Social Impacts of Wireless Communication
Wireless technologies use electromagnetic waves to send information. Ever since the development of radio, new wireless technologies have changed every aspect of human life from communication, family life, and social interaction to military strategies, medical treatments, and policing. Critics allege that wireless technologies have destroyed the sense of community and turned modern citizens into passive consumers of the culture industry, and that computer-mediated communication has created a digital divide between technology's haves and have-nots. Technophiles believe that wireless technologies have connected the world's citizens while improving their standards of living and increasing their social capital and access to information. Without a doubt, wireless technologies have changed the nature of social interaction.
Keywords Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC); Cultural Imperialism; Culture Industry; Digital Divide; Information & Communication Technologies (ICT); Social Capital; Synchronous Communication
Social Impacts of Wireless Communication
Wireless technologies such as broadband Internet, cell phones, television, and radio have reshaped all aspects of society since radio was first introduced at the end of the nineteenth century. As new technologies have been introduced, people have created new uses for them, which in turn cause new forms of social interaction to evolve. Wireless technology is currently reshaping the fields of medicine, law enforcement, sports, and education, among others, while reconfiguring interpersonal communication and changing the norms of public behavior. Technology provides the social context for interaction.
What Is Wireless Technology?
Wireless technology is any technology that transmits information using electromagnetic waves (which can include radio, infrared, laser, acoustic, or light waves) instead of using wire-based technology. This includes such diverse technologies as AM and FM radios, video conferencing, satellite television, cell phones, GPS systems, and text messaging.
Summarizing the impact of wireless technology can be difficult because the category "wireless" is merely one of many ways to categorize new technology. Some media forms use both wireless and wired technologies. This means that analytically it is useful to look at the social impact of one particular medium, for example, the Internet (which can be delivered through cable, phone lines, or wireless technology) or television (delivered through satellite, cable, traditional broadcast), in addition to examining the wired/wireless distinction. At other times, the wireless/wired distinction is salient; at the minimum it usually creates a difference in the cost, access, regulation, bandwidth, capacity, portability, speed, and convenience.
When studying the impact of wireless technology, it is also important to pay attention to the multiple forms of communication it enables, which can vary by size of audience, synchronicity, and direction of transmission (one-way versus two-way). A cell phone, for example, enables two-way communication between two or more individuals, while a television can only receive (not send) a signal, which is potentially sent out to millions of televisions. The direction of a particular technology can change; for example, recommendation lists on newspaper website have turned a formerly one-way form of communication into a two-way form (Thorson, 2008). Synchronous communication means that the people communicating are participating at the same time; asynchronous communication means that messages are sent back and forth with temporal gaps between sending and reception. Video conferencing is an example of synchronous communication while email is an example of asynchronous communication.
It can be easier to understand the impact that wireless technology has had on the world by looking at the roots of wireless communication. Radio and television both began as wireless media (although wired versions of television evolved later), so a close look at their development will illuminate the many ways in which these advances changed society.
The Development and Dissemination of Radio and Television
The history of modern wireless technology begins in 1899, when Guglielmo Marconi debuted his "wireless telegraph," which eventually came to be known as radio. The potential uses of this technology caught the public imagination; scores of other inventors scrambled to improve wireless technology. Radio did not come into its own for two decades after its creation, although in the first years of the twentieth century the industrialized world realized that wireless technology could create major social change and most countries struggled to anticipate and prepare for these changes.
