The present age in which we live has seen a massive proliferation of digital communication technologies and pervasive computing devices which have made an impact on all aspects of the way people live. Individual life styles have been changed and by extension, the society at large has evolved with changes being noticed in societal culture. Technology has brought about changes to the way people work, enjoy their leisure activities, get educated and interact with each other. Because the digital mediums for communications have become affordable and readily available to all, the manner in which individuals interact with others at the personal or business levels have also been transformed. Face –to- face meetings and interactions are becoming rather infrequent, with such meetings being reserved for special occasions and for special people. On the other hand, finding new people to interact with especially over the internet has never been easier. The neighbourhood has experienced changes with residents preferring to stay at home while keeping in touch with their community on the cyberspace. An individual can assume a different identity and experience a different reality in virtual space which can make it possible for them to take risks in relationships. The peripheral relationships of the virtual space can sometimes develop into friendships which can result in interactions in the physical space. Relationships which may have never developed or which may have disintegrated are made possible and kept alive through the use of digital technologies including the mobile phone, the internet and the fax. The community to which one belongs is not necessarily the physical neighbourhood but it may be a global virtual community. This paper attempts to take a look at the changing nature of interpersonal communications in the digital age which has transformed interpersonal relationships and the society at large.
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The electronic revolution and the digital age of communications started off at the end of the twentieth century with many advances taking place in the fields of telecommunications, computers, digital technology and information technology. The digital revolution resulted in the availability of devices such as the mobile phone, the personal digital assistant or the PDA, satellite communications and the digital television. Internet and the World Wide Web, with its email and conferencing capabilities, as well as the wireless local loop came to be widely used around the world. The availability and proliferation of these devices meant that individuals and the society at large were shaped by the possibilities for new forms of social interactions and social group formations through the medium of the available technologies. It was now possible to have a different sort of a community which could support rapid interactions using mobile and telephone conversation, email, SMS messages, teleconferencing and videoconferencing, with participants either being on the move or living in geographically distant areas. Enhancements in technology meant that leisure activities were shifted to the home and it was not essential to go to the pub in order to fulfil a desire for social interaction (Wong, 2004). The availability of the handheld internet capable mobile phones has also brought further changes to society and the manner in which individuals interact because it is now possible to communicate through a number of mediums regardless of where an individual may be. Although the costs of having access to the digital communications and computing technologies had created a digital divide, the situation is getting better by the day with mass production resulting in reduced prices for hardware and a larger base of subscribers reducing charges for digital network connectivity. The availability of the digital devices of the pervasive computing age has meant that the manner in which individuals interact has also changed because, although it is very easy to contact others, non-verbal signals are diminished as a result of the relatively higher costs associated with video communications. Also, the geographic distances between those involved in interactions may mean that there is a limited understanding of the overall picture associated with the locality or region and the communicators may not be in synchronism with each other. Usually physical proximity had been a requirement for individuals to initiate and maintain interactions and a stable dwelling place was required for the more intricate social interactions to be possible. However, the cyberspace has made it possible for an individual to have a permanent virtual address regardless of their physical whereabouts and this personal space is accessible as long as an individual has the capacity for accessing the internet (Geser, 2004, Pp 1-5). The added capabilities related to communications that have been made possible by digital technology have meant that new commonalities can now be found relatively easily in order to drive interpersonal communications. This is, however, an evolving process and commonalities that have been developed as a result of personal interactions, culture, language, former association related to work or education as well as possibilities for mutual gain etc are still the drivers for the initiation of interpersonal communications. It is the length of interactions and the possibilities related to physical proximity as well as future interests that are the main drivers for more complex forms of interactions which can be aided by digital technology. Interpersonal bonds of solidarity and cooperation can be established with geographically distant groups and this process has been assisted by the availability of mobile devices which are an advanced evolution of the fixed line telephone as well as the internet. Whereas the fixed line telephone was more attuned to reinforcing the social integration of fixed and stable settings, the mobile phone provides greater freedom. The Theory of Communicative Action by Habermas states that society consists of participants who are attempting to reach a consensus. In the past, the participants in a society were restricted to those who lived within close geographic proximity because they were the only participants who could attempt to reach a consensus. However, the digital age has now made it possible for participants from anywhere to attempt a consensus if desired and the concept of society, friendship and acquaintances for an individual has been very much extended (Alexander, 2002, Chapter 4).
