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Figure 8.1. Facebook does more than expand one’s circle of friends from a few dozen to a few hundred. It changes the way we interact with our world. (Photo courtesy of Frederick M. Drocks/flickr)

Learning Objectives

8.1. Technology Today

Define technology and describe its evolutionUnderstand technological inequality and issues related to unequal access to technologyDescribe the role of planned obsolescence in technological development

8.2. Media and Technology in Society

Describe the evolution and current role of different media, like newspapers, television, and new mediaUnderstand the function of product advertising in mediaDemonstrate awareness of the social homogenization and social fragmentation that are occurring via modern society’s use of technology and media

8.3. Global Implications

Explain the advantages and concerns of media globalizationUnderstand the globalization of technology

8.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology

Understand and discuss how media and technology are analyzed through various sociological perspectives

Introduction to Media and Technology

How many good friends do you have? How many people do you meet 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. By thinking of everyone as fair game in networking for personal gain, we can now market ourselves professionally to the world with LinkedIn.

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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 do not 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 endeavours—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 TV reality shows and talent competitions today’s version of ancient Rome’s “bread and circuses”—distractions and entertainment to keep the lower classes indifferent to the inequities of our society? Do media and technology liberate us from gender stereotypes and provide us with a more cosmopolitan understanding of each other, or have they become another tool in promoting misogyny? Is ethnic and gay and lesbian intolerance being promoted through a ceaseless barrage of minority stereotyping in movies, video games, and websites?

These are some of the questions that interest sociologists. How might we examine these issues from a sociological perspective? A structural functionalist would probably focus on what social purposes technology and media serve. For example, the web is both a form of technology and a form 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 critical perspective would probably focus on the systematic inequality created by differential access to media and technology. For example, how can Canadians be sure the news they hear is an objective account of reality, unsullied by moneyed 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 the U.S., based but Canadian MTV production Jersey Shore, with up to 800,000 Canadian viewers (Vlessing 2011). Throughout this chapter, we will use our sociological imagination to explore how media and technology impact society.

8.1. Technology Today

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Figure 8.2. Technology is the application of science to address the problems of daily life, from hunting tools and agricultural advances, to manual and electronic ways of computing, to today’s tablets and smartphones. (Photo (a) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Photo (b) courtesy Martin Pettitt/flickr; Photo (c) courtesy Whitefield d./flickr; Photo (d) courtesy Andrew Parnell/flickr; Photo (e) courtesy Jemimus/flickr; Photo (f) courtesy digitpedia/flickr)

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 of 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 BCE in 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 labour, 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.

Technological Inequality
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Figure 8.3. Some schools sport cutting-edge computer labs, while others sport barbed wire. Is your academic technology at the cusp of innovation, relatively disadvantaged, or somewhere in between? (Photo courtesy of Carlos Martinez/flickr)

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. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines the digital divide as “the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to both their opportunities to access information and communication technology (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities.” (OECD 2001 p.5) For example, 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 U.S. Vice-President Al Gore used it in a speech. 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 Canada we see a clear relationship between youth computer access and use and socioeconomic status in the home. As one study points out, about a third of the youth whose parents have no formal or only elementary school education have no computer in their home compared to 13 percent of those whose parent has completed high school (Looker and Thiessen 2003). In the 2000s, however, the prices for low-end computers dropped considerably, and it appeared the digital divide was 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 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 is 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).

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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.