Communicating Today – Impact of Technology

One way to understand the impact of recent developments in communications technology is to ask how different is the world today with the past? While the past consists of millions of years, historians of communications suggest that speech dates from 200,000 years ago, symbols from 30,000 and writing from 7,000 years. I take a more digestible bite and look at changes over my lifetime in the way we communicate, and then look at how the technology has affected the use of time and various media industries. The constraint of 24 hours in a day remains but the choices within this discrete period have multiplied. We have more opportunities but the same amount of time.

The home in 1930 and 2010

Contrast a home in the 1930s with one today. The former might have a wireless, record player and camera, a subscription to a daily newspaper and one or more magazines. It would have books which had been purchased and those borrowed from a library or friend for no charge. Messages entered and left the home by telephone, telegram and the postal service and live conversations took place between those in the home and when visiting the bar, coffee shop or some other meeting place.

One aspect of face-to-face conversation is that both the sender and receiver have to be present in the same place at the same time unlike many earlier forms of communication. For example, the written letter allows the content to be recorded and sent, to be received at some later time by the recipient. Letters may also be stored and consulted by those interested in reviewing what was written. The content of live conversations depends on people’s memories which deteriorate with time. For information storage, today’s hard drive is sometimes called the greatest invention since the grandmother – while true, the former is likely to retain the more accurate record.

An earlier form of written communication was the telegraph and telex where messages were at first transmitted by cable and then wirelessly using Morse Code, which can be viewed as an early form of text messaging. Radio also existed outside the home and was used for one on one communications from and to ships, planes and ground stations, as well as for commercial radio messages including advertising. Television became an extension of radio in that it allowed for the transmission of video as well as audio messages.

The print media consisted of books, magazines and newspapers (daily, weekly, general and specialized interest) which included different amounts and types of advertising. For some reason, books contained almost no advertising except details of the publisher and author.

Magazines and newspapers were and are paid for by a combination of subscriber fees and advertising. Some controlled circulation magazines and newspaper fliers are financed entirely by advertising.
Libraries were a repository of information for general readers, teachers, students and researchers. The content of libraries varied with its users. It was stored as printed pages in books, journals and magazines and later as microfilm and microfiche which required special readers. One drawback was that users had to visit the library to use these services.

Live entertainment was provided in theatres, concert halls, sports arenas and places like circus tents and military parades. Recorded entertainment was transmitted directly to homes and could be received by those who had a radio or wireless receiver. At the outset there were few channels publicly available but these soon increased in number; television became broadcast in the 1950s. Recorded entertainment was also made possible by the production of records which could be played on a gramophone.

In 2010, a similar home may have some or all of the above but would also have one or more computers, cellphones, digital cameras, cable or satellite television connections and access to the internet, a service allowing for the transmission and receipt of any content which can be converted into digital signals. What did not exist in 1930 and does today is e-mail, text messaging, search engines, social networking, blogs, cloud computing, cyber crime and services such as Google, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and BlipTv as well as many applications which are introduced on a daily basis. An examination of the present with the recent past reveals that the content of communications has not changed but the method of communicating or carriage has. We now do many of the same things but in a different way due to changes in technology.

A brief examination of some of today’s services illustrates the differences. YouTube is a website used to post photos, music and videos that are then in the public domain. Previously people took photos, shot films with movie and video cameras and they still do, but now the content can be distributed widely, whereas previously this tended to be the domain of newspapers, magazines, books and personal photo albums. Individuals can now create their own video content and make it widely available. Whether viewers actually see it or not is another issue. Some artists now kickstart their careers by posting art, music and videos online via YouTube. Others are concerned that copyright protected material will be posted online with no recognition of the creative rights.

Facebook and LinkedIn are applications which provide a form of social networking where individuals can identify a group of people (friends) with whom they want to communicate with text, photos and videos. Each Facebook member can communicate with one or more of those who have agreed to be their friends. A one on one Facebook message is similar to sending an e-mail message to another person. For example, I communicate with the members of my bookclub by sending an e-mail message to the group. An alternative would be to create a Facebook page for the group and communicate that way. Some employers now search past Facebook postings to assess the suitability of future employees. Imagine a message which you posted in your teens being used to evaluate your suitability for employment.

