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Does Communications Technology Determine the Form of Society?


Communications technologies are having far-reaching effect on the society. The effects are present in all aspects of life, including politics, economics, culture and the social sphere. These processes have actually started from old times, and have grown into the present. It has therefore being leading to arguments, as to whether technologies determine society, or whether it is the society that determines technology. Those who believe that technologies determine societies are the technological determinists, while those who argue that society determines technology are social constructivists (Webster, 2002). While some theorists maintain that communication technologies power sectors of the society (Castells, 1996; Tomlinson, 2003), other arguments have not strayed too farther from there, given the eminence they give the ability of the media to influence societies (Van Jik, 1999; Mcquail, 2000).

Sometimes, the society is seen as a network (Castell, 1996; Van Djik,…). All this goes to illustrate the present century as one characterise by the fast means of communication, which has shrunk the world, and has possibly made it a global village (McLuhan, 1964). The compression of time and space (Giddens, 1990), undermines time differences between places, resulting into great global changes. In doing this essay therefore, I shall examine the developments from all perspectives possible, so as to situate understanding within an appreciable framework. I will begin by looking at the rationale behind the question, then look at the context before concluding.


Though communication, which is about the exchange of meanings, play a key role in the way the society is, it will be wrong to assume that it is a sole determinant. Other aspects of the society are equally important. This could be political, economic, social or cultural. They relate with communication in a dialectics to configure a social setting (Castells, 1996). Besides, these sectors are in themselves intricate. This is because; the social setting may be broken down into other spheres, just as the other facets can be subdivided. The communications technology in question could also be part of many of these sectors, like social, political and the cultural. They all intermingle, in a process of societal growth. The attention to communication is no doubt coming because of the increasing development of devises around it.

It all began with the print in the mid 14th and 15th century, before the telegraph came later, and then the radio, the television and the internet. The ways they have been growing in form and content have been significant enough to change societies. The print for instance brought about the book culture and the printed press. It revolutionise a number of things and even help a better understanding of some social spheres like nationalism (Anderson, 1983). Though old and celebrated, the print has grown over the years and is still growing. The telegraph came and improved a lot more things. It importantly brought about speedy communications between peoples, cultures and societies. It participated in the introduction of international communication, which paved the way for modern day appreciation of globalisation, and hence the society in general (Tomlinson, 2003). The telegraph also dealt with the print, as texts were in print-although with limited extents. It was the telephone, which came after, that deviated in terms of functions. It added the voice effect to communications. Apart from that, it gave room for some level of confidentiality, just as it helped communication between one person and the other. With all these functions, the telephone added its character to defining the nature of the society. Radio was useful in its own way as well, as it brought about communication between one and many. It also added the voice advantage to communications, and helped propaganda (Taylor, 1997). Radio has been useful during wars and in the process of governance, as it helps mass communication, and in fact, one of the first communication technologies to do that.  Through the radio, society became easier to govern, while interactions between one and many expanded.

Television was equally very important. The first type that came was the black and white, before satellite broadcasting. Its audio-visual dimension to communication was important to the way meanings and messages were appreciated across peoples and cultures. Distant peoples were brought closer through pictures and images, leading therefore to a better understanding of society and the world around us. It also added to the distanciation of time and space (Giddens, 1990). The advent of the internet and eventually the World Wide Web (WWW) added further dimensions to the debate. This is because it converges all preceding media of communication, leading to its description as a convergent technology (Castell, 1996; Taylor, 1997).

The internet has altered many things particularly social and power relations amongst peoples and places, which has lead to many references to it as the definer of the new society. It has importantly democratised communication, and has made communication an affair between many and many. Hierarchies have disappeared in some instances. People have become freer to choose whom they relate with, while they can also choose what they want to do at any point in time. Time is not so much of an issue in determining when to use it and when not do. The global spread of the technology has become so evident that it is seen as an “information superhighway” (Thussu, 2000). Many institutions are benefiting from it, including the military, the educational sector, the political, the social and the economic sector. With respect to the last especially, businesses are booming, because transactions have become immediate and instantaneous. Propagandists also use it often, just as terrorists find an avenue to express themselves through its space. As a technology of communication, the internet has somewhat affected the society to an extent that it is being seen as a medium still in its infancy.

All this is not to say that the society is not negatively affected by it. It all reminds us of the fact that there are many intricacies to these debates, which all work together in a dialectics. Some of its negative effects are moral decadence, through pornography; increase in crime, especially identity crime; uploading of  trivial and misleading information; social exclusion; lies; laziness; and child abuse. It all goes to say that just as some of the technologies are having positive effects on society, they also come with many negative effects. It is significant to state nevertheless that rigid lines do not divide the coming of the technologies. The coming is interspersed. For instance, while the telephone came in the earlier part of the 19th century, a variant of the telephone, which is the mobile phone, came in the 1980’s. Other technologies like films, cameras, and iPods have also developed as an intersection to the major media. It indicates that fact that the technologies are growing at a great pace, both collectively and even independent of each other.

