How many good friends do you have? How many people do you meet up with for coffee or a movie? How many would you call with news about an illness or invite to your wedding? Now, how many “friends” do you have on Facebook? Technology has changed how we interact with each other. It has turned “friend” into a verb and has made it possible to share mundane news (“My dog just threw up under the bed! Ugh!”) with hundreds or even thousands of people who might know you only slightly, if at all. Through the magic of Facebook, you might know about an old elementary school friend’s new job before her mother does.
At the same time that technology is expanding the boundaries of our social circles, various media are also changing how we perceive and interact with each other. We don’t only use Facebook to keep in touch with friends; we also use it to “like” certain TV shows, products, or celebrities. Even television is no longer a one-way medium but an interactive one. We are encouraged to tweet, text, or call in to vote for contestants in everything from singing competitions to matchmaking endeavors—bridging the gap between our entertainment and our own lives.
How does technology change our lives for the better? Or does it? When you tweet a social cause or cut and paste a status update about cancer awareness on Facebook, are you promoting social change? Does the immediate and constant flow of information mean we are more aware and engaged than any society before us? Or are American Idol and Jersey Shore today’s version of ancient Rome’s “bread and circuses”––distractions and entertainment to keep the lower classes complacent to the inequities of our society?
These are some of the questions that interest sociologists. How might we examine these issues from a sociological perspective? A functionalist would probably focus on what social purposes technology and media serve. For example, the web is both a form of technology and of media, and it links individuals and nations in a communication network that facilitates both small family discussions and global trade networks. A functionalist would also be interested in the manifest functions of media and technology, as well as their role in social dysfunction. Someone applying the conflict perspective would probably focus on the systematic inequality created by differential access to media and technology. For example, how can middle-class Americans be sure the news they hear is an objective account of reality, unsullied by monied political interests? Someone applying the interactionist perspective to technology and the media might seek to understand the difference between the real lives we lead and the reality depicted on “reality” television shows, such as Jersey Shore. Throughout this chapter, we will use our sociological imagination to explore how media and technology impact society.
It is easy to look at the latest sleek tiny Apple product and think that technology is only recently a part of our world. But from the steam engine to the most cutting-edge robotic surgery tools, technology describes the application of science to address the problems of daily life. We might look back at the enormous and clunky computers of the 1970s that had about as much storage as an iPod Shuffle and roll our eyes in disbelief. But chances are 30 years from now our skinny laptops and MP3 players will look just as archaic.
What Is Technology?
While most people probably picture computers and cell phones when the subject of technology comes up, technology is not merely a product of the modern era. For example, fire and stone tools were important forms that technology developed during the Stone Age. Just as the availability of digital technology shapes how we live today, the creation of stone tools changed how premodern humans lived and how well they ate. From the first calculator, invented in 2400 B.C.E. Babylon in the form of an abacus, to the predecessor of the modern computer, created in 1882 by Charles Babbage, all of our technological innovations are advancements on previous iterations. And indeed, all aspects of our lives today are influenced by technology. In agriculture, the introduction of machines that can till, thresh, plant, and harvest greatly reduced the need for manual labor, which in turn meant there were fewer rural jobs, which led to the urbanization of society, as well as lowered birthrates because there was less need for large families to work the farms. In the criminal justice system, the ability to ascertain innocence through DNA testing has saved the lives of people on death row. The examples are endless: Technology plays a role in absolutely every aspect of our lives.
As with any improvement to human society, not everyone has equal access. Technology, in particular, often creates changes that lead to ever greater inequalities. In short, the gap gets wider faster. This technological stratification has led to a new focus on ensuring better access for all.
There are two forms of technological stratification. The first is differential class-based access to technology in the form of the digital divide. This digital divide has led to the second form, a knowledge gap, which is, as it sounds, an ongoing and increasing gap in information for those who have less access to technology. Simply put, students in well-funded schools receive more exposure to technology than students in poorly funded schools. Those students with more exposure gain more proficiency, making them far more marketable in an increasingly technology-based job market, leaving our society divided into those with technological knowledge and those without. Even as we improve access, we have failed to address an increasingly evident gap in e-readiness, the ability to sort through, interpret, and process knowledge (Sciadas 2003).
