Digital technologies are so assimilated in our lives they may as well be our third arms. It has become something that we cannot avoid being aware of because of the ubiquitous nature of it’s presence. As a result of this, I believe people have an underlying understanding that the internet is only going to continue to grow and that it is easier to grow with technology than to try and stunt it. As humans we must embrace this change and use the power of technology to further our own natural desire for social connection and interaction. In this essay, I am going to discuss how the growing world of technology has impacted contemporary society. First, I will analyse how the ability to maintain long distance relationships has connected us to greater social capital as an effect of growing digital technologies. I will then draw on the fact that these technologies have produced a contemporary generation of more aware and informed individuals.
Digital technologies allow us to manage relationships across a variety of locations around the world, which helps build social capital by also allowing us to save existing relationships. Putnem describes social capital as most powerful when involved in a lot of reciprocal relationships, which can be enhanced through online connection (2000:19). Social capital is essentially our wealth in terms of people which Putnem proves has major health and happiness advantages. Online activity allows people to stay connected through many different social sites and allows this capital of sociability to remain strong because consequently, people do not have to surrender connection to geographical boundaries. Contemporary society is benefitting from having this ability to sustain bonds online because it gives society the power of choice that was not available prior to instant internet connectivity. The choice to be able to manage more relationships and the choice to select which relationships we want to keep. Van Dijk refers to the “richer-get-richer” effect (2012:186), advocating the concept of offline relationships actually being strengthened online, and I think this connects well with regards to the aspect of choice. We are now in greater control of the connections we want to have and are able to have a greater amount of these connections, as we are more connected today than ever before. Social Networking Sites such as Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter are all social sites known as the “third place” (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013:37) where conversation is the primary focus within all of these mediums. This desire for social activity and a subconscious urge to build social capital runs parallel with social networking sites having an expectation for social responses. The internet was not built to be a social tool but has evolved into one as an effect of human nature craving sociability; a craving satisfied by the power we as humans have now that we can have friendships no matter where we are.
The ability to connect over long distances also impacts society in terms of the diversity of relationships. Experiences created through life are remembered and savoured through relationships made with other people. Rainie and Wellman argue that “people are not hooked on gadgets - they are hooked on each other” (2012:6), which highlights our human desire for social interaction, and how the world of today compliments this desire with greater access to a broader range of relationships. Involvement in social groups today can be viewed from the perspective that “networked individuals have partial membership in multiple networks and rely less on permanent memberships in settled groups” (2012:12). This perspective implies a sort of loneliness due to the fact that groups are looser and a lot more scattered, which may also suggest uncertainty in where our relationships lie. Groups may become more temporary and social circles are less set in stone. However, is this necessarily a bad thing? Our dependency on one fixed, unchanging group could potentially damage our growth as humans with little exposure to opportunity. Digital technology has given people this exposure to a mass range of different people, which can make our relationships as colourful as we would like them to be. This also builds on technological advancements bringing us greater access to the choice of who we are friends with, when we want to connect and finally, how we choose to do so. There is however another slightly darker side to this. There are now more intense feelings surrounding the idea that if you do not involve in these social networking sites, you will be socially secluded, which Van Dijk discusses as feeling “forced to participate” (184). Maccoby and Seeman studied this idea in 1959, and it can be deduced that trends from decades ago still repeat themselves today. She investigated the ‘majority effect’ through a series of social experiments and found that it is common for individuals to go against their own judgements if it is not the view held by the majority. This plays out today with the pressure to conform to social trends of staying connected and being online, which understandably can be dangerous because people submit well to the actions of the majority. It can become difficult to break around this pressure, making the ‘norm-following’ individual at risk of yielding to the group even when they may be wrong rather than trusting their own intuition. However, I would also argue that the ability to obtain more relationships that are diverse and widespread has still been chosen over remaining ‘offline’. It can be understood that social pressure plays an active role in why people want to stay connected, but the consequential advantages of this progression in society are undoubtable. We have never been exposed to such a large amount of contrasting individuals as we are today.