From the above, it is therefore clear that the technologies have related with the society in a very influential way. They have helped in governance, in businesses, in the social sphere through fostering interactions, and in helping the appreciation of the ways and cultures of distant peoples and societies, across the globe. It is obviously the rationale behind thoughts that technologies of communications determine society. As earlier noted, this is however not an absolute talk, and the society also plays its own part as well.

It is notable before hand that the so-called developments in technologies are not spread to all sectors of the social system. Many are yet cut off from the benefits of the system, leading again to debates on the digital divide. This is about the exclusion of nations and peoples from the spread of the technologies. Many developing nations are for instance cut off from the system. These nations are mainly in Africa, South American and in Asia (Thussu, 2000). Besides the exclusion of nations, some people, particularly the poor in rich societies are also not benefiting from the influence of the rise in communication technologies. It means that there is digital divide between nations, as there also is within nations. Furthermore, this also means that communication technologies are making impacts on societies, but the impacts are still sectional or limited to nations and classes. This deficiency would however have to be bridged before the impact of the technologies can diffuse.

Other than that is the fact that communications technologies are human creations. Individual, peoples and governments are often its inventors. The shape and form they want it to take determines the level of resources, time and use that each one will get. This partly highlights the social constructivist approach to the debate. The bottom-line therefore is that if the society is not capable of bringing about the technologies, they cannot grow in themselves. The fact that many of the inventions began and grew in the advanced industrial society illustrates this point. The advanced countries have been rich and innovative, and were then able to configure, what is most suitable to them, before it spread to other parts of the globe. In essence, technological determinism is not totally right, while social constructivism is also not absolutely correct. Rather, I would say the two paradigms work hand in hand, in a dialectics. The interplay of forces eventually brings about the society we presently dwell. While some call it post-industrial, others have called it a network society (Thussu, 2000). What is important to all of them is that changes have happened and are still taking place in the society through communication technologies.

In generic terms, technology and society contribute to а relationship.  Without society, there would be no technology, and yet without technology, society as we know it would be nonexistent. The everyday tools we take for granted, have consumed our lives to а point that society may not function without them, while they have had а profound and lasting impact on our civilization and way of life as а whole. They have been helping businesses to advance by increasing productivity and getting millions of people participating, as either users or workers.  By providing new levels of mediated experiences (Tomlinson, 2003), besides delivering an immediacy that leaves one to question whether or not these transactions are truly mediated, а new sort of intimacy results altogether. Communication technologies notably provides for contacts without one’s physical presence (Ishii, 2005: p385).

In today’s world, it is very difficult to go anywhere without seeing the impact that the technology has had on societies. From residences, to education centres, to the workplace, the collision of technology has been incredible. Everything from appliances to machines, from phones to cars, has become modernized in ways people would never have imagined beforehand. The same can be thought for workstations. Currently, it is very rare to find someone that does not have а cellular phone or а computer. It has become а standard for people of all ages.

Communication and Technology

On а quest as old as civilization itself, people everywhere have been in an unending pursuit of ways to overcome physical shortcomings. Humans have sought ways to influence nature. The advents of electricity, wireless technologies and the Internet have played leading roles in this triumph over geography (Castells, 1996; Giddens, 2000).  While making everyday social interactions more convenient, they have also become more impersonal. With the emergence of essentially faceless communication, room has arisen for redefining it (Kelan, 2007, p358)

Thus, а wide range of effects on people’s relationships exists. With this wave of permanent connectivity, normal daytime hours no longer restrict one’s availability (Flyverbom, 2006). Sometimes, it affects the private spheres of many and disrupts normal schedules. It sometimes results in unhealthy lifestyle. Communication is no doubt broad and makes а complete list of all types of communications, one has to get through а lot hard working (Flyverbom, 2006, p226).

Communication implies interaction between peoples and organisations probably in same or different places. Its

Theorists are legion and still growing, suggesting its importance to societal organisation. It comprises of sectors like telephonic services, television, radio broadcast, newspapers, news agencies, and Internet (e-mail, net surfing, text and voice chat, e-business, e-commerce etc.) It enjoys confidence and trust as compared to the era of print media.

Society has benefited greatly from Communication. The Communications Technologies such as Internet has led to the dissolution of distances (Gillespie, 2000). People send emails and could get replies within minutes, as compared to the early communication methods such as letters and mail systems (Kelan, 2007, p359). This trend creates opportunities in every field of society. Educational Institutions are, for instance, able to utilize latest communication technologies. They use video and Voice Conferencing, which allows Distance Education Methodology, which is becoming widespread across the world (Thussu, 2000). For emphasis sake, businesses are benefiting from the Technologies. Inventions such as Cellular phones, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and Notebooks allow effective communication between clients and partners. This results in increased efficiency in nearly all business fields (Giddens, 1990).

