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The influence of modern technology on Society

1. Introduction

While technology is often described as the most important influence upon society (ref), it remains a subject which deserves further study. This situation is generally accepted, with politicians, sociologists, industrialists and educationalists alike recognising that technology lies at the very heart of society (Chandler, 1996). The critical role that technology plays in the development of society, stimulating not only the economy but society’s socio-cultural values, rather than being merely a tool of society, however, is referred to as ‘technological determinism’ (Underwood, 2009). It is this aspect of how technology drives modern society that this essay addresses.

Social progress has come to be equated with technical progress, particularly since the Industrial Revolution (Beniger, 1989). This progress has not always been acknowledged at the time it was occurring; indeed, as Beniger further notes, ‘human society seems rather to evolve largely through changes so gradual as to be all but imperceptible, at least compared to the generational cycles of the individuals through whose lives they unfold’ (1989, p. 2). Perhaps because of this ‘historical myopia’, the value of the change may not be evaluated until the changes has already passed (Beniger, 1989, p. 2). Critics such as Henry David Thoreau, for instance, suggested that improvements in society’s technical means are no guarantee of improved ends, and that they may instead lead to a mechanistic and fatalistic outlook, positing that 'we do not ride upon the railroad; it rides upon us' (1845, p. 308). Thus, technology itself becomes an overriding preoccupation, for it never stops still.

Technological advancement seems important at the time to different ages in different societies, psychologically if not practically; in a variety of modern societies, for example, young people presently feel a heightened empathy with the digital age (Bennett and Maton, 2010). However, not all sectors of the community will be directly involved with, share an understanding, or even see the relevance, of the latest technological inventions. Nevertheless, as de Tocqueville (1990, p. xxii) noted in 1840, ‘this social revolution, which I believe to be irresistible… is already accomplished or about to be so’, and thus recognition of it is recognition of the past as much as the present. The current revolution in technology, known variously as the ‘Information Age’ or ‘Age of Technology’, similarly is unrelenting: the older person who is reluctant to use a computer has a life shaped by others’ use of computers and may even accept a basic mobile telephone, once considered a glamourous accessory (Coeckelbergh, 2012). As globalisation becomes an increasingly significant factor in countries’ economic success, technological competence is becoming an essential tool for surviving and thriving not only in society, but in its constituent parts, such as employment, education, agriculture, and industry.

2. Advantages and disadvantages of modern technological progress

The younger generation today, like many previous generations, seeks to change the world and make it a better and more comfortable place in which to live (Griswold, 2012). They want to be contributors to peace, economic reforms, the improvement of public services and many other aspects of the society. For them, the best way to contribute to these changes is through modern technology. (Weiser and Brown, 1997).

This does not necessarily mean that youth wants to make a huge change on the view of the world where they grew up, or that they just want to split away from the norms of society. Instead, they believe that the advances in communication, through technological means, will facilitate social change as no previous generation has had the opportunity to learn so much, so authentically, from one another (Griswold, 2012). The ability for real-time conversations, forums, information exchange, visualisation of other cultures, and greater social equality across the world has developed more in the last 20-25 years than at any other time in history. This has allowed commentary on situations as they develop, rather than purely through the perspective of written media. For example, the role of social media during the ‘Arab Spring’, not only through Twitter but Facebook and other social media platforms, provided contextualisation for the media reports at a time when media bias is increasingly critically examined (Khondker, 2011). Thus, this generation is able to confirm journalists’ interpretation of an event, even in film, with those who are participating on both sides of the event, as well as casual observers. This is unique in history.

The degree to which unfettered access to opinion, counter-opinion, reportage, and propaganda will truly reshape the world is yet to be determined. The Habermasian interpretation of the development of the public sphere holds some analogies, as the democratisation of critical analysis unfolded in fin-de-siècle Viennese coffee houses (Habermas, 1989).

