Part I of Final Project: Remediation Essay
The University of Texas at Dallas, HUSL 6384
May 10, 2011
A knock on the door announced an unexpected visitor to the home on a peaceful Sunday afternoon. Father arose from his favorite chair and answered the door. “Welcome Reverend. How good it is to see you. Won’t you please come inside?” “Family, the Reverend is here,” he bellowed. Father, Mother, and the children gathered in the foyer to greet their pastor. Father said, “Please have a seat in the front parlor.” The family and their visitor took their seats. Mother asked, “Can I bring you some tea or lemonade?” “Tea, thank you.”
Similar scenes took place in large metropolitan areas, county seat towns, and rural areas. Pastors, friends, family, and others stopped by houses unexpectedly, and the homeowners gladly welcomed them. An invention in 1876 threatened to curtail these social customs in the United States. From the time of the introduction of the telephone up to the advent of email, Americans have responded to the inventions of one-to-one communication technologies by allowing their use to impact society and by allowing them to act as extensions of themselves.
Certainly, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone would allow people to speak to people down the street or out at a farmhouse. People could quickly summon help during an emergency, place orders for home delivery, arrange meetings and visits, and deepen friendships by talking on the phone; however, not everyone appreciated Bell’s invention. Some Americans worried that this new technology would discourage home visitations. If potential visitors could gain the information they needed or could schedule visitation times by talking on the telephone, then fewer people would visit because they no longer could just stop by a home unannounced.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s in north Texas, residential architects designed the Dallas plan. The front door of the house stood in the middle of the one-story elevation, while large picture windows flanked either side. The door opened into a foyer, with a formal dining room on one side of the foyer and an equally-sized formal living room on the other side. The twelve-foot by twelve-foot formal living room resembled the parlor of Victorian homes. The homeowners knew that even if the rest of the house resembled a pigsty that the living room would remain clean and welcoming to visitors. By the 1980’s and 1990’s, many architects stopped designing formal living rooms because very few people still used those rooms, which had turned into closed museums. Fewer formal visits meant that homes did not need formal living rooms. People “visited” each other on the telephone; in other words, conversations on Bell’s invention turned the phone into the living room.
Some people—mainly for business or organizational purposes—have arranged conference calls or utilized automatic phone dialers; for example, principals at schools have recorded messages about the school’s closing for bad winter weather and then had the automatic phone dialer call all of the households of the students in order to deliver that recorded message. Most people, however, have used the telephone for one-to-one communication, in which one person calls another person one at a time. In broadcast media the message goes from the one to the many. The term “broadcast media” was synonymous with “mass media.” The masses of radio listeners, television viewers, newspaper readers, magazine readers, billboard readers, sign readers, and Web 1.0 readers all received the same message in their respective media. Until the advent of Web 2.0, it was cost prohibitive for individual people to use one-to-many communication, except for a newspaper classified ad or a “Nicole, will you marry me?” billboard.
The invention of the pager freed people from a landline in some respects. Physicians and employees who worked outside the office wore pagers so that the office staff or others could reach them wherever they were. Pager users were free to travel, but they were tied to a landline in the sense that they would have to locate a landline in order to return the call indicated on the pager. Even since the introduction of cell phones, some people have both pagers and cell phones. The one-to-one communication technology of pagers allows people to work in the “field,” to be contacted in emergencies (such as a fire for a firefighter) or urgent situations (such as the birth of baby for an obstetrician), and to be reached when needed. However, such access comes with costs. Pager users cannot truly relax when they know that they are “on call” or can be reached at anytime, including the middle of the night. Pages can call users away from their families or social situations and thus take a toll on relationships.
Cell phones have had even more social effects than have pagers. Manufacturers introduced $1,500 car phones in the 1980’s, when users could call anyone; on the other hand, people wanting to call car-phone users had to reach them when they were in the car. As technology improved, phones became much smaller, and prices dropped significantly, the “car phone” evolved in the 1990’s into the portable “cell phone,” which needed no automobile to work. Sales of cell phones have exploded to the point where more than 91 percent of Americans use them. Parents wrestle with the question of how old do their boys and girls need to be before the children are allowed to have cell phones. People from older children to senior adults have them. As with pager users, cell phone users can be reached at anytime and at any place that the device is working. Unlike pager users, cell phone users can call back from their mobile device.
