Internet & Society
Nothing has changed the social world since the 1990s as profoundly as has the global spread of Internet technology. The Internet has begun to reshape the social structure of modern society. It has proliferated the process of globalization and pervaded everyday life with the miniaturization of technology. It has created new forms of social interaction, expression of the self and political organization. At the same time, this new technological advancement is responsible for a new form of social inequality, which has become known as the digital divide.
Keywords Cultural Capitals; Digital Divide; Digital Inequality; E-Government; E-Learning; Gutenberg-Galaxy; Information & Communication Technology (ICT); Municipal Broadband Wireless Network (MWN)
Internet technology has changed the world profoundly. Distances of time and space have shrunk dramatically. Information has become readily available at any time and nearly every location. At the same time, one can — ;via email, chat, or video-phone — ;communicate with a person at any time and nearly every geographic location. The idea of distance is slowly dissolving. News travels in split seconds into every household at the very moment it is made, enabling a feeling of synchronicity.
Estimates have it that in 2012, 2.4 billion people (of an estimated global population of 7 billion) had access to the Internet (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2013). At the same time, this new technological advancement is responsible for a new form of social inequality, which has become known as the digital divide. For example, in the United States 81 out of every 100 people have access to the Internet; Iceland has the highest rate, with 95 of every one hundred having access. Developed countries generally have high rates of usership; however developing countries—especially those in Africa—often have very low percentages of Internet users; Eritrea has the lowest ratio: less than one of every one hundred persons has access to the Internet (World Bank, 2013). For example, Theories of access, like Jeremy Rifkin's, and theories of cultural capital, such as Pierre Bourdieu's, have guided economists and sociologists alike in accounting the reasons for and effects of the digital inequality (2000, 1986). At the same time, political as well as civic efforts are underway to enable every person to have access to information and communication technology (ICT).
However, studies such as that by Roberts and Foehr show that in households with children, Internet access rose from 22 percent to 63 percent between just 1997 and 2003 and up to 86 percent by 2010 (Economics and Statistics Administration, 2011). There remains the question, though, of whether the people in these households are merely exposed to the Internet or able to actually use it. Roberts and Foehr were able to show that when it came to the question of the ability to use media, aspects of socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity all play important roles independent of the question of mere exposure. Hsieh, Rai and Keil also suggested that there are certain caveats to the idea that merely providing access to Internet technology will enable participation and thereby reduce digital inequality (2008). They specifically criticize initiatives that Mandviwalla and others have described as municipal broadband wireless networks (MWNs) (2008). MWNs are wireless Internet access networks that are funded and maintained by local governments or by civic activists in order to enable constituencies that have been neglected by profit-oriented providers to participate in the digital age. Mandviwalla and others have argued that MWNs are necessary because "private sector Internet service providers tend to focus their services toward more financially attractive markets and consumers, and thus tend to neglect certain constituencies" (p. 72-73). However, Hsieh, Rai, and Keil have argued that merely providing access is not enough to bridge the divide; rather, users must also accept the technology and be able to use it.
But the digital divide has been only one outgrowth of the Internet. The Internet is also dramatically changing the worlds of both business and labor as well as private life. Modern financial markets have become globally intertwined due to web technology and have subsequently become more important to the global economy, as the recent economic crises have shown. Internet technology affects the lives and livelihoods of most participants in the labor market, too. The ability to use web-based technology is being demanded in nearly every occupation today, as even dentist appointments are being canceled and confirmed via email. Just having an email account increases a job-seeker's chances of finding a job and finding a well-paid job, as DiMaggio and Bonikowski have illustrated (2006).
The transformation of personal lives since the beginning of the 1990s has been equally fast-paced. Of course, reports of children becoming lost in the virtual world of online gaming or being harassed by classmates via Facebook unbeknownst to their parents come to mind, but in sociology one should think first of more basic changes. For instance, traveling or moving to a new town no longer means that one has to leave behind friends. Today, relationships can be maintained over long distances with the assistance of instantaneous communication from nearly everywhere. The concept of distance, temporal as well as spatial, is being dissolved. Life in the global village is experienced in a mode of synchronicity.
One should also not forget the topic of the entertainment industry. Music, television, and other entertainment platforms are now available through the Internet, a fact that has significantly changed our viewing and listening habits. This capability in turn affects the conditions of production and sale of entertainment products and, as a result, the structure of the entertainment industry. The current generation of children and teenagers is being raised in a world in which music and movies can be downloaded for free from some source on the Internet. This will likely change how future generations will think about intellectual property and copyrights claims.
The Internet certainly has created new means of social interaction, greatly impacting the political field. With chat-rooms and interactive forums that allow for new forms of debate, politics have become more strongly grounded in grassroots movements. No politician in a democratic country can ignore the Internet; each must establish a web presence. Social media gives many voters a chance to ask questions of candidates directly. This novel development has set a standard for future elections. It also has created a feeling of participation that voters have previously not been able to enjoy. However, it also opens the new forums for political extremists. In the long run, however, the public sphere itself will be transformed and open up to a variety of constructive debates and dialogues.
The Internet has also enabled new forms of self-expression. Through avatars in online-games and chat rooms, people cannot only freely express their opinions, but also assume different personalities and express themselves as they never would dare to in real life. This may not in every case be a positive development, as some people may deliberately cloak their true identities in order to commit criminal activities. But the positive effects certainly lie in the ability to express and find one's identity beyond questions of ethnicity, gender, race, or social status. Conflicts in identities can be discussed with like-minded people openly and anonymously.
In sum, the world is shrinking, while new opportunities arise. This is in itself not an entirely new thought. In 1962, before the Internet was even conceived, Marshall McLuhan — ;famous for his phrase, "the medium is the message" — ;described the Gutenberg-Galaxy, a concept which describes a state in which the world is shrunk down to a global village as people's minds are transformed by the invention of the printing press. In 2001, sociologist Manuel Castells spoke of the Internet Galaxy, which describes a similar state in which the Internet has taken the transformations initiated by the printing press even further. Castells is the leading sociological analyst of the network society and the information age, terms which describe societies or time periods in which information is the key to all social action, and social action is enabled and structured by network connections. Castells analyzed society along three variables: production, power, and experience in regard to collective action.
Jean Baudrillard, however, offered a contrary position. According to Baudrillard, postmodern societies create levels of the hyperreal through so-called "simulacra" (1983). A simulacrum is not just a copy or a simulation of some reality, but it becomes a truth in itself, because it is treated as truth by social actors. In other words, the copy replaces the original.
Critics therefore ask whether the world we are creating, a simulacrum (a world without substance), must not ultimately fail.
One of the major and paradoxical issues about web-content is the question of durability of permanence. This has become an issue for young people who, upon entering the job market, worry that outdated, occasionally embarrassing information about them is available on the Internet for everyone to access. This information, which may have been initially posted by themselves or others, may range from fairly harmless but negative comments about a concert they attended years ago to literally career-destroying pictures taken at a student party.
On the other hand, some critics wonder if it is wise to have so many aspects of our culture, as well as important data, stored only electronically. Electronic media, it has been argued, are easily destroyed and often have a very short half-life. If these contents are lost, they are gone...
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