Most of the communication that takes place using digital medium is not rich if the message is based on email, SMS or voice only communications. Media is ranked on its ability to carry information and hence the ability of a message to develop or change understanding within a period of time. Face-to-face communications are the richest form of communications while faxes, emails, written text and telephone conversations are considered to be less rich. Participants in interpersonal communications now have a choice related to the medium which they can utilise for their interactions and most initial or routine communications are usually conducted most effortlessly using the less rich digital mediums. With the continued evolution of digital technologies, the richer media will become more widely available and participants to interpersonal communications will be increasingly able to indulge in richer interactions effortlessly. Emotion is present in the less rich media which is prevalent today but it is embedded in text and symbols which need to be studied and deciphered. Individuals who have been used to the richer communications have to learn the intricacies of the new digital media in order to learn to express themselves better. The generation which was born in the digital age or the Cyber Kids seem to be more capable of interacting adequately on the new mediums as compared to the older generation. Richer experiences in communication are only undertaken if the participants have a desire to indulge in such interactions due to having a common past or the initial digital contacts seem to hold promise. Hence, on the surface there is an impression that the society has become more reserved with less socialising but there can be a lot of communication or activity that is not visible. Email communications encourages critical thinking on the basis of a greater level of equality because the social context cues are not present in the message. Social construction of reality and social structure is therefore moving towards a greater level of equality in being able to communicate and interact widely because of the availability of digital technologies at least at the initial levels of contact. There are no preferred hours for contact with the electronic text communications and it is considered to be acceptable to send in a message at any time which can be viewed and considered by the recipient. In the past, individuals thought it appropriate to meet in the most appropriate settings for an occasion that could enhance communications. Today they are likely to consider what medium they should select in order to communicate. The decision to select a medium for communication is likely to be based on how well the participants in the communication know each other and their experience with a medium. Social influence with participants in communications is likely to increase with the time that the participants have known each other. The use of email or electronic text can have subliminal messages attached to the text and may convey informality, urgency, authority as well as legitimacy, much like the body language in face-to-face communications. The ability to use web cams and add instant pictures to communications over the internet or when using a mobile phone can add to the level of richness and information that is being exchanged. Scanned documents containing handwriting or sketches attached to email text also add to the information content, but there can be doubts about their authenticity unless they can be verified. Because the existing knowledge base of an individual is employed in critically evaluating lean messages, therefore less rich messages can become meaningful if there have been previous inputs about the communicator. As a result of the massive proliferation of digital technologies, the society at large has started to use these technologies as a matter of habit, transforming the manner in which individuals interact (Alexander, 2002, Chapter 5).
