The Changing Nature of Human Communication
“Technological change has placed communication in the front lines of a social revolution.”
William Paisley, 1985
The word technology comes from the Latin root texere, to weave or to construct. So technology should not be limited just to the use of machines, although this narrower meaning is often implied in everyday speech. Technology is a design for instrumentalaction that reduces the uncertainty in the cause-effect relationships involved in achieving a desired outcome (Rogers, 1983, p. 12). A technology usually has both a hardware aspect (consisting of material or physical objects) and a software aspect (consisting of the information base for the hardware). For instance, we distinguish between computer hardware (consisting of semiconductors, electrical connections, and the metal frame to protect these electrical components) and computer software (consisting of the coded instructions that enable us to use this tool). Both the software and hardware are essential for any practical use of the computer, but because the hardware technology is more visible to the casual observer, we often think of technology mainly in hardware terms. It is an oversimplification to think of technology as an autonomous, isolated force that is disconnected from the rest of society (Slack, 1984) In this book, we stress the context of the new technologies of study.
One kind of technology — communication technology — is especially important in modern societies such as the United States. Communication technology is the hardware equipment, organizational structures, and social values by which individuals collect, process, and exchange information with other individuals. Certain communication technologies go back to the beginnings of human history, such as the invention of spoken language and such written forms as the pictographs on the walls of caves. Mass media technologies (with at least the potential for reaching a mass audience) date from the clay tablets of such early civilizations as the Sumerians and Egyptians. But technologies such as Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press did not actually reach a mass audience until the 1830s, with the advent of the “penny press” in the United States. In the decades that followed, such electronic media technologies as film, radio, and television became important. These mass media technologies are mainly unidirectional, allowing one or a few individuals to convey a message to an audience of many. During the 1980s, a different kind of communication technology became important, and it facilitated the exchange of information on a many-to-many basis through computer-based communication systems. Whether you call it “the new communication technologies,” “the new media,” or “interactive communication,” it is obvious that a very basic change is occurring in human communication.
All communication technology extends the human senses of touching, smelling, tasting, and (especially) hearing and seeing. Such extensions allow an individual to reach out in space and time, and thus obtain information that would not otherwise be available (McLuhan, 1965). Media technologies provide us with “a window to the world,” and as a result we know more about distant events than we could ever experience directly.
Nature of the New Communication Technologies
The key technology underlying all the other new communication technologies is electronics. Electronics technology these days allows us to build virtually any kind of communication device that one might wish, at a price (Pool, 1983a, p. 6). One special characteristic of the 1980s is the increased number and variety of new communication technologies that are becoming available. Further, and more important, is the nature of how these new. media function most are for many-to-many information exchanges. Their interactive nature is made possible by a computer element that is contained in these new technologies. In fact, what marks the new communication technologies of the post-1980s era as special is not just the availability of such single new technologies as microcomputers and satellites, but the combining of these elements in entirely new types of communication systems — for example, the use of satellites to deliver a wide variety of programming to cable television systems. Certain cable TV systems, such as Qube in Columbus, Ohio, are interactive (allowing household users to send, as well as receive, messages) because they utilize a computer at the head-end of the cable system.
Communication technology has had a very strong impact on the nature of scholarly research on human communication. The issues studied by communication scientists over the past forty years have been affected by the changing nature of communication (as we will show in Chapter 3). In the past, the basic division of the scholarly field of communication has been a dichotomy on the basis of channel: interpersonal channels, which involve a face-to-face exchange between two or more individuals, versus mass media channels, all those means of transmitting messages such as radio, television, newspapers, and so on, which enable a source of one or a few individuals to reach an audience of many. This classification is mainly on the basis of the size of the audience, with interpersonal channels reaching from one individual up to a small group of fifteen to twenty. Now, scholars (Dominick, 1983, p. 14) recognize a third category, “machine-assisted interpersonal communication,” that has certain qualities of both mass media and interpersonal channels yet is different in several important ways from either one (Chapter 2). An example of such machine-assisted interpersonal communication is the telephone it does not fit into either category of mass media or interpersonal channels because it is neither face-to-face nor one-to-many. Examples of newer communication technologies are: teleconferencing networks, electronic messaging systems, computer bulletin boards, and interactive cable television.