E-mail allows people to communicate with each other and with organizations. It can substitute for mail, telex, telegraph, telephone and verbal messaging and is one of the most widely used of all internet facilitated services. Attachments of files, photos and videos to e-mail messages and the instant nature of sending an e-mail means that it has not only replaced snail-mail in many cases but has enhanced the amount and type of messaging that occurs. E-mail has all but bankrupted the postal services of many countries.

A further application for text messaging is Twitter which allows for the transmission of messages of 144 characters or less. Thus it is a cross between shorthand and e-mail messaging for short messages, but there is no limit to the number of short messages which can be sent.

Another popular internet application is the search engine such as Google which allows users to search a topic and get information and further references in short order. But Google also offers a range of services because once someone has logged onto a website, the owner will try to keep you there. Google offers you Gmail, Google Buzz, Google Chrome (a web browser) and links to news weather and sports – in the same way a department store offers a range of goods and services. The challenge for Google is to find ways to monetize through subscription and advertising revenues the hits which it receives on its website.

The term blog is a combination of web and log. It refers to a website created by an individual or organization which posts on it specialized material or commentaries which may be of interest to a group of people and which they can access by visiting the blog’s website. Most blogs allow others to post comments but the blog’s owner is the editor and can decide what messages are shown. The owner is legally responsible for what is posted.

Many of the above terms refer to methods of communication that are similar to each other. You can receive information as e-mail, Twitter, Facebook as well as from a blog or the website of a newspaper, magazine, library or commercial firm. All of this can be done using a piece of hardware (computer, cellphone, Blackberry) in a very short space of time and from any place where you can get an electronic connection.

What are the implications of the new technology? There are many. Below I outline issues related to the use of time, privacy, crime and payment.

Use of time

The technology has changed the way we use our time? Each person is faced with the constraint of 24 hours a day. Each must decide how to allocate this time between the many available opportunities. On the one hand, the 24 hours is a fixed constraint, but because there are now more opportunities to use that time, as is implied by “surfing the web,” more decisions have to be made. On the other hand, communications technology has given us more efficient ways to complete many tasks and has freed up time in each 24 hour period. The dilemma, if you want to call it that, is that while the internet allows us to do many things more efficiently, it also provides us with more opportunities.

For example,

1. I make fewer trips to the bank and the post office because I pay my bills online, receive payments online, and get cash from ATMs.

2. I shop online without leaving my desk. I recently searched for the title, ordered and paid for a book from Amazon and received a hard copy delivered by UPS two days later. I could have done this in less time if I had ordered an electronic copy of the book and received it as soon as I placed the order. Previously I would have searched for the book at stores, picked it up or had it delivered by post when it became available, all of which would have taken more time.

3. I can order groceries online and have them delivered to my home without having to make a trip to the store. It is not the same experience as being able to select the produce physically, but the end result is very similar and the time saving substantial.

4. I can fill out insurance claims, license applications, census and many types of forms online without leaving my home.

5. From home, I can research topics online using search engines and access material that is available in electronic formats. I don’t have to go to the library, search through bibliographies and find a printed copy of the material or get books sent from other libraries.

6. I can read electronic copies of newspapers, books and magazines, download music and videos or watch them on YouTube and other websites. All of this can be done in less time than previously because many of the search and delivery costs have been reduced or eliminated.

7. Parallel processing refers to doing two or more things at the same time. This has always been possible, such as cooking and listening to the radio. Communications technology now increases the possibilities such as when people drive, get directions from their GPS and talk on their cell phones at the same time. The result may not increase safety but it can increase efficiency of time use, if you stay alive.

The previous examples are taken from personal use. Governments and business have learned how to use communications technology to increase efficiency of time use, but they too are faced with decisions of what to do in the available 24 hours a day as technology increases the opportunities. Overall, I would argue that the technology is liberating for the individual, but there are costs involved, one of which is the loss of privacy.


If individuals have more options to engage in recorded activities, then others have the opportunity to access records and monitor the actions of others. Advertisers, governments, police and security agencies, spies and criminals all feed on information to promote their interests. Hacking refers to activities undertaken by those who seek to benefit from collecting such information. Financial and credit card institutions are among those which are especially vulnerable to the theft of passwords by hackers.