Digital wireless communication technologies have been the greatest drivers for change and spatial mobility. The number of mobile phones has far exceeded the number of television sets and even the least developed African nations now have more mobile wireless phones then land lines. The capabilities associated with the modern mobile phones are being constantly enhanced and they are very likely to become mobile devices with multimedia capabilities that are able to replace mobile computers with a capability for exchanging voice, text, pictures and a lot of other content in the digital format. The feature rich prevalence of mobile phone technology is the highest in Japan which leads Europe and the United States. Those who are introduced to mobile phones gradually progress from emergency and routine use to the more expressive use for communications. Many “grooming calls” are made every day in order to maintain relationships which would have not been possible without the technology. These calls are made to confirm that a relationship exists by expressing solidarity, sympathy, concern and affection. The cell phone is used along with a variety of other media including email, SMS, snail mail and face-to-face meetings. Social contacts for otherwise well adjusted individuals are possible even during absence due to work or other causes. Hence, established relationships can be continued and new ones formed quickly if there is a basis for their formation. Switching off a mobile phone may be an expression for indicating the importance that is attached to individuals who are in the current interaction. On the other hand, cell phones also enable the user to control relationships by being able to make choices related to friends. All digital technologies permit an ability to control communications along with making interpersonal communications more effortless. Unlike email communication, the mobile phone is less likely to assist in the creation of new relationships and mostly assists in the maintenance of the existing ones. Communalistic relationships that have existed are easily perpetuated over the mobile phones which can also be used for spontaneous gossip at all times. Women tend to use the phone much more often in order to spontaneously contact their friends then men. Mobile phones can act as an umbilical cord and present an alternative to the traditional ways of passing time. Older people usually prefer voice calls while younger people tend to use the text messaging feature of their mobile to keep up with their group using special symbolic and linguistic language. The mobile phone may be used for short business conversations and long personal intimate conversations with a higher level of certainty about the identity of the communication partner then can be possible with email. Role switching is possible with an office worker acting as a mother using the mobile from her office. The ability to selectively receive calls provides a high level of control on who is admitted to the inner circle of friends. However, having a mobile means that there is a responsibility for being available and answering to those who attempt to initiate a contact, although the owner can switch off if they so desire, causing concern amongst those who may have tried to initiate a contact. Communication is, therefore, made possible when it may not have occurred due to the efforts that may have been involved in contacting an individual. In Japan, SMS messages are used to form complex and peripheral relationships in which individuals never meet and virtual girlfriends can be introduced through a phone, replacing friends in real life. However, such peripheral friendships mean that there is a tendency towards the development of a very formal society with individuals finding it difficult to form real relationships. Cell phones also make it possible to have fluid arrangements and have meetings at short notice. In South Korea, it is common for workers to have spontaneous parties after work that are arranged through the cell. Nomadic intimacy is made possible for individuals who are constantly on the move including sailors or international business people who can contact their friends at any port of call. In studies undertaken in Japan evidence has been recorded that the Cyber Kid generation which was born after 1985 with internet phones and modern digital communications may be loosing the traditional Japanese virtue of giving due regard to context and situation when communicating. Their preferred interpersonal communication technology is the internet capable mobile phone and this requires whatever is to be said to be communicated regardless of the situation. This is in stark contrast to the pre-war generation whose preferred method of communications is to have face-to-face meetings and written letters with all the regard for the person and the complexities of a situation. Hence, there is ample evidence that the evolving digital technologies have changed the manner in which individuals conduct interpersonal communications around the world (Geser, 2004, Pp14 -16) and (Wong, 2004, Pp 75-81).
Because of the widespread use of the text-only digital communication technologies that are the most prevalent in the present age, the personality of the communicators changes when they enter the virtual space and send email or other text messages. Along with the personality of the parties to the interpersonal communications, the reality also changes from physical reality to virtual reality. Much more freedom is available on the internet when using email communications because it is possible to hide the physical identity of the communicators. Risks can be taken with what is being said and discussed. The virtual space provides an opportunity to interact with individuals of many different cultures and social backgrounds. The symbols and the text messages are easier to understand if the participants in the communications that are taking place in Cyberspace have a common understanding of the use of language and symbols as well as the expectations that are associated with the conduct of interactions. The electronic medium which may have been selected imposes selectivity by amplifying or reducing various phenomenon of the world, but the choice of the medium says something about the kind of personality that the communicator wants to present. If sufficient effort is invested, casual encounters over the internet can develop into intimate relationships. This is, however, more likely in a situation where there is little of interest that is available in the immediate physical world. Because there is a growing trend for the modern digital communications technologies to be widely adopted by businesses and the society at large, the chances of physical interactions becomes diminished as compared to interactions on the virtual space. Hence, the manner in which interactions and communications used to take place in a society at large is changed by technology and so also is the manner in which relationships are formed and maintained (Leaning, 2004). Digital divides exist between users and non-users of a technology as well as the experienced users and those who are the relatively new users of a digital communication medium. Digital divides can also exist because of culture, limited earnings and levels of education. Women have a tendency of using the phone more frequently and a lower tendency to use the internet. New immigrants in countries with a well developed digital communications infrastructure, especially women have a tendency to shy away from using the communications technologies that are widely available and tend not to have access to computers, resulting in loneliness and a lowered capacity to integrate. Internet and mobile phone users and non-users are not the same set of people and tend to have infrequent communication between each other. The society, however, has a preference for a proliferation of the internet over the mobile phone with governments attempting to promote the proliferation of internet connections rather then subsidising mobile phone connectivity. Hence, interpersonal communication has indeed been transformed by digital technologies and those without access to these technologies have difficulties assimilating and interacting with others in a society (Rice, 2003).