The rise of digital technologies has also brought another change in contemporary society concerning the creation of a more aware and informed generation of individuals. For ages in the history of society, people have feared the advancement of technology and how it would impact humanity on a social level. Rainie and Wellman use the example of the ‘printing press fear’ explaining how people believed this would encourage too much focus on new information or the other fear of how TVs and cars were similarly going to kill sociability (6). Fear is inevitably tied to any large scale change, however focus also needs to be placed on technology in terms of advancement to the knowledge we as humans are capable of possessing. Today we have greater access to news, information, a greater understanding of other people and also a greater understanding of ourselves. The exposure to different types of networks mean a “networked individual can fashion their own complex identities depending on their… personal characteristics” (Rainie and Wellman, 15). Individuals can use the internet to help shape the way they communicate with various people in different situations and contexts to allow more nuances in their personalities to be shown. Traditionally, the variety of platforms used to demonstrate different attributes of an individual personality did not exist, however today different complexities can be represented much more easily. This ability to establish distinct personality quirks has enabled people to become more aware of defining characteristics and how someone chooses to behave with different groups of people. Van Dijk also argues this point explaining that people are less concerned with how much they share online nowadays as it contributes to the furthering of their “maturing identities” (185), progressing this idea that greater online access helps develop awareness of identity.
Great accessibility to information also makes us more aware individuals in another sense regarding increased exposure to world affairs and news. News is much less passive than it was even just 30 years ago, as now “web treatment of news provides fuller context…invites challenge, amplification” (Rainie and Wellman 225), which is important because we can now be more interactive with the news we receive. People not only have greater access to knowing more information but are also able to be opinionated and challenged by it, which changes the individual of today making them more critical and evaluative. Algorithms were also designed to mediate the information people see and can actually arguably become detrimental to our understanding of this news. It is formulated so that we see things we want to see and can end up becoming potential victims of our own biases. News is tailored so that we view things we already agree with and know already because the algorithm understands that this is what we are attracted to and will stay tuned for that reason. However, it is also not as black and white as that. Algorithms are undeniably real and must be acknowledged in this essay for an understanding of the variety of mediums in which information is exported to us, but does not limit our access to news to only one specific viewpoint. The internet is flooded with networking sites that promote the growth of availability of finding new sources of information “beneficial and efficient for [the] needs” (232) of people. Furthermore, linking back to news now being more interactive can highlight the awareness people have regarding the way media is presented to us because we are active and critical through the heightened ability of being able to establish opinions on the news we see. Our entire perception of news cannot be completely moulded on algorithms as not everything we see is always going to be filtered in this way. There is a great mass of news this generation is able to relish in, which can be described in one way as “TMI: too much information” (Rainie and Wellman, 232). There is more information available to people now than there ever has been before, but I stand with the belief that humans would still benefit more from having greater amounts than less. “Too much” implies a negative connotation of the amount of information available to us, but this access has allowed individuals the idea of choice I discussed earlier. Van Dijk refers to Hindman (2008) in his work mentioning that “it is easy to speak on the internet, but difficult to be heard” (187) emphasising that it is hard to navigate through so much information. I profoundly agree with this, although still place weight on the point that at least there is a mass of information available to be navigated through. This amount of knowledge was not always an option for people, but today we can choose to dig deeper, we can choose how much knowledge we want to have. This therefore allows us to become a generation of individuals that are informed to a variety of themes in the world. People can have an appreciation for world affairs, because it is information that the door is open to.
Contemporary society is changing rapidly and in many remarkable ways. The growth of technology has been one of the biggest roots in nurturing this change because of the mass amount of participating users. I talked about two examples in society that were impacted by these digital technologies. First, I discussed the interconnectivity of the internet in being able to manage long distance relationships and how this helps builds social capital. Not only are people able to have more relations but they are also able to have more diverse ones too. Technology makes the reinforcement of offline friends much easier to manage and helps sustain social capital because there never comes a point in time where we are forced into sacrificing a relation against our will. I then discussed how contemporary society is more aware and informed as a result of the growing technology age. People now have more ways to establish their own identities and are also more exposed to an interactive range of news and information. People have more platforms and more opportunities to become aware individuals that understand themselves and the changing world we live in. Digital technologies have impacted society in many ways and these are just two of them. Technology will continue to grow just as society will continue to transform and develop alongside it.
Dijk, Jan van. 2012. The network society. 3rd edition. ed. London: London : SAGE.
Hinton, Sam. 2013. Understanding social media. Edited by Larissa Hjorth. London: London : SAGE Publications.
Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling alone : the collapse and revival of American community. New York ; London: New York ; London : Simon & Schuster.
Rainie, Harrison. 2012. Networked : the new social operating system. Edited by Barry Wellman. Cambridge, Mass. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press.
Seeman, Melvin, Eleanor E. Maccoby, Theodore M. Newcomb, and Eugene L. Hartley. 1959. Readings in Social Psychology