The new interactive technologies have been available only for several years, and they have not yet become very widely adopted in the United States. Their potential impact, however, is quite high. By 1985, about half of American households had cable television, although only a few cable systems were interactive. Less than 1 percent of American households have videotext or teletext. Over the past decade, 20 percent of households accepted video cassette recorders (VCRs) around 15 percent have at least one microcomputer, and in 1985 about 25 percent of the U.S. work force used computers as their primary work tool. From 1980 to 1985, about 95 percent of American elementary and high schools adopted computers, although less than 10 percent: of the students were enrolled in a class in which microcomputers were used. So the interactive communication technologies are off to a fast start. But just a start.
What is different about human communication as a result of the new technologies?
1. All of the new communication systems have at least a certain degree of interactivity, something like a two-person, face-to-face conversation. Interactivity is the capability of new communication systems (usually containing a computer as one component) to “talk back” to the user, almost like an individual participating in a conversation. The new media are interactive in a way that the older, one-to-many mass media could not be the new media can potentially reach many more individuals than if they were just face-to-face, although their interactivity makes them more like interpersonal interaction. So the new media combine certain features of both mass media and interpersonal channels.
Interactivity is an inherent property of the communication process, not just of the communication technology itself, and is thus a unique communication concept (Rafaeli, 1984 and 1985). The exact degree to which computer-based communication can approach human interaction is an important question. One measurement of the ability of computers to think is the Turing test, in which a computer’s intelligence is measured by its performance in responding to conversational questions in comparison to human performance in the same tasks. Obviously, not all computer communication is interactive in fact, not all human face-to-face communication behavior is interactive if interactivity means a two — way exchange of utterances in which the third remark in a series is influenced by the bearing of the second on the first. Sheizaf Rafaeli (1984) poses this interesting illustration of a three-message exchange: (1) a sign on a candy machine catches an individual’s attention (2) the individual inserts 35 cents in the machine: (3) the machine dispenses a candy bar. Are candy machines interactive communication media? No, because they are not “intelligent.” The third response is not predicated on the bearing of the second exchange on the first. Here we see that not all two-way exchanges are necessarily interactive automatic, mechanical reaction is not the same as mutual responsiveness. Human response implies listening, attentiveness, and intelligence in responding to a previous message exchange.
Interactivity is a desired quality of communication systems because such communication behavior is expected to be more accurate, more effective, and more satisfying to the participants in a communication process. These advantages usually come at the cost of more communication message exchanges and the greater time and effort required for the communication process (Rafaeli, 1984).
So the most distinctive single quality of the new media is their interactivity, indicating their basic change in the directionality of communication from the one-way, one-to-many flow of the print and electronic mass media of the past century. In interactive communication systems, the individual is active rather than completely passive or reactive.
2. The new media are also de-massified, to the degree that a special message can be exchanged with each individual in a large audience. Such individualization likens the new media to face-to-face interpersonal communication, except that they are not face-to-face. The high degree of de-massification of the new communication technologies means that they are, in this respect at least, the opposite of mass media. De-massification means that the control of mass communication systems usually moves from the message producer to the media consumer.
3. The new communication technologies are also asynchronous, meaning they have the capability for sending or receiving a message at a time convenient for an individual. For example, say that an electronic message is sent to you on a computer teleconferencing network you may receive it on your home or office computer whenever you log-on. Unlike a telephone call, electronic messaging systems avoid the problem of “telephone tag,” which occurs when you call someone who is unavailable, then when they return your call you are unavailable, etc. Only about 20 percent of business calls directly reach the individual being telephoned. In new communication systems, the participants do not need to be in communication at the same time. The asynchronicity of computer-based communication means that individuals can work at home on a computer network and thus make their workday more flexible. The new media often have the ability to overcome time as a variable affecting the communication process.
I have a friend who likes to watch the “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather,” but he seldom gets home from work in time to see the broadcast. My friend is one of the 20 percent of American households who owned a video cassette recorder by the mid-1980s. So whenever he arrives on his doorstep, Dan Bather and the CBS evening News is waiting for him. This time-shifting ability of many of the new communication technologies is one aspect of asynchronicity. In addition to video cassette recorders, computer-based communication systems and several of the other new media have this time-shifting capacity.
Asynchronicity is part of the shift of control from the source to the receiver in a communication system in this case the control of time is put in the hands of the receiving individual. With increasing frequency, this person can determine the most convenient time to receive a message. Automated teller machines (ATMs) allow one to bank in an asynchronous way instead of being a slave to my banker’s hours, I can now do my banking twenty-four hours a day. Such added convenience is an important reason for the widespread adoption of ATMs by the American public. Telephone-answering machines also provide this time-shifting and/or time-expanding ability to many.
