Social Impacts of Internet Use
Review of the Literature
Little Brother Machinima
Technology has had an outstanding effect on modern society and culture. It provides us with tools that enhance our ability to network through internet communities which includes anything from online gaming to applications such as Facebook or Twitter. Internet communities promote freedom of expression that may not be as feasible in real life. Real life, inevitably, contains many stereotypes and whether we believe in them or not, they are still in existence subconsciously. In addition, Technology is also a historic marker, as explained by the theory of technological determinism, which focuses not on how technology affects culture, but rather how culture affects technology. This theory is exemplified by the radical culture change that took place during the industrialized shift experienced by numerous countries such as Britain and America. Although technology has a great influence on culture by simplifying the means of communication, the reciprocal is true as well – that culture has an effect on technology because the latter is a product of the former.
A popular mode of participation in cyberspace is through internet communities, which can be beneficial for those that utilize it correctly because it encourages alternate modes of expression. For instance, Role playing is a popular gaming genre that continues to flourish in the gaming community. Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, or MMORPG’s, includes games such as World of Warcraft and Everquest, which has over millions of participants. Role playing games encourages users to assume a specific role of the character they have created. Critics of role playing state that this method of expression encourages critical thinking and certain social skills such as leadership, teamwork and collaboration. For the most part, videogames, and especially MMORPGs, have several missions carried out in a highly organized and strategic mode of action called raids. Raids are composed of many participants, ranging anywhere from 10-200 gamers, set out to accomplish a set task. In order for a raid to be successful, each participant must have a specific job or task. For instance, a certain character could be the healer for the group; other characters could be the attackers, etc. Although the breakdown of assigned roles is far more complicated than this, we can see how this general idea of role playing can exercise certain social skills. However, in addition to teaching social skills, online communities promote a participation medium that is free of stereotypes. For example, expression in the real world is limited or hindered based upon one’s ethnicity, age, or level of education. Through these online communities, people are allowed to express themselves however they choose. Author Howard Rheingold gives a specific example of Joan, a neuropsychologist who had been “disfigured, crippled, and left mute by an automobile accident at the hands of a drunken driver”. In the real world, Joan was susceptible to being victimized due to her unfortunate circumstances, especially because of her inability to communicate. However, in the online community, she was able to portray herself as somebody that was a perfectly functioning human being. Using technology as a mode of education is not, however, the only beneficial impact technology has on culture. Technology also promotes social networking as can be seen through applications such as Twitter or Facebook.
Prior to the cyberspace era, people relied solely on phones or other methods of communication to connect with one another. The introduction of cyberspace caused a shift in culture by promoting social networking. Communication and networking became far more feasible with e-mail and free applications such as Skype, Facebook, or Twitter. Such applications provide its users with a popular medium in which people can communicate – they also update their users on their social networks’ activities. If we take a step further down the technology road, we realize that many individuals are constantly connected to these sites through phone updates. It is very common nowadays to see people sending e-mails or updating their Facebook status through their cell phones. Prior to cyberspace, however, people were far less connected because telephones or face-to-face interaction was their only means of networking. Therefore, technology promotes a highly networked culture by simplifying the means of communication and by increasing the amount of users able to access these applications.
The internet, however, has its downfalls due to its lack of restrictions, regulation, and/or consequences. The high degree of freedom in online communities causes there to be a lot of opportunity for individuals to fulfill fantasies (most often sexual) not possible in the real world. In a sense, online communities support a culture lacking serious consequences. The identities formed in the real world and online world can be treated as two completely separate spheres (although some tend to blur the distinction between the two) meaning that events happening in one realm is independent of the other and vice-versa. In addition, online communities lack universal laws and/or consequences and meaning people are able to exercise their freedom without the fear of punishment. In the real world, laws have integrated themselves into everyday living and there is a social norm of which individuals must follow in order for people to live in harmony. For instance, it would be illegal for a man to strip off his clothes and roam the streets naked – this person would be arrested for indecent exposure. However, online communities have no such restriction. In fact, some choose to fulfill their sexual desires in online communities simply because doing so in the real world may lead to serious consequences. For instance, Julian Dibbell gives an example where a woman’s online avatar was “virtually raped”. Although there is a huge difference between virtual rape and real life rape, both are, nonetheless, immoral. In the case of a Rape in Cyberspace, the only consequence that the rapist received was banishment from the realm. This, however, is only one of many cases since most of these situations don’t become publicized. Cases of virtual rape, sexual harassment, and cybersex occur almost all too frequently in online communities due to the lack of consequences for such actions.
