Essay: Technology and Its Effect on Communication

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¶ … Societal Impact of Modern Communication Technology

There is no denying that modern communication technology has revolutionized society. We have changed from a planet of isolated nations into a globally connected universe in which communications are synonymous with speed and convenience. Part of this transformation has been an expanded focus on visual images. People watch television more than they read books; children tend to play graphically extravagant video games as opposed to traditional board games; and even telephone conversations are often accompanied by visual images these days. While many people see these advancements as beneficial to society, critics such as Christine Rosen fear that the diffusion of manufactured images into our social environment is a dangerous trend because these images are often manipulations of the truth.

The question is, is this use of imagery as manipulative tool something that has come about as a result of modern technology, or is it something that has been a part of human nature for centuries? Despite the fact that Rosen's chief concern is with the effect of modern technology on creating an image-obsessed society, even she admits that this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, according to Rosen, "Political leaders have long feared images and taken extreme measures to control and manipulate them. The anonymous minions of manipulators who sanitized photographs at the behest of Stalin (a man who seemingly never met an enemy he didn't murder and then airbrush from history) are perhaps the best known example. Control of images has long been a preoccupation of the powerful" (354).

The consequence of these manipulations is that people are being controlled -- not against their will per se -- but without all the necessary information to make appropriate decisions. Even if a person is not being told what to believe, the way in which messages are conveyed (and not conveyed) can have a dynamic impact on the choices that person makes in life; which is definitely a form of control.

A related concern is that cultural distinctions are being eradicated from modern society due to global communication technology. According to Raymond Cohen, author of Negotiating Across Cultures: International Communication in an Interdependent World, modern technology has facilitated the globalization of popular culture, and this has, in turn, resulted in a change in how different cultures view themselves and the world. These newly constructed identities create an open market for alternative ideas, products and pop culture icons, thus fueling the international economy but homogenizing many cultural distinctions in the process.

The ultimate result of all of these transformations is a blurring of the lines between cultures, as well as between what is truth and what is merely the image of truth. Nowhere are these lines becoming accused of blurring more dramatically then in broadcast news. Neil Postman's book, How to Watch TV News, makes it exceedingly clear that TV news cannot be trusted as a reliable source. This is because like anything else on TV, the goal is to get as many viewers as possible, so that advertising revenues can be raised. In other words, the more people that tune into a TV show, the higher advertising prices the station or network can charge, and the more money they make. The news is just as much a part of this marketing machine as sit-coms or reality shows. As Postman explains "certain producers have learned that by pandering to the audience, be eschewing solid news and replacing it with leering sensationalism, they can subvert the news by presenting a 'television commercial show' that is interrupted by news" (p. 25).

As Postman states, because television, in all its new and varied forms, is one of the primary media by which we conceptualize reality, its messages profoundly influence the nature of public awareness, cultural trends and discussion of important issues. Then again, is it not our choice, and for that matter, our obligation, to research all sides of an issue ourselves rather than relying on brief snippets from the evening news to make our decisions for us? If so, then the responsibility lies as much with us as it does with the media moguls. Considering the extent that TV news has become a commercial commodity, audiences must learn to watch it with a critical eye, and understand that impartiality and reliability are not always part of the equation.

Almost a quarter of a century ago, John Fiske made the claim in his book Television Culture that "the study of culture must not be confined to the reading of texts, for the conditions of a text's reception necessarily become part of the meanings and pleasures it offers to the viewer" (72). Fiske seems to have anticipated the image-based society that Rosen describes; one in which text is being increasingly replaced with visual symbolism. But how accurate is this depiction of modern society, really? While Fiske could not have foreseen the explosion in popularity of text messaging and e-mailing, Rosen wrote her article when these trends were already in full bloom. However, it is interesting that she does not mention text messaging, instant messaging, or even e-mail anywhere in her article. These are clearly text-based technologies, and with the exception of accompanying emoticons, they are imageless. This would seem to refute Rosen's claims that the written word is becoming obsolete.

In actuality, it is not that text is disappearing from our world; it is simply that the mediums by which we receive text have changed. People may be reading their books on Kindle now instead of in a paperback; but they are still reading text. In fact, in many ways the written word has become more prevalent in modern society because of all of the internet communication that occurs. Blogs are an example of another popular venue for the written word that has come into existence thanks to modern technology. So here we have all of these new text-based technological innovations (i.e. text messaging, instant messaging, e-mails, blogs, Kindle, etc.), which shows that basically people are reading and writing more than ever before, yet critics like Rosen continue to fear an image-based society.

Technology has made available many stunning graphic advancements in photography, film, television and even video games. While it is impossible not to acknowledge the fact that technology has enhanced imagery as well, there is really no evidence that the written word is on its way to being eclipsed by modern, digitized hieroglyphics. People have long made the claim that a picture is worth a thousand words, but we are no closer now to replacing imagery with text than we were when that saying was first coined.

Similarly, the concerns that the modern media has sensationalized the news to the point that people cannot tell fiction from truth is also a fear that has been enduring for centuries. Postman's primary concern is that television is a form of amusement that by its very nature, reduces everything sacred and important to us, to the less important realm of entertainment. The problem, he asserts, is not that television is entertaining, but that entertainment has become the medium by which all experiences are arbitrated. Postman furthermore disparages the way in which important news events are promoted and segmented, claiming that this trivializes important matters. He complains that the 'teaser' ads and smiling reporters serve to tell us that what we are about to hear is essentially frivolous.

While it is difficult not to agree with Postman's assessments, one point of contention is that the commercial and entertainment factors are not the unique product of television news; the print media has engaged in these same sensationalistic tactics throughout history. In the nineteenth century "yellow journalism" was rampant, and even newspaper advertisements were full of false claims and aggrandized information. Thus it would appear that it is not the introduction… [END OF PREVIEW]

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