The Impact of New Technology on Communication Theory

The Impact of New Technology on Communication Theory

In your view how does the new technology of communication influence mass communication theory and practice?

 The Impact of New Technology on Communication Theory

The new technologies are introducing many changes to mass communication, and communication theories must be developed or revised to keep up with the changes.

The Impact of New Technology on Communication Theory

One of the ways the new technology is affecting mass communication in general is by giving the user more control over the communication process. Cable television channels and videotapes give the audience member access to specialized programs and material, far beyond what is available on the three commercial television networks and public television. Videotext and Teletext offer the user a wide selection of news stories or other information. CompuServe, a computer information service that can be accessed through home computers, has 550,000 subscribers (Couzens, 1989). One CompuServe service called “Quest” gives users access to more than 700 data bases, each of them filled with information on a particular subject (Gerber, 1986). CompuServe also offers a large number of “special interest groups” (SIGs) or forums dealing with specialized topics. These special interest groups allow people who are interested in the same topic—science fiction, poetry writing, an arcane computer programming language such as FORTH—to communicate with one another. This is a big change from the way communication through media has largely taken place in the past. In a SIG on CompuServe, messages are not being chosen for the audience by someone else and imposed on them, but are being shared by people who are more or less equal but have a common interest in a topic.

VCRs are also giving the user more control over mass communication. Once a program has been videotaped from a commercial network broadcast, it becomes possible to skip the commercials by pushing the fast-forward button on the remote control of the VCR. This procedure, called “zapping,” has become a major concern in the advertising industry.


One of the effects of the new technology, then, is a shift away from the “ideal type” of a centralized broadcasting or publishing organization sending out the same content to large and stable audiences (McQuail & Windahl, 1981, p. 8). In a sense, this heightened selectivity due to the new technology could create a kind of balance that has been lacking in mass communication, with the audience and the message producers being more equal in power. The decentralization of communication due to the new technology can be seen taking place in the U.S. Government Printing Office, which plans over the next 10 years to shift to much heavier dissemination of information by individual agencies and through electronic mail, on-line data bases, floppy disks, magnetic tapes, and CD-ROMs (U.S. Congress, 1988).

The trend toward greater control and activity on the part of the user means communication theorists are going to have to shift to models and theories that recognize the interactivity of the new media (Rogers & Chaffee, 1983). One consequence is that we probably should have theories that give less emphasis to the effects of mass communication and more emphasis to the ways audience members are using mass communication. This shift might give increased importance to the uses and gratifications approach to the study of mass communication.

The coming of cable television and, to a lesser extent, VCRs also means mass communication theorists should change the way they think about the audience, particularly the audience of television. It is no longer possible to think of television as a uniform or monolithic system, transmitting essentially the same message to everyone. This realization has consequences for a number of theories of mass communication that assume to some extent a uniform television message, or a uniform media message (Webster, 1989). These theories include Gerbner’s cultivation theory and Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence, as well as, to a lesser extent, the agenda-setting function. Essentially, it appears that the fragmented or segmented audience that is characteristic of the new media probably leads to a lessening of the impact of the mass media suggested by cultivation theory, the spiral of silence, and the agenda-setting function.



Uses of the new technologies 

Tehranian (1990) argues that the new technologies, like the old, should be viewed neither as technologies of freedom nor of tyranny, but basically as technologies of power that lock into existing or emerging technostructures of power. He believes that information technologies play a dual role in society. On one hand, they open up opportunities for centralisation of authority, control and communication typical of the modern industrial state, and on the other hand, they supply alternative channels of cultural resistance and ideological mobilization for opposition forces. The `Big Media’ (such as national press, broadcasting and mainframe computers) are identified with the centralising forces while the `Small Media’ (such as the alternative press, small scale audio visual production and transmission facilities and personal computer networking) provide the avenues for community resistance and mobilization. On this basis, one can argue that the new communication technologies serve the interests of both the privileged and the underprivileged classes in society.

In a related sense, Stevenson, Burkett and Myint (1993) argue that the new communication and information technologies can strengthen the centralised industrial, command economy or decentralise empowerment for finding creative solutions to local and global problems through new social technologies. Increasing globalisation, facilitated by the new technologies, has brought about changes which flow through to local communities. Paradoxically, however, these local communities are forced to make international connections in order to solve local problems.

Technologies and development 

The link between technological growth and socioeconomic development is hinged on various arguments. McQuail (1987), for instance, contends that “One clear promise of the new technologies is an increase in communication of all kinds, between individuals and also between persons…” But this argument overlooks the fact that before increased communication can take place, the communicators must have access to the new technologies or must possess the were withal to purchase the communication tools.


Some researchers have also indicated the need for the new ICTs to address problems of human needs. For instance, while highlighting the significance of telecommunications technology for “some new means of bringing people together”, Stevenson (1991) wonders if the new telecommunications technologies, monopolised by the privileged industrialized world, will be “enough to address the world’s most serious problems of poverty, hunger and alienation.” The implication is that new communication technologies which do not address immediate human needs are not quite useful to human society no matter how effective they may be in increasing communication among people.

Regulating the new communication technologies 

Although many governments may be giving top priority to acquisition of the new technologies because they are perceived as pivotal to overall development, there is however a growing anxiety or unease among these governments to curtail the use of the technologies by groups engaging in unauthorized conduct or groups which challenge the authority of various regimes. “Many Asian governments share the dilemma of desiring to control the distribution of information whilst recognizing… that national economic and technological development requires increasing access to broadband networks and the information they provide” (Lambert, 1996).  However, these same governments “feel profoundly threatened by the concept of a medium in which they cannot control access to information…”  The question of controlling access to the new technologies is not peculiar to Asia alone. An attempt in 1996 by the United States government to ban “indecent” materials on the Internet was rejected by a US federal judge who ruled that the Internet deserved protection from government legislation. The US government however indicated it would appeal the ruling. At issue here is the challenge posed to individual freedom to communicate as against the desire of various governments to control the moral content or `political correctness’ of what is communicated.

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