces and penetrates more deeply into social relations.

As technology becomes more pervasive in our lives, and approaches a point of dependency (like we have on electrical power), one questions the extent to which this shift will differentially effect certain segments of our (global) population. In other words, will the digital divide continue to breach or widen differences in gender, age, class, income, and political status?

Fox et al.’s (2005) results and predictions confirm that the digital divide persists, although trends suggest those gaps may be closing. In the meantime, what are the implications for excluding important and diverse segments of our population from not only the use of, but the design of future technologies? What does this exclusion and marginalization mean for our socio-cultural history, present, and future? And, how can we alleviate these divisions and disadvantages?


Carey, J. W. (1998). Communication, culture, and technology: an Internet interview with James W. Carey. Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 22, no. 2, 117-130.

Cato, R.A. (1982). The path to power: the years of Lyndon Johnson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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

Marvin, C. (1988). When old technologies were new: thinking about electrical communication in the late nineteenth century. New York: Oxford University Press.

Neas, B.M. (2005). Tomorrowland: When new technologies get newer. Educause Review.

3 thoughts on “Social transformations and divisions through new technologies

  • January 18, 2006 at 2:54 pm

    Thanks for posting this, Lorraine. I want to use something you wrote, “We can draw parallels today in our modern-era digital divide, where there remain sharp divisions between those with and without access to new computing technologies,” to ask everyone to think about the now-common way we consider a ‘digital divide,’ namely that it is between the haves and have-nots. A slightly more nuanced way to think about it is to consider a sort of ‘second-order’ divide, namely that there are reasons haves have and have-nots have not. But might we not also consider that haves and have-nots are not themselves monolithic groups? Might there not be haves who even though having also do not have (that may be one of the most poorly worded sentences I have ever written, so let me put it this way: If there are second-order causes for a divide, might there also be second-order causes for haves to not ‘actualize’ what they have, in which case what good is having? Perhaps similarly might there be second-order causes for have-nots to have without expenditure of resources (usually economic, which seems to be the raison-d’etre for their not having)? Maybe still another way to put this is: What are the differences between the two groups we usually have in mind when we talk about a digital divide -when it comes to technology-, and do they make a difference?

  • January 18, 2006 at 4:16 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Steve. I completely agree that it’s too ‘pat’ to suggest (or bemoan) that there is a digital divide that can be defined as those that either do or do not have ACCESS to technology. Certainly there are those, as you mention, who do have access but don’t make USE of this, and understanding their reasons for not choosing to partake of a technology that most are quickly adopting is an important question. (Of course there are always fast adopters as well as resistors, but your question is more fundamental than that, I think.)

    This leads to your other question, which (I think) is other than categorizing divides neatly (which also reinforces and itself stigmatizes differences), we should consider the question of what KIND of differences are there in use of technology, and are these differences important or significant enough to effect our understanding of communication, cultures and societies. In other words, do we care if there are differences?

    Of course the answer is complex and nuanced as you say. I will offer at least a simple and familiar example, as a way of sparking some additional discussion of this issue. Holding opportunity constant (i.e., if access is possible in equivalent ways), if women do not adopt and use technology in the same ways that men do — say gaming technology — why, and why not, and is this an important difference? Will this affect our work, life, economy, or society? What cultural impacts will there be if we have a technologically dependent world that is dominated (and designed and controlled) by white males from Western cultures? How does this shape and shift our future culture(s)?

    I don’t have answers, but I’m delighted to hear other perspectives.

  • January 18, 2006 at 4:54 pm

    It would be really cool if people other than me and the author of the initial post here were to chime in. ;-)


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