ICT / SOCIETY

Only about one thousand internet devices existed in 1984. Today, that number exceeds ten billion. At the turn of the century, in the dawn of the 1900s, the rate of human knowledge is calculated to have doubled about every hundred years or so. Today, that rate doubles every year. Now, by extrapolating from these current trends of innovation, it is estimated, that by 2020, less than four years’ time, it will double every twelve hours.

You know, it probably wouldn’t be a stretch to think, that, maybe, the times are a changing. We may not stop to think about it… but certainly all of these new technologies – the ones coming out faster, sleeker, more resourceful, the same ones that we use to communicate, to learn, and especially to connect – every year, they are proving to have a quite the considerable impact on us. They are continuously not only influencing who we are, but also who we’re gradually becoming.

We have already made contact with the *dawn* of something else entirely… In a world governed by knowledge, one where information has always meant power, what happens now that we are in the preliminary stages of an explosion of new technologies that will only continue to make accessing, sharing and most of all manipulating information easier than ever before? Try to imagine what next twenty years might entail for us…

Welcome back to the ICT Society, the podcast that explores our vastly evolving socio-technological landscape, cultivating a deeper mindfulness of it in an effort to better understand what cyberspace and ICTs are, along with the host of implications that come with them. Let’s discuss today, and further build upon our grasp of what all of this progress means for our relationship with information.

“Welcome to InQuery!”

With the budding onset of ICTs, arguably the most noteworthy change is how they have not only blurred the boundaries between technologies, but how they transcended the traditional sender-to-receiver dynamic of communication altogether. ICTs have made it so that another set of boundaries – of space and time – have now become virtually completely irrelevant. Whereas before, one might need to travel to the nearest telecom office to issue a telegraph… then wait who knows long for it to be sent the receiver… now we can simply take out a small, shiny flat screen and achieve the same task within seconds. (Pavrin)

When you think of information and communications technologies – aka ICTs – and consider their resourcefulness, it is their heightened scope of interconnectivity that makes them so impressive. Almost every ICT nowadays, be it a smartphone, tablet, or a laptop, is made up of the same micro processing computing frameworks…

In other words, they share the same technological architecture. What this means for us is that we have essentially achieved the power of being able to communicate with whomever we want, wherever *we want, and *whenever we want. (Kompf, 216) While the ingenuity behind their potential is certainly stirring, how many of us actually know how they came to be?

It’s a common misconception to believe that every once in a while, a new technology is released, one that totally revolutionizes society. While it is true that, yes, that does happen inadvertently, the process that’s ultimately responsible for this is one more of an evolutionary nature – what’s known in cyberspace as the theory of amplification. The latest, most cutting-edge ICTs represent a unification of both old and new technologies.

This is why you see so many modern day technologies support the functionality of technologies you may have seen a hundred years ago. It’s kind of amazing to think that a combination of telecommunications technologies (telegraphs and telephones), broadcasting technology (radio and TV), computing technology (micro processing), and visual media (of film and photography)… despite once being mediums that often times required years and whole rooms to get operating, now all merely require a pocket. (Pavrin)

Amplification has evolved the standard point-to-point communications of telephones and telegraphs, into a point-to-mass system… Radio and TV, like we just mentioned. However… ICTs have truly taken this to the next level and have reworked this system that we’ve been familiar with for over a century. Thanks to the rapid rate of innovation, as it continuously sped up, introducing advents like the internet, ICTs have now enabled us to achieve a mass-to-mass system. (Pavrin)

Think Reddit, think social networking sites, smartphones, any medium that allows for discussion or commentary. With developments like this, naturally we start questioning who it is exactly that is now the content creator. Who is the sender, who is the receiver? Who’s the student and who’s the teacher? The leader, the supporter… We’ve been granted a certain liberty that we’ve never quite seen before. (Sufrin)

So how does this process of evolving technology affect us exactly? Well… as their prevalence was initially growing all the more renowned and picking up speed, once researchers started looking into the social effects of ICTs, and the internet later on, many cases were made suggesting quite the grim future for us. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, they would affect us quite poorly.

With the onset of preliminary ICTs, research conducted by technologists, sociologists, economists, agreed for the most part that, in the long run, we are only going to continue to become more and more powerless against this barrage of technology and its overriding effects on society. The theme here, the theory that came to light to explain this phenomenon was that of technological determinism.

In its essence, it asserts the notion that technology is the chief vehicle of social and organizational change. It’s an autonomous entity, one that changes, one that shapes society. According to determinism, technology is an independent power that, once invented, takes on a life of its own.

University of California professor and renowned American urban sociologist, Claude Fischer has an approach that illustrates this theory with a simple metaphor. In playing pool, right before you break, you chalk up your cue, you set up the triangular formation of billiard balls, and then you set up the white ball opposite of it… Then you get ready. Once you break, you try and scatter them as best you can. Society, in this case, is represented by that triangular formation.