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The neighbourhood today is no longer the place that it used to be. Studies have indicated that in North America, many neighbourhood communities do not interact across racial lines. As an example, African-Americans and White Americans who live in the Nashville area do not interact across racial lines, preferring instead to develop relations with friends outside the neighbourhood (Wellman, 2001, Pp 16). The community of workers that work for the same employer do not live in the same neighbourhood and car, plane, fax, mobile as well as the internet permit relationships to be maintained outside of a neighbourhood. Hence, a change has occurred in the society as a result of technology. Cheap transportation technologies and not just digital technologies have made interactions at the local level unnecessary and individuals are constantly on the move, changing their residence every so often. Neighbourhood ties are, therefore, weak ties and stronger ties are with family and old friends from the younger years. These ties are maintained through digital technologies and not as a result of interactions arising out of living near by. The cities are very large settlements of people who are more interested in seeing to their economic success by working at well paid jobs and living in decent neighbourhoods. It is the communication technologies which make the modern lifestyle possible unlike the olden days when it was just not possibly have the freedoms that are available today. Community has, therefore, left the neighbourhood and may even exist globally. Community interactions do not take place in public places but have moved inside the home where emailing and phone calling as well as the use of web cams keeps the interpersonal relationships alive. The trend for neighbourhood socialising is on the decline not just in the Americas, but also in Japan and the Middle East. Although informal ties can exist with thousands of people, relatively few are close ties that are actively maintained. Technology provides an enhancement of choices related to the milieus in which individuals can participate. Most ties are now maintained with individuals who have shared interests and the personal support group could be widely dispersed. The choices related to the ability to select those in close relationships were simply not available in the past without the digital communication technologies. Parents and children often provide the strongest support in a family, although they rarely live close by when the siblings have grown. Communities are in constant flux and the migration from third world countries into the developed world has meant that there is a trend towards global interpersonal communications or contacts with friends or acquaintances of the same background. The internet has become an integral part of daily life and has broadened the community. Initial contacts by email can result in phone contacts or face-to-face meetings. Internet groups do provide support to members, especially those who may be somewhat isolated in a new locality and this support has been known to reduce depression. Support is still provided to people who have weak ties with online communities and stronger ties are possible especially amongst those people who have previously met. Groups of people interacting over the internet can get more personal or intimate with the passage of time. High bandwidth wireless has made it possible to assume an internet identity which can be accessed from anywhere in the world, a new city, a hotel room or a new office and old relationships are maintained even with movements over vast distances. The power of the computer mediated person-to-person contact is set to increase with a tendency to invisibly maintain and strengthen community links of choice (Wellman, 2001, Pp 30-45), (Alexander, 2002, Chapter 6) and (Sessions, 2000).
It can, therefore, be safely concluded that the evolving digital communications technologies have indeed transformed the way in which interpersonal communications are conducted and maintained, with even more surprises lying ahead. Because of changes that have taken place in personal communications, the society at large and its culture is also being transformed (Wellman, 2001), (Sessions, 2000) and (Wong, 2004).
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