1984, written by George Orwell in 1948 described how technology might be used by the state to control the lives of citizens. Little did he know how communications technology would evolve over the following decades. If he had, his warnings about state control of civilians’ lives would have been more ominous. Governments accumulate information in data banks on a person’s finances, health, education, criminal record and whatever is recorded in a national census. If privacy is not respected, one agency may be able to access the data of another agency. This is one reason for the creation of a national privacy commissioner to protect the privacy rights of an individual.

Intellectual property and payment

A third problem relates to the protection of intellectual property rights where electronic copies of material in print, audio and video formats are cheap to make and distribute. For print content, photocopying provided a similar challenge to copyright owners and procedures were legislated to allow for payment to be made for the use of photocopiers in libraries with the proceeds channeled to the owners.

These types of laws have become more difficult to enforce with electronic copying. The music, film and television industries are all faced with problems of preventing piracy of material. Music can be individually copied and widely distributed as can video content. YouTube is a site where video content is posted and made available to large audiences. What has become a problem for some is an opportunity for others especially consumers who now have cheap access to content.

Digital technology has affected all types of publishing. We still purchase books but increasingly as e-books which are available electronically and can be acquired directly from the publisher or distributor, and sometimes directly from authors who make their work available via the Internet. The publishing supply chain consists of author, publisher, wholesaler, book store as well as the producers of paper and ink. By suppressing the links in the chain, the technology allows the author to be in more direct contact with the reader.

Production and transportation of paper is eliminated in the case of electronic publishing and the consumer can order pay for and receive online the content of what was previously published as a hard copy.
The content of newspapers and magazines is now available online, not only that of traditional publishers but of new producers who have entered the market with online newspapers, blogs and other forms of electronic communications. How do we decide what to read since there is so much information available? We can either do our own search and decide which sites to visit, or do what we have always done with newspapers and magazines, that is decide on which ones meet our interests based on the choices made by gate-keepers, namely editors. Two of many websites that provide this type of service are Arts and Letters Daily and The Browser. The sites survey a wide range of published material and make selections to which links are posted on their sites. This is similar to the editorial function performed by editors of traditional magazines, academic journals and newspapers. These changes have been devastating for newspapers and periodicals which have lost revenues from readers and with it the advertising revenues which circulation earns.

Similar changes have affected the music and video industries. Sound recordings were replaced by tapes and CDs and now by music supplied directly to consumers by electronic means. No longer must consumers acquire a CD with a mix of tunes only some of which they want, and again some of the stages in the chain between music producer and audience have been eliminated or altered.

Video content like music and print is available electronically with some producers making it freely available (providing the consumer has purchased high speed internet access) on services like YouTube and Facebook, while others like Netflix charge for viewing movies. Increasingly TV programs are being distributed by cable and satellite over the internet in competition with broadcasting networks. Some video content is being produced directly for web television; BlipTV is one example of a firm that is encouraging producers to produce material for web television.

The foregoing examples deal mainly with how the technology has affected copyright and payments in the traditional mass media industries. The postal service and telephone industry have also been affected. The first transatlantic telegraph was sent by underwater cable from Ireland to Newfoundland in 1858. Morse Code was the language used to encode the message. By 1866, the cable could transmit eight words a minute. Previously, a transatlantic message would take 10 days to be delivered by ship from the UK to North America and 10 days for a reply. A home in the 1930s could send and receive a telegraph message by sending a telegram via the post office and paying by the number of words it contained.

In contrast with 50 to 80 years ago, the home today has many more options for sending and receiving print, video and audio material. Individuals can talk to each other using services like Skype and JaJa for free or at low cost relative to the past. In 1964, a telephone call from Ottawa to Bangkok cost C$1.54 a minute; today it is either free or about 3 cents a minute. The result is that the postal service is in decline and telephone companies are forced to reconfigure their operations in the face of declining revenues from landline services and increased use of mobile telephones.

In sum, a comparison of how we communicate today with how we did in the recent past is one way to describe the impact technological change……


5 Responses to “Communicating Today – Impact of Technology”

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