Once the white ball of technology is struck, the remaining striped and coloured balls of society are ricocheted, taking on new trajectories, bouncing off one another, and ultimately finding a new place on the table. Those elements of society have no control over a technology once built. Once an object or some sort of technological artefact is invented, it not only transforms society, but also the way we conduct ourselves in society. (Pavrin)

Perhaps the most relevant example of this *to us* is that of online sociability. Ask yourself: who exactly benefits from going online? Well… Early internet studies generally appear to support the social isolation thesis – highlighting the connection between internet usage and increased disconnection from family and friends, along with reduced social networks and higher levels of depression and anxiety. Given determinism, our reality is that we basically have no choice but to accept the consequences of such trends.

This reality begins to darken a little further once you start dissecting into the idea of social engineering. The easiest way to describe it is as the practice of manipulating or deceiving someone in order to obtain private or confidential information from them. (Trihartonoa, Herjanto, 31) And guess what… Facebook, Twitter, you email? Even just your online browser…that’s enough to fall victim to this practice.

Some of the most prevalent examples of social engineering include the practices of phishing, spear phishing, and pharming. Phishing, as the name implies, mimics real-life fishing, incorporating the idea of some kind of bait. A random email is sent out to tons of people requesting personal information. While this email seems totally innocuous on the outside, it’s ulterior motive is to deceive you so the people behind it can get their hands on your precious data.

Now, while the distraught Nigerian Prince might no longer be too convincing, other guises, like being informed that your computer’s security might be at risk, serve as quite the enticing bait nowadays. The worst part is that these types of emails, sometimes even taking form as popups, have whole target demographics specifically created for them, primarily the elderly, along with others that are more likely to be unaware. (TIME)

Spear phishing takes it a step even further… Again, like the name implies, this time, instead of the masses being targeted, now it’s just you. It’s even more effective because this email has information tailored to you. By accessing your social network profiles and tracking your online behaviour, you receive an email, riddled with facts about the kind of communities you’re a part of, area you might live in, issues you've followed in the past online, an email that you are totally convinced only you could receive. You become umpteen times more likely to respond, stalling yourself just long enough to… get speared.

Adding on to this, this idea of pharming is one that’s often times paired with spear phishing. Pharming occurs when you find yourself emailed by a supposedly legitimate website. However, this website is entirely fraudulent, it mimics and looks completely legitimate, but is just a ploy to get your information again. This time, it’s even more drastic, as typically these websites look exactly like banking institutions, now, your financial information is on the line. (Trihartonoa, Herjanto, 33) 

In recent years, it’s estimated that this is only going to get worse as the politics of the internet, as facets like net neutrality, and decisions of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers facilitate a greater liberty for anybody to create a website, from any domain name.

However, the most subtle of dangers really start to sprout once you start to combine a supposedly “anonymous” website profile with easily obtainable personal information. With lots of information readily available, users become vulnerable to privacy and security violations, ranging anywhere from simple public embarrassment, stalking, creeping or harassment… to defamation of reputation, identity theft, and unwanted exposure… to even as serious as losing employment or academic opportunities or even facing imprisonment.

Simply put: ICTs have also afforded us to be *too* interconnected with one another. More people can see our profiles than you might think. A lot of social networking sites’ default settings are set to options that make accessing this sensitive data as easy as possible. Privacy settings can reduce this accessibility, sure, but the majority of people are unaware or even just simply reluctant to change them. Adopted habits like this, paired with the fact that oftentimes these sites change their privacy settings with absolutely no warning, and the fact that they depend on our blind acceptance of their terms and conditions as we’ve already grown so accustomed to doing… all this makes us more vulnerable than ever. How many of us are actually aware of these threats? (Pavrin)

What’s truly noteworthy is, that, for the ones actually relatively aware, we simply view it as a necessary evil at this point – it’s just a simple cost of using the service, and we have become okay with it. Users might care about security, but they care far greater about creating and maintaining relationships online. Such breaches are simply accepted as part of the “normalization of social media visibility.” Why we accept is because, nowadays, not being online equates to concerns of disconnection or fears of missing out. Mark Zuckerberg himself has stated that privacy is no longer a social norm and people have no expectation of it.

Immediately one can see just how the rise of ICTs has changed us. We may think that their services help us in the long run, but just how much do we actually know about all of their capabilities and functionalities? Those darker sides where our unconsciousness only facilitates greater convenience for the third parties and organizations after and profiting off of our information… 

So what does this all mean? Are we doomed? Trapped? If we’re just passively accepting all of these negative implications, all the while the information age is practically still just unfolding, maturing, does that mean that we’re headed for some sort of twisted Brave New World–1984 hybrid? Of course not.

Like we said before, the most noteworthy change of ICTs is how they've reshaped the communication dynamic. The problem with ideas like determinism stems from two fundamental reasons: 1) they’re just too simple, and 2) they suggest humans lack control. Such ideas are most prominent in popular discourse, the main reason for this being the these theories offer people oversimplified and generalized ideas about complex instances in history.