Since the beginning of the millennium, social science researchers have tried to bring attention to the digital divide, the uneven access to technology along race, class, and geographic lines. The term became part of the common lexicon in 1996, when then Vice President Al Gore used it in a speech. This was the point when personal computer use shifted dramatically, from 300,000 users in 1991 to more than 10 million users by 1996 (Rappaport 2009). In part, the issue of the digital divide had to do with communities that received infrastructure upgrades that enabled high-speed internet access, upgrades that largely went to affluent urban and suburban areas, leaving out large swaths of the country.
At the end of the 20th century, technology access was also a big part of the school experience for those whose communities could afford it. Early in the millennium, poorer communities had little or no technology access, while well-off families had personal computers at home and wired classrooms in their schools. In the 2000s, however, the prices for low-end computers dropped considerably, and it appeared the digital divide was naturally ending. And while it is true that internet usage, even among those with low annual incomes, continues to grow, it would be overly simplistic to say that the digital divide has been completely resolved.
In fact, new data from the Pew Research Center (2011) suggest the emergence of a new divide. As technological devices gets smaller and more mobile, larger percentages of minority groups (such as Latinos and African Americans) are using their phones to connect to the internet. In fact, about 50 percent of people in these minority groups connect to the web via such devices, whereas only one-third of whites do (Washington 2011). And while it might seem that the internet is the internet, regardless of how you get there, there’s a notable difference. Tasks like updating a résumé or filling out a job application are much harder on a cell phone than on a wired computer in the home. As a result, the digital divide might not mean access to computers or the internet, but rather access to the kind of online technology that allows for empowerment, not just entertainment (Washington 2011).
Mossberger, Tolbert, and Gilbert (2006) demonstrated that the majority of the digital divide for black Americans could be explained by demographic and community-level characteristics, such as socioeconomic status and geographic location. For the Latino population, ethnicity alone, regardless of economics or geography, seemed to limit technology use. Liff and Shepard (2004) found that although the gender digital divide has decreased in the sense of access to technology, it remained in the sense that women, who are accessing technology shaped primarily by male users, feel less confident in their internet skills and have less internet access at both work and home. Finally, Guillen and Suarez (2005) found that the global digital divide resulted from both the economic and sociopolitical characteristics of countries.
Chances are your mobile phone company, as well as the makers of your DVD player and MP3 device, are all counting on their products to fail. Not too quickly, of course, or consumers wouldn’t stand for it—but frequently enough that you might find that when the built-in battery on your iPod dies, it costs far more to fix it than to replace it with a newer model. Or you find that the phone company e-mails you to tell you that you’re eligible for a free new phone, because yours is a whopping two years old. And appliance repair people say that while they might be fixing some machines that are 20 years old, they generally aren’t fixing the ones that are seven years old; newer models are built to be thrown out. This is called planned obsolescence, and it is the business practice of planning for a product to be obsolete or unusable from the time it is created.
To some extent, this is a natural extension of new and emerging technologies. After all, who is going to cling to an enormous and slow desktop computer from 2000 when a few hundred dollars can buy one that is significantly faster and better? But the practice is not always so benign. The classic example of planned obsolescence is the nylon stocking. Women’s stockings—once an everyday staple of women’s lives––get “runs” or “ladders” after a few wearings. This requires the stockings to be discarded and new ones purchased. Not surprisingly, the garment industry did not invest heavily in finding a rip-proof fabric; it was in their best interest that their product be regularly replaced.
Those who use Microsoft Windows might feel that they, like the women who purchase endless pairs of stockings, are victims of planned obsolescence. Every time Windows releases a new operating system, there are typically not many changes that consumers feel they must have. However, the software programs are upwardly compatible only. This means that while the new versions can read older files, the old version cannot read the newer ones. In short order, those who have not upgraded find themselves unable to open files sent by colleagues or friends, and usually wind up upgrading as well.
Ultimately, whether you are getting rid of your old product because you are being offered a shiny new free one (like the latest smartphone model), or because it costs more to fix than to replace (like the iPod model), or because not doing so leaves you out of the loop (like the Windows model), the result is the same. It might just make you nostalgic for your old Sony Walkman and VCR.
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