From the beginning, the military applications of radio technology were seen as immense; the US Navy asked Marconi for demonstration of his devices a few months after he introduced it to the public. The military's concern was prescient; wireless technology was used in the Boer War (1899–1902) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904). Wireless technology was seen as so important to international relations that Germany hosted International Wireless Conferences in 1903 and 1906 and the Institute of International Law in Belgium crafted guidelines to control wartime wireless use. In the United States, as the Army, Navy, journalists, the Weather Bureau, and other agencies began to compete for control of the airwaves, President Theodore Roosevelt formed an Interdepartmental Board of Wireless Telegraphy to handle problems arising from competition for the new technology. No regulations were actually created in the United States until a collision between two ocean liners in 1909 resulted in the Wireless Ship Act of 1910. This required that larger ships carry wireless equipment. It became evident that problems remained with the implementation of radio technology after sinking of the Titanic 1912; while the ships that arrived to rescue surviving passengers heard the Titanic’s distress call over the wireless, demonstrating its usefulness, closer ships either lacked equipment to receive the signals or lacked twenty-four-hour monitoring of the equipment they possessed. The tragedy led to a public outcry for more regulation of radio, which resulted in the Radio Act of 1912, requiring for the first time that radio operators obtain licenses to broadcast over the airwaves (Douglas, 1987).
Inventors also applied themselves to less practical uses for radio. One of the first entrepreneurs to push the idea that radio could be used as a means of transmitting entertainment was Lee De Forest. His ideas were ahead of available technology, as his attempts to broadcast music from 1907 on were often panned by journalists of the day. Commercial radio broadcasting took off in 1922; the years 1922 through 1925 were the boom years of early radio. In 1921, one in five hundred households owned a radio; in 1926 that increased to one in six. Stations came and went. Early fare on radio stations consisted mainly of music, variety shows, vaudeville routines, drama, and some news and political programming. Commercial broadcasting stole audience share from other entertainment industries, such as phonograph sales and live entertainment. Radio advertising also became widespread during the economic strains of the Great Depression (Douglas, 1987; Sterling and Kittross, 1990).
Television was pioneered and first publicly demonstrated in 1926, although the technology remained experimental for years. Commercial television broadcasting began in 1941, but almost immediately the government instituted a wartime freeze on expansion of stations and the production of television sets. The freeze was lifted in 1945, and television's boom began in 1947, slowed temporarily by another freeze, this time to control the number of new stations from 1948 until 1952. Because consumers were already adept at radio use, television use required little further socialization. Advertisements in magazines hyped TV sets as the center of family life before most consumers owned one, making suggestions about where to locate TV sets and advising that television would help to bring the family together (Spigel, 1990).
Adoption of Wireless Technology
Generally, when a new technology is introduced, people first interpret its usefulness in terms of older technologies. Gradually, as people develop new uses for new technologies, their behavior changes and the new technologies feel indispensable to them. The new uses then bring about changes in social norms. For example, the telephone was first used in the same way as the telegraph; the idea of a central exchange linking households was slow to develop. Of course, once house-to-house communication was established, telephones became seen as necessary (Aronson, 1977). Likewise, the wireless nature of cellular telephones was first used in much the same way as land lines; it took a few years for people to develop uses for the cell phone that could not be replicated on a land line.
As cell phones have become widespread, they have changed social behaviors. For example, studies show that the convenience and accessibility of cell phone communication leads people to spend less time planning their schedules; their use of time becomes more spontaneous. This lack of planning in turn creates a need to continue using the cell phones; people feel dependent on them. Some people report a need to engage in "digital fidgeting" by constantly checking messages (Croal, 2008; Thulin & Vilhelmson, 2007).
As cell phones first became popular, a debate emerged about changing norms concerning appropriate behavior in public. The major point of dispute revolves around the politeness of answering the phone when in public: is it rude to do so when out with friends or on a date? When is it permissible to screen calls? Is it rude to talk on a phone while waiting in line, eating in a restaurant, riding public transportation, or using public restrooms? Such questions are still being negotiated, as the perception of cell phones shifts from the exotic to the humdrum (Humphreys, 2005). For younger users of technology, availability and accessibility are markers of higher social status (Quan-Haase & Collins, 2008). For older users, they are often a public annoyance, although they have become seen as necessary.
Radio created a mass public. While newspapers and books also created mass audiences, radio was unique since it created an audience that participated in broadcast events simultaneously yet without sharing physical space. This effect has led to some of the major social impacts of all subsequent wireless technologies: humans can create bonds with each other without the need for "physical co-presence" (Cerulo, 1997, p. 49). From the beginning, then, wireless technology changed the concept of interaction....
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