There are other differences between the new communication technologies and their older counterparts of radio, television, and film many of the differences stem indirectly from such fundamental distinctions as the interactivity, asynchronicity, and de-massification of the new media. The new media represent an expanded accessibility for individuals in the audience, with a wider range of alternative conduits by which information is transmitted and processed. Further, the format or the manner of display of information is changing (Compaine, 1981). Finally, compared to the one-way media, the contents of new communication technologies are more likely to be informational, rather than just entertainment.
Implications for Communication Research
The new communication technologies have elevated the field of communication research to a high level of importance in human society. Public and private policy issues swirl around the results of research being conducted on the new technologies: international competition and trade conflicts in high-technology the transition from an Industrial Society to an Information Society and growing concern with socioeconomic and gender inequalities, unemployment, and other social problems that result from the impacts of the new communication technologies.
Each of the three main characteristics of the new communication technologies has implications for the conduct of communication research (as we detail in Chapter 7):
1. The interactivity of the new media is made possible by computers, which provide new data and allow use of different data-gathering and analysis methodologies than in the past. The computer element in the new communications systems can retain a complete, word-for-word record of all communication messages in its memory. This record is available for analysis by communication scholars, who in the past have seldom had access to such a gold mine of data about human interaction.
2. The individualized, de-massified nature of the new media makes it almost impossible to investigate a new communication system’s effects using the linear-effects paradigm followed in much past research on mass media communication, where a relatively standardized content of the media could be assumed (at least to the extent that the same messages were available to everyone in the audience). With the new media, message content becomes a variable each individual may receive quite different information from an interactive communication system.
Consider the some 3,000 scholarly research publications on the effects of television violence on children. This inquiry has followed generally a linear, one-way model of communication, exploring whether a consequence of the violent content of children’s television programming is aggressive behavior by youthful viewers. Most American children are exposed to the same dose of violent television content. Could this research approach be used to study the effects of the highly individualized content of a computer bulletin board? No. Conventional research methodologies and the traditional models of human communication are inadequate. That’s why the new communication technologies represent a new ball game for communication research.
3. The asynchronous nature of the new communication systems also implies major changes in communication research and theory. This lack of time-boundedness makes such machine-assisted interpersonal communication more similar to certain mass communication (you can read today’s newspaper today or tomorrow) than is face-to-face interpersonal communication, although its two-person nature is similar to interpersonal exchange. Such asynchronous communication forces researchers to give more attention to time as a variable than they have in the past when the over-time, process nature of communication was almost entirely ignored, perhaps because past communication research methods are suited best to gathering one-shot data and analyzing it with cross-sectional statistical methods.
A technological determinist (someone who feels that technology is the main cause of social changes in society) might attribute the fundamental changes beginning to take place in human communication as being entirely due to the new information technologies, particularly computers. Many changes can indeed be traced to the new technologies, but the way in which individuals use the technologies is driving the Information Revolution now occurring in the United States (and in most other Western nations as well as Japan). Thus, this book takes a human behavioral approach to understanding the nature of communication technologies, focusing especially on two overriding issues:
1. Adoption. Here, the main research questions include: Who adopts (purchases) a new communication technology (as compared to who does not)? Why do they adopt? What is the rate of adoption of a new technology? What will it likely be in the future? How could the rate of adoption be speeded up or slowed down? Are individuals (or households or organizations) who adopt one new communication technology also likely to adopt other new communication technologies? Is there a key communication technology (for example, the home computer) that triggers the adoption of other communication technologies?
2. Social Impacts. Here the main research questions include: What are the direct, intended, and recognized effects or consequences of a new communication technology? What are the indirect, unintended, and unrecognized effects or consequences? How do the new communication technologies affect the older technologies of communication (for example, how will the telephone be changed by its increasing use for transmitting computer data)? Do the new communication technologies widen the gaps between the information-rich (who are usually the first to adopt) and the information-poor (who adopt later, if at all)?
These two broad research issues are discussed in Chapters 4 and 5, respectively.
The new communication technologies occur in a sociocultural context other factors (such as governmental policies) accompany the technology. So, is it the new communication technologies, or the variables accompanying them, that cause the social impacts? It is difficult to separate the social impacts of the new technologies from those of their context. Therefore, we consider both communication technologies and their context as explanations of social change. In this book, we are soft technological determinists, viewing technology along with other factors as the causes of change.