This is not, however, the only detriment the internet has to offer – studies have shown a striking correlation between internet use and social interaction. For instance, surveys suggest that the more time people spend on the internet, the less time they spend in their social environment. In addition, the case study shows that people spend more hours on the internet the longer they have been using it. The study also indicates that heavy internet users begin to turn their back on traditional media such as television or the newspaper. A crucial difference between the internet and traditional media, such as television, is that the former requires one’s full attention – it is not regarded as a social activity. However, the study shows that there are few demographic trends regarding internet use. For example, it is less likely for individuals over the age of 65 to be frequent users of the internet. In addition, it is more likely for educated individuals to exhibit high levels of internet use. For instance, college students exhibit nearly a 40% increase in internet use in comparison to lesser educated individuals. It is apparent that the college culture requires technology to support its high degree of social networking and research.
The effect of technology on culture can be further examined by analyzing the culture shift that occurred in countries that experienced industrialization. For instance, during the agrarian era, it was common for wealthy landowners to own slaves. In fact, it was within the acceptable norm to treat human beings as property – this was, in fact, one of the most efficient methods of farming. In the middle ages, feudalism was a common practice in which serfs, or unfree peasants, worked for their masters in exchange for property rights. In addition, who could forget the slave system that was all too popular in America? Agrarianism was a culture embraced by pre-industrialized societies that lacked certain technologies which led to systems that emphasized human labor. For instance, pre-industrialized societies had limited division of labor, meaning that there was not a broad range of specialized craftsmanship. Also, the social caste was fairly narrow – the gap between the rich and the poor was not as apparent as post-industrialized societies. Lastly, the majority of individuals lived in rural settings.
In contrast, the industrial revolution was characterized by far different circumstances. For example, populations condensed from rural environments to urban settings. Most factories were water-powered, causing them to be founded by fast-running water. Urban cities gave rise to cramped living conditions which included open sewer systems and shared facilities – this made the spread of disease all too inevitable. In addition, population growth and industrialization existed in a delicate equilibrium. For instance, the increased demand for manufactured goods as a result of a population boom also meant an increase demand for workers. In fact, it was fairly common for factories to exhibit child labor. As a result, labor unions and socialists movements began to regulate immoral practices of those in power. Eventually, the industrialized shift paved the pathway for a technology dependent culture known as modern America.
It is apparent that technology has its effects on culture, but culture, also, has an effect on technology. The theory of Technological Determinism states how a particular culture develops and modifies certain technologies once it is introduced into their culture. This theory focuses not on how technology affects culture, but rather how culture affects technology because the latter is a product of the former. It has also been made known that there is a correlation between technology, culture, and development. Although many consider development to be synonymous with culture, it should be emphasized that development can also be a way to note historic change – such as the shift of American society from a largely agrarian society to an industrialized one as mentioned previously. Professor Healy gives an example of Charles Lindbergh, a young aviator and inventor that inspired the lives of many by flying over the Atlantic. This advance in technology seemed to be a stepping stone in aviation. However, a few years later came the onset of the Depression along with World War II and the rise of Hitler. World War II was highly dependent on aviation technology which brought about a higher degree of devastation that one could imagine. When used in times of peace, aviation was an aesthetically pleasing idea; but in times of war, culture reversed intended goal of aviation and turned it into a tool for destruction.
Technology, in essence, is a product of development, and it is customary to see the two go hand-in-hand. Since development is a process evolved from distinct cultures, it is safe to say that both culture affects technology and that technology affects culture. The most crucial effect technology has had on modern society is the feasibility of communication, which promotes social networking and the idea of “staying connected”. Technology has integrated itself so much into our culture that it is quite rare to know someone who doesn’t own a cell phone or someone who doesn’t have a Facebook account. Our culture today has become so dependent on technology that our businesses, schools, and even households could not live without it.