According to di Maggio et al. (2001) extensive social 'effects', both optimistic and pessimistic, have been claimed for many communications technologies before our current computer-based age of information technology. The so-called I.T. revolution (which tends to be presented as the ‘final’ communications revolution) can be seen as having been preceded by the ‘writing revolution’ and ‘the print revolution’, and only the latest phase of an ‘electronics revolution’ which began with telegraphy and telephony. Winston (1998) criticises technological determinism and instead develops his theory of cultural determinism. In this theory, Winston considers not how technology shapes society, but rather that the evolution of technology, which is not static, is mediated and manipulated by society. Thus, as a result of these manoeuvres, the ‘radical potential’ of a specific technology is stifled; society therefore only accepts that which it believes itself to be in a position to accept (Winston, 1998). Systems and machines like computers, mobile phones and operating systems, which just involve one click on the computer, replace the things which used to takes hours or even days. Almost every home has a computer and telephone, and individuals within those homes often each have a mobile phone (Bennett and Maton, 2010). For some people, the application of technology is the only technique for them to develop patience, as even the tedious business of waiting can be ameliorated by keeping busy with a mobile phone, especially for youth.

One of the most important advantages of modern technology is globalisation, which has allowed the world to feel ‘closer’, and permitted the world's economy to become a single, interdependent system (Barrell and Fic, 2014). This means that people can not only share information quickly and efficiently, but can also bring down barriers of linguistic and geographic boundaries.

Zhong (2007) observes that, in today's stock markets, financial infrastructure, global news organisations, powerful militaries, strong governments and big corporations, instantaneous communication is an asset society cannot afford to lose. The internet allows interconnection and promotes globalisation and information sharing. The reduction in the cost of instantaneous communication over the last 20 years have considerably expanded its potential, by making it accessible to developing as well as developed economies.

However, modern technology does not bring advantages but some disadvantages as well. The similarity of lifestyles, whereby communication channels homogeneity, can have deleterious effects (Griswold, 2012). Before the rise of film, television, and the internet, people had different cultures and traditions that were reflected in the way they wear clothes or design buildings. Now, in a form of creeping conformity, people tend to build the same models of house and wear the same fashions.

The new, modern technology is excellent in many ways, but its philosophical, physiological, and psychological effects remain unknown in a period when technological interaction and live communication through computer use, internet chat, mobile phones, and SMS texts are part of the everyday life of -teenagers and the youth of today. This not only includes issues such as the debate on whether mobile telephones increase the likelihood of brain tumours, but the behavioural responses of children to ‘instant’ gratification, or whether mobile phone addiction will become a significant disability (di Maggio et al., 2001). These are issues which remain unresolved; their resolution will not be immediate.

3. The vision of teenagers in this day and age

With the growth of technologies as the internet and computers, teenagers and young people are becoming more dislocated from society (Griswold, 2012). Isolation is one form of this problem. The Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori, whereby young people (commonly, males, and more increasingly, adults) sequester themselves, using only technology to keep in touch with society, is believed to affect almost two million people worldwide (Longo, 2010). Social interaction results in levels of stress and distress to the degree that individuals cannot cope, and seek refuge instead in an environment which they feel is fully within their control. Additionally, education is being transformed by technology. Stimulating students is not a matter of making a great speech or a dominant lesson anymore; educators need to be brought down to a teenager's level of understanding (Weiser and Brown, 1997).

The need and wishes of modern youth are very different from those of their parents, as can be seen in hikikomori (Longo, 2010). The most inspiring tool for teens and their lifestyle is the internet, mobile technologies, and computers (Griswold, 2012. Teenagers and young people also have changed in comparison with teens in the past, taking into account eating habits, an active way of life, spending free time, and the importance of music and fashion. The affordability of many of these factors has changed considerably since, for example, the post-war generation (Bennett and Maton, 2010). The most important change, however, is that they are a "technology" generation. For teens in today's world, mobile phones, internet, music, movies, television and video games are very important. Most teenagers prefer watching television and playing computer games to reading books. They dislike reading because watching television or playing online role-playing games is easier and they do not have to use their own imagination (Davies and Eynon, 2013). Computer games have the capacity to provide teaching opportunities but they are also harmful to health (Longo, 2010). Teenagers prefer to spend free time in front of a computer rather than to walk, play football, go to a swimming pool, or just simply meet a friend in the park and have a chat. The long term effects of these changes are not likely to be evident for at least three more generations.

According to di Maggio et al. (2001), the internet expands daily and reaches more and more people globally. As a society, improvements in literacy may rise due to the growth of the internet. The young generation cannot imagine their day’s homework without the support of the one of most important modern technological developments, the internet. The internet is very useful and an important tool for studies, as there they are able to see the latest reports and articles, find and practise exercises which are relevant to their studies, as well as submit assignments and other work.