As a basic example, E-mail is quick, economical, convenient, and easy to use. It can also be personal. An important communication tool, it surpasses the telephone for many forms of business and personal interaction. These reasons probably explain its increasing popularity. As an integral part of the internet, its spread is reputedly faster than what the television and the telephone did. “Willy Gissen, an account supervisor at Levin Public Relations in White Plains, New York, views that it took radio forty years to reach fifty million users. ΤV took thirteen years to reach fifty million users. The internet did it in four years” (Light, 2005, p98)

Importantly, the coming of new communication technologies that eventually shapes society is sometimes hardly predictable.  For instance, the internet beginning in 1968 was to enable different computing centres to share resources. Little did they know they would be creating а worldwide phenomenon? The extent of the occurrence is astonishing. 225 million citizens can send and receive electronic messages globally. It has made e-mail a compelling function of the internet (Leonard, 2005, p241).

These has somewhat led to the death of distance (Caincross, 2001). This has implications for both individuals and organizations.  People work from wherever they choose. Organizations choose this option to reduce overhead costs and boost productivity, but must quickly learn to manage а decentralized work force (Castells, 1996). Today these new telecommunications technologies are the ‘electronic highways’ of the international age, equivalent to the role played by railway systems in the days of industrialisation (Castells, ibid).

Along with e-mail in the home and at school, it can also be found very useful in the workplace. Businesses are no longer confined to specific areas. People work together in large offices, in separate floors or in different wings, and still collaborate because of e-mails. They send and receive, without having to leave their own offices. The process can also be global, as actors can collaborate from different sides of the globe (Leonard, 2005, p240). The down side of this is that hard copies are no longer easily accessible. Most businesses are keeping track of all information sent through their network and those that are not may run into problems.

Tomlinson (2003) maintains, for instance that globalisation has increased both literal and virtual travels. He argues that the usage of modern technologies including telephones, computer networks and the mass media are all forms of mediated experiences. He puts forward the notion that “the local face-to-face context is somehow ‘pure’ and thus the most valid form of communicative interaction, and that the direct and ‘immediate’ becomes privileged as the high moral ground of cultural interaction from which any degree of mediation seems an inevitable shortfall.

We are in the midst of а global information revolution, driven by the convergence of information and communication technologies. The advent of electricity (and thus, technology) has triggered fundamental changes in all facets of life; touching social conditions, causing ongoing economic change, spurring new political trends, and bringing about various cultural changes through time. These developments have ceaselessly transformed the customs via which we as а society work, learn, interrelate with one another, and will continue to develop as we progress further in the future (Castells, 1996; 2001; Tomlinson,2003: Van de Vall, 2006, p50).


Communications technologies have, overall being influential to society, just as society has also influenced it. To this extent, I will say yes to the question that the technologies determine society, and no to the extent that the determination is not a one-way affair, but a two-way thing. With the internet becoming more and more convenient, for instance, the popularity of e-mail and instant messaging is increasing rapidly. These forms of electronic communication are becoming very useful in daily life. Whether it is being used at home, at work, or at school, it is something everyone has become accustomed to using. Electronic mail has rapidly become one of the most prominent communication media and а substantial amount of information is processed by it in the contemporary workplace, in what eventually rubs off on a the social order.  Communication technologies seemingly put us in greater control of our lives, but also make us vulnerable than ever.


  • Anderson, B., 1983, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
  • Caincross, Frances. 2001, The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution is changing our lives.
  • Castells, M., 1996, The Rise of the Network Society, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Flyverbom, Mikkel(2006);  Beyond the Black Box, Social Epistemology, Vol. 19 Issue 2/3, p225-229
  • Giddens Anthony, 1990, The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity
  • Gillespie, Marie. “Transnational Communications and Diaspora Communities” in Cottle, Simon. ed, 2000, Ethnic Minorities and the Media. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
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  • Kelan, Elisabeth K. (2007); Tools and Toys: Communicating gendered positions towards technology, Information, Communication & Society, Vol. 10 Issue 3, p358-383
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  • Light, Jennifer (2005); “From City Space to Cyber Space”, Virtual Geographies: Bodies, Space and Relations, p98-112
  • Taylor, Philip, 1997, Global Communications, International Affairs and the Media since 1945. London and New York: Routledge
  • Thussu, Daya Kishan. 2000, International Communication: Continuity and Change, London: Arnold
  • Tomlinson, John. (2003); Mediated Communication and Cultural Experience, In Globalization and Culture, University of Chicago, p23-36
  • Van de Vall, Renee. (2006);”Immersion and Distance in Virtual spaces, Mobilizing Place, Placing mobility: The Politics of Representation in а Globalized World, Ed Ginette Verstaete and Tim Cresswell, Amsterdam: Rodopi, p45-69
  • Van Dijk, Jap, 1999, The Network Society, London: Sage Publications
  • Webster Frank, 2002, Theories of the Information Society 2nd Edition, London: Routledge

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This entry was posted on August 30, 2013 by in communication, society.
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