After reviewing the history of communication research, my former Stanford University colleague William Paisley concluded: “Technological change has placed communication on the front lines of a social revolution” (Paisley, 1985, p. 34). I agree. How adequately are communication scholars prepared for this new leadership role? Not very, I think. The new technologies demand an epistemological change in communication research, a paradigm shift (as we argue in Chapter 6).
Linear models of communication, based on source-message-channel-receiver components (Shannon and Weaver, 1949), may have been fairly appropriate for investigating the effects of one-way mass media communication (Chapter 3). And, in fact, such effects-oriented research has been the main preoccupation of mass communication scholars for the past forty years or so. But the interactivity of the new communication technologies forces us to follow a model of communication as convergence, the mutual process of information exchange between two or more participants in a communication system (Rogers and Kincaid, 1981). Such convergence communication behavior implies that it it impossible to think of a “source” and “receiver” in a communication system with a high degree of interactivity. Instead, each individual is a “participant.”
The distinctive aspects of the new information technologies are forcing basic changes in communication models and in research methodologies (Rice and Associates, 1984). More broadly, the new communication technologies, through their impacts in helping to create Information Societies, are leading to a new set of communication research issues that are beginning to be addressed by scholars. Thus, the Information Revolution is causing a scientific revolution in communication research.
Welcome to the Information Society
In recent years, the United States and several other highly advanced nations have passed through an important transition in the makeup of their work force, the basis of their economy, and in the very nature of their society. Information has become the vital element in the new society that has emerged, and so these nations are called Information Societies.
An Information Society is a nation in which a majority of the labor force is composed of information workers, and in which information is the most important element. Thus, the Information Society represents a sharp change from the Industrial Society in which the majority of the work force was employed in manufacturing occupations, such as auto assembly and steel production, and the key element was energy. In contrast, information workers are individuals whose main activity is producing, processing, or distributing information, and producing information technology. Typical information worker occupations are teachers, scientists, newspaper reporters, computer programmers, consultants, secretaries, and managers. These individuals write, teach, sell advice, give orders, and otherwise deal in information. Their main activity is not to raise food, to put together nuts and bolts, or to deal with physical objects.
Information is patterned matter-energy that affects the probabilities available to an individual making a decision. Information lacks a physical existence of its own it can only be expressed in a material form (such as ink on paper) or in an energy form (such as electrical impulses). Information can often be substituted for other resources, such as money and/or energy — for example, “smart” household appliances that contain a microprocessor save expensive electrical power. Information behaves somewhat oddly as an economic resource in the sense that one can sell it (or give it away) and still have it. Because information is such an abstract phenomena, it is often difficult to perceive its crucial importance in modern society.
Changes in the Labor Force
Applications of the steam engine to manufacturing and transportation, beginning around 1750 in England, set off the Industrial Revolution that began the transition from an Agricultural Society to an Industrial Society. The Agricultural Society had been the dominant form for about 10,000 years up until this point (and most Third World nations are still Agricultural Societies today). The Industrial Revolution spread throughout most of Europe, to North America, and later to Japan. Figure 1-1 shows that the United States began to industrialize in the mid-1800s from 1900 to 1955, the largest part of the American work force was employed in industrial jobs. Then, in 1955, a historical discontinuity happened when industrial employment began to decrease and information workers became more numerous. Today they are in the majority. What occurred was a Communication Revolution, the social changes in society resulting from the impacts of communication technologies, especially the computer. While the United States led other nations in becoming an Information Society, Canada, England, Sweden, France, and other European nations are not far behind.
The best estimates (Strassmann, 1985, p. 56) available in the mid-1980s indicated that:
* 54 percent of the American work force are information workers.
* 63 percent of all equivalent working days in the U.S. are devoted to information work (the difference of 9 percent over the 54 percent of information workers is because about one-quarter of the time of all noninformation workers is devoted to information work, while almost nolle of information workers’ time is involved in handling goods or materials).
* 67 percent of all labor costs in the U.S. are for information work, as information workers receive wages and benefits that are 35 percent higher than noninformation workers.
* 70 percent of work hours in the U.S. are devoted to information work, as information workers put in an average of 10 to 20 percent more work hours per week than do other occupations.