Further, a teenager's social life becomes inextricably linked to social networking, especially through live chat and Facebook. They would rather say that this is the easiest way to communicate with each other, as well as learning new things and having fun (Davies and Eynon, 2013). Many things can be done through the internet. Young people can download music and other files and play online games with their real or virtual friends. In this way, therefore,

the internet influences the teen view to the world and its future. It also gives them an opportunity to interact with other teens and discuss relevant issues. One important aspect of teens using internet is their freedom to post criticism of government leaders. Youths have limited abilities to communicate meaningfully with government as they cannot vote; the internet permits them to give their beliefs about what is wrong and what is right from their point of view, (Davies and Eynon, 2013).

On social websites youths can have relations and communication with their friends or just someone who is far away from their homes and around the world, chatting on the worldwide web, emailing or just playing games. This has been extended considerably with the advent of smart phones (Bennett and Maton, 2010). Using the internet teenagers can go shopping with their friends using the same website, use microphones or cameras to film themselves, nearly in the same way as they would go out together for real shopping.

Thus, the public sphere – through recreational chat as well as more complex interactions – is extended in the manner akin to that described by Habermas (1989).

Nevertheless, this change to ‘life online’ means that, inevitably, many real world problems manifest themselves in the internet, and then have a further real world consequence. This can be seen in the phenomenon of cyber bullying. Cyber bullying targets the sexuality, physical attractiveness and friendships of children and teenagers (Davies and Eynon, 2013). Victims do not know what to do or where to turn. Cyber bullies harass victims anonymously. The psychological damage is horrific because the victim's own peers have turned on them and there is nowhere for them to go, with teenage suicides and attempted suicides reported in the past (Griswold, 2013).

A ‘dis-connect’ from human reactions could contribute to cyber bullying. People learn to communicate mostly through text messages or online, and do not learn important aspects of human interaction, such as noticing and accepting non-verbal signals (Griswold, 2013). Without these signals and characteristics it is easy to be misunderstood and for the victim to be dehumanised (di Maggio et al., 2001).

This is also true of online dating (Winston, 1998). People are normally aware of what someone is saying or not saying, through gesticulations and voice tones. Without these cues, it is difficult to appreciate how the other person is feeling and whether there is truly a connection. Youth can start to feel as if who they are is not recognised, that they are reviled or that nobody wants them, when for example the text message or email was simply not received.

Young people have created and developed a communication culture that incorporates many special features, such as a rise in the use of text-based communication channels (Davies and Eynon, 2013). Teenagers' intersecting and selective use of communication channels has been shaped by multimedia communication (Weiser and Brown, 1997). Thus, their public sphere utilises a wider range of platforms than previously; nevertheless, it is still merely an extension of the public sphere, just as television and newspapers were (Habermas, 1989). Regardless of their form, the media landscapes created by teenagers serve to articulate their personal space, as well as enabling their presentation of self and defining their relationships to others).

This can be seen in young people's relationship to the mobile phone and other forms of interactive technology, which is consistent with their general consumption styles. An "addictive" use of the phone has been related to "trendy" and "impulsive" consumption styles prevalent among females (Davies and Eynon, 2013). Technology enthusiasm and trend-consciousness was linked to impulsive consumption and "hard" values more prevalent among males (di Maggio et al., 2001). In contrast, a frugal mobile phone use was not related to gender but to environmentalism and thrifty consumption in general. The traditional gender division in mobile phone use styles that could be observed is interesting in the light of conjectures that genders are becoming more alike in their use of new technology. The increasing trend towards ‘instant gratification’ that has been fed by high rates of credit over the last 30 years is exacerbated by an impatience facilitated by devices such as smart phones (Griswold, 2012). The net result of several of several generations for whom this is true has not yet been realised.

4. Conclusion

Technology is one of a number of mediating factors in human behaviour and social change, which both acts on and is acted upon by other phenomena. Being critical of technological determinism is not to discount the importance of the fact that the technical features of different communication technologies facilitate different kinds of use, though the potential applications of technologies are not necessarily realised. Enthusiasm for technological 'progress' typically involves technological determinism. As Potter and Sarre (1974, p. 485), caution that, in reaction to the changes taking places amongst today’s youth, there is evidently an unmistakable tone of moral disapproval directed against cultural interval – that is, resistances to structural and normative adaptations occasioned by innovation'. This is not new. Every generation expresses concern for the pace and nature of change, and questions whether change is driving society or society desires the changes wrought.