A complicated event is made to seem as an unpreventable, yet conceivable outcome of technological innovation. This would be like saying that the birth control pill is solely responsible for the sexual revolution we saw in the sixties. Likewise, one could also say that the internet is single-handedly to blame for the events following the Arab Spring. Or, in line with our previous example, that social networking sites are to blame for social isolation or poor social habits. Why the criticisms for such theories? For oversimplifying the innately far more complex relationship that exists between society and technology. (Sufrin)

What makes determinists’ views of change so frightening is also what makes them so appealing: in spite of technology being irrepressible, humans are conveniently absolved of their own responsibilities regarding the impact of technological development. Determinists fail to see technologies as part of a pattern of social and cultural use and by doing so absolve humans of their own responsibilities regarding technology use

So what’s the takeaway? How do we start making sense of what cyberspace has become? It’s simple: we ought to understand that society and technology is not a one-way street. Just as we are seemingly powerless at our all-time low, we are just as powerful at our all-time high thanks to the spurt of ICTs. To support this notion, theories of Social Shaping and Social Construction also came to light to refute those ideas of passivity and oversimplified acceptance.

In such theories, it is human agency that determines the shaping of new technologies. Determinists place technologies outside society, they neglect to account for the human factor in technological innovation. Social Construction criticizes Determinism as universalistic – determinists don’t account for the fact that technological innovation and its use varies within different groups and cultures.

What we ultimately need to understand is that ICTs are just a resource. They cannot, in and of themselves, harm us or help us. It is how we choose to use them that decides this fate. (Herath, 805).

For instance, just as the online social sphere permits negativity, deception and manipulation of our information, it also affords the opportunity for network building, coordinating events, promoting synergy through online meetings, and it makes staying in touch as easy as it’s ever been. While these sites do gather our information, allow the opportunity for us to be harassed and threatened, they were originally intended for connectivity. (McIntyre, Wiener, Saliba, 569)

The idea that best illustrates this is that of offline vs. online social connectedness, the rich getting richer thesis, if you will. The basic premise is that people who are already socially savvy benefit greater from social networking. By the same token, the social compensation thesis states that individuals who find it difficult to socialize use social networking sites as a way to boost their social lives, to compensate. Those with many offline social connections with high self-esteem reap the most rewards from such platforms, however those with low self-esteem recognize the benefits but don’t benefit as much. (McIntyre, Wiener, Saliba, 572)

Given this, is it safe to say that technology is solely responsible for the social disconnection that many of us may experience? While it is admittedly more comforting to think so, it is simply not true. It is imperative that we become aware of the technology around us. It is our responsibility to create, foster and develop a healthy society. In order to intelligently operate within this realm, we must first deepen our understanding of it.

“There is no prior period of change that remotely resembles what humanity is about to resemble. We have gone through revolutionary periods before, but not as powerful or as pregnant as the fraternal twins, peril and opportunity, as the ones beginning to unfold.”

Those were Al Gore’s thoughts on what those next, give or take, twenty years might entail. We are at a pivotal point in history, one that bridges what we once knew… with the future that awaits us. It is up to us to learn how to use ICTs, understand their implications, their potential, their pitfalls. Are we going to construct something meaningful or simply go with the flow and become technologically determined? (Pavrin)

Through the research of specific case studies, it’s easy for us to understand the evolution of such progress, and, in an even grander scope, the future we’re steadily making contact with. In a time seemingly governed by the powers of technology – an age of already *too much *information – one might not have that same luxury of unawareness they may have had once before. If we continue to, intentionally or not, be ignorant of the threats posed by this rapidly evolving sphere, the idea of technological determinism is one that will only continue to become more real.

Consciousness is the starting point of it all… to learn more about ICTs and their effects on society is to begin constructing and shaping society. Needless to say, the more you know, the more informed you are, the greater the likelihood you’ll take advantage of ICTs as opposed to others using them to take advantage of you. Inquiry is just a good a starting point as any. (InQuery.)

- DB

 

Works Cited:

Vera Pavri, Understanding Cyberspace professor, interview by Dennis Bayazitov, November 13th 2015.

Jon Sufrin, Writing in Digital Cultures professor, interview by Dennis Bayazitov, November 10th 2015.

Michael Kompf (January 12th, 2015). Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and the Seduction of Knowledge, Teaching and Learning: What Lies Ahead for Education. Curriculum Inquiry, Volume 35. Pages 213 - 233

H. M. C. T. Herath (September 2015). Analysis of ICT Usage for the Teaching and Learning Process by the Academics. International Journal of Computer and Information Technology, Volume 4. Pages 803 - 808.

"TIME Staff" (November 20, 2014). The 25 Best Inventions of 2015.

Angus Trihartonoa, Halimin Herjanto (September 30th 2014). There is Nowhere to Hide: A Threat from Cyber Terrorism. International Journal Sustainable Future for Human Security, Volume 2. Pages 29 - 34.

Erica McIntyre, Karl K.K. Wiener, Anthony J. Saliba (February 28th, 2015). Compulsive Internet Use and Relations between Social Connectedness and Introversion. Computers in Human Behaviour. Pages 569 - 574.