By any of these measures, the United States is definitely an Information Society. Will the recent trends toward information work level off by, say, the year 2000? Probably not. A basic factor in the Communication Revolution is the increasing availability of new information technologies, and many of these communication tools are only in partial use today, so their full impacts have not yet been felt. It is also certainly true that even newer communication technologies are yet to come.
From Massification to Individualization
Industrial Society was a mass society: mass production, mass media, mass culture. Standardization of products, assembly-line production, and returns-to-scale were aspects of this massification. An Information Society is a more individualized society, de-massified in nature. The new communication technologies make this so. “Such devices as teletext, viewdata, cassettes, cables, and videodiscs all fit the same emerging pattern: They provide opportunities for individuals to step out of the mass homogenized audiences of newspapers, radio, and television and take a more active role in the process by which knowledge and entertainment are transmitted through society” (Smith, 1980, p. 22). Such de-massification of mass media communication represents a shift in control, from the producer to the consumer.
This basic change is a fundamental aspect of the Communication Revolution, leading from the Industrial Society to the Information Society. Certain of the other important characteristics of these two types of societies, and of the Agricultural Society, are compared in Table 1-1.
Why Information? Why Now?
The transition of the United States to an Information Society has been the focus of considerable scholarly research. Such research questions have been pursued as (1) how best to index the progress of a nation toward becoming an Information Society (the percentage of the work force that are information workers is most frequently utilized), and (2) what social problems (for example, unemployment, inequality, and information overload) typically accompany the change to an Information Society. Unfortunately, little scholarly attention has been devoted to such fundamental issues concerning the Information Society as “Why information?” and “Why now?”
One theory to explain such “why” questions is proposed by James Beniger (in press), whose analysis suggests that the Information Society emerging in the United States since the mid-1950s results from social changes begun a century ago. In the 1850s, steam energy technology was applied to manufacturing and transportation, leading to the Industrial Revolution. The processing of material was greatly speeded up for example, the newly constructed railroads made it possible to move people and products around the nation relatively rapidly and at low cost. But the Industrial Revolution also led to a “crisis of control” around 1900 as the ability to control the new energy technologies lagged behind their widespread use. For instance, Beniger documents the problem of “lost” railroad cars during this period effective technologies for keeping track of the rolling stock did not keep up with the ability of the railway lines to physically move their cars around the country. The crisis of control created a need in America to exploit information activities. The technological means for doing so arrived in the post-World War II era with the computer and other communication technologies. So in recent years, according to Professor Beniger’s theory, we have both the need for information-handling activities (stemming from the Industrial Revolution) and the technological tools to meet this need. The result is the Communication Revolution, and today’s Information Society.
Certainly the technical advances in microelectronics that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s have spurred the Communication Revolution. But government policies favorable to the new communication technologies have also aided their rapid diffusion and adoption in recent years. For example, during the 1980s, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) reversed its previous policies of protecting such existing mass media as broadcast television, usually at the expense of new technologies. The trend toward deregulatory policies on the part of the FCC has opened many parts of the communication industry to free competition. These hands-off policies generally aid the diffusion of the new communication technologies. Sometimes, however, deregulation can have the opposite effect, as in the case of videotext and teletext, whose development has been slowed by the FCC’s refusal to select a standard (Singleton, 1983, p. 4). In any event, one cannot leave the role of government policies out of a thorough understanding of the Communication Revolution.
One might wonder if the U.S. will someday become a post-Information Society, whose prerequisites are now being created by the Communication Revolution. What will be the possible nature of this post-Information Society?
The Research University in the Information Society
Fundamental to the growth of the Information Society is the rise of knowledge industries that produce and distribute information, rather than goods and services (Machlup, 1962). The university produces information as the result of the research it conducts, especially basic research, and produces information-producers (individuals with graduate degrees who are trained to conduct research). This information-producing role is particularly characteristic of the fifty or so research universities in the United States. A research university is an institution of higher learning whose main function is to perform research and to provide graduate training.
The research university fulfills a role in the Information Society analogous to that of the factory in the Industrial Society. It is the key institution around which growth occurs, and it determines the direction of that growth. Each of the several major high-technology regions in the United States is centered around a research university: Silicon Valley and Stanford University in California Route 128 and MIT near Boston Research Triangle and the three main North Carolina universities (Duke, North Carolina State, and the Univ
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Telecommunication, Interactive computer systems, Interactive video, Teleconferencing, Videotex systems