In the meantime, the technological revolution will enable people’s lives to be easier, in ways such as social interaction, education, manufacturing, and so on. Withdrawing from the degree to which technology has shaped society will be very difficult, and likely to lead to large-scale economic chaos (Barrell and Fic, 2013). The rise in costs, for example, through slower communications or manual manufacturing methods, would result in an overwhelming, if temporary drain on the economy; nevertheless, given the decrease in fossil fuel availability, this may be a future that society needs to consider. Humans are highly adaptable, as the integration of change previously has demonstrated. There may be a social cost in this, as Thoreau (1854) speculated, but this flexibility has permitted societies of many different forms to flourish for millennia. The liberty for people discuss change, as Habermas (1989) has described, has expanded in the last three hundred years. Nevertheless, thinkers such as Thoreau and Habermas are prepared to question not only technological progress but change in its most elementary form. This is what will preserve humanity from self-destructive change.

Many people may feel that teenagers are unwittingly ‘walking into’ self-destructive change through their eager acceptance of technology in every aspect of their lives (di Maggio et al., 2001). Whilst this may be a legitimate concern, it should also be borne in mind that teenagers are not merely being controlled by devices but are using devices to facilitate change – through social media. This was apparent during the ‘Arab Spring’ (Khondker, 2011), and was widely welcomed.

Enthusiasm for technological 'progress' typically involves technological determinism. As Potter and Sarre (1974, p. 485), caution that, in reaction to the changes taking places amongst today’s youth, ‘there is evidently an unmistakable tone of moral disapproval directed against cultural interval – that is, resistances to structural and normative adaptations occasioned by innovation'. This is not new. Every generation expresses concern for the pace and nature of change, and questions whether change is driving society or society desires the changes wrought. The human willingness to use change meaningfully and self-reflect, it is hoped, will protect society from itself.

5. References

Barrell, R. and Fic, T. (2013). Integration, globalisation, technology and trade patterns in the EU8. Research in Economics and Business: Central and Eastern Europe, 2(1), pp. 1-13.

Beniger, J. (1989). The control revolution: Technological and economic origins of the information society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bennett, S. and Maton, K. (2010), Beyond the ‘digital natives’ debate: Towards a more nuanced understanding of students' technology experiences. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(5), pp. 321-331.

Coeckelbergh, M. (2012). “How I learned to love the robot”: Capabilities, information technologies, and elderly care. In Oosterlaken, I. and van der Hoven, J. (eds), The capability approach, technology and design. Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 77-86.

Davies, C. and Eynon, R. (2013). Teenagers and technology. Hove: Routledge.

De Tocqueville, A. (1835). Democracy in America: Volume I. [1990] New York: Vintage Books.

Denning, P.J. and Metcalfe, RM. (eds) (1997). Beyond calculation: The next fifty years of computing. New York: Springer.

DiMaggio, P., Hargittai, E., Neuman, W.R. and Robinson, J.P. (2001). Social implications of the internet. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, pp. 307-336.

Griswold, W. (2012). Cultures and societies in a changing world (4th edn). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Khondker, H.H. (2011). Role of the new media in the Arab Spring. Globalizations, 8(5), pp. 675-679.

Longo, G.O. (2010). Communication, technology, and the planetary creature. Communication, Capitalism & Critique, 8(1), pp. 18-27.

Oosterlaken, I. and van der Hoven, J. (eds) (2012). The capability approach, technology and design. Dordrecht: Springer.

Potter, D. and Sarre, P. (eds) (1974). Dimensions of society: A reader. London: University of London Press/Open University Press.

Thoreau, H.D. (1854). Walden; Or life in the woods. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.

Weiser, M. and Brown, J.S. (1997). The coming age of calm technology. In Denning, P.J. and Metcalfe, R.M. (eds), Beyond calculation: The next fifty years of computing. New York: Springer, pp. 75-85.

Winston, B. (1998). Media technology and society: a history: From the telegraph to the Internet. Abingdon: Psychology Press.


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