Teens might feel like they have freedom with a cell phone because, like pagers, cell phones allow the users to travel and still be reached. Author Sherry Turkle says that teens have a “tethered adolescence.” They think that they have more freedom, but their parents can reach them wherever they are, and they might have to check in with them. She said that the use of cell phones is changing a rite of passage. Between the ages of 12 and 14, children began navigating the city and life itself on their own. They apply what they learned as children. However, they use their cell phones to contact their parents or friends in order to learn what to do. The teen might receive better instructions from their parents than they would have from friends or from their own education. But by being tethered to their parents, they might not have received a needed maturation experience, which would have helped them in the future.
As a feature of cell phones, texting has changed the way that youth communicate. A 2010 Pew Research study found that texting is the number one way that young people aged 12 to 17 communicate. Youth text more to each other than they speak to each other in person. Jennifer Valentino-DeVries of The Wall Street Journal comments, “Although e-mail is considered relatively informal by adults, teenagers in the Pew survey said they see it as formal, something used mainly by teachers and parents.”
The read/write web, also called “Web 2.0,” has enabled individuals to augment their one-to-one communication by producing one-to-many communication. Online communities such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and many others and email blasts allow individuals to broadcast their news. But those sites allow one-to-one communication, such as instant messaging on Facebook and direct messaging on Twitter.
Teens might not prefer email, but millions of Americans use email for one-to-one communication. Email users can write a message right when they are thinking of an idea and send it at no charge to another person. The recipient can read it when he or she desires.
Some people have complained that the use of email has reduced letter writing, and thus recipients miss seeing the handwriting of the sender. People without computers or people who do not use computers or people who do not know how to use computers feel ostracized. They feel that they are not receiving the same news or conversations that email users receive. Such people might or might not be considered twenty-first-century Luddites; rather, they prefer other forms of communication. Famous writer Wendell Berry even declared, “I am not going to [buy a computer].” Those of us who prefer digital forms of communication need to be cognizant of the fact that not everyone has jumped online. If we want to communicate with them, we need to communicate with them in the manner that they, not we, prefer and thus follow the “Platinum Rule,” which declares, “Do unto others as they wish to be done unto.” We need to ask them for their preference.
Much current research describes the societal changes accompanying the rise of digital communication technologies. Numerous are their benefits: scalability, accessibility, transferability, low costs, ubiquity, and ease of searching, copying, storing, and archiving. Opponents cite the loss or devaluing of earlier communication technologies, the widening of the gap between the have’s and the have-not’s of digital communication technologies, the potential for cheating, fraud or terrorism, the increase of vice, isolation because of cocooning, the decrease of face-to-face communication, and the rise of secularism. Author Diana Butler Bass states, “The U.S. is no longer the exception to the rule that when a society acquires more technology it becomes more secular.”
From Bell’s saying “Mr. Watson, come here,” to digital technologies, represented by IBM’s founder Thomas Watson, Americans have responded to one-to-one communication technologies. Our responses have been that: our choices rather than technological determinism. “With the arrival of electric technology [including the original telephone ],” Marshall McLuhan writes, “man extended or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system.” We have chosen to extend ourselves. Since 1876, Americans have seen new technologies for one-to-one communication: telephones, pagers, car phones, cell phones for speaking, cell phones for speaking and texting, instant messaging, and emails. People have responded to the use of each one of these technologies by changing the way that they communicate. Some people have incorporated the new technologies into their communication repertoire, while other people have ignored them or reluctantly agreed to use them. In any case, most Americans have allowed these one-to-one communication technologies to serve as extensions of themselves.
I contend that today’s digital communication technologies are not the only one-to-one communication technologies to have opponents as well as proponents. Some of the same arguments or variations of them could be used for or against each technology, beginning with the telephone. I agree with Fischer when he writes, “I chose to focus, however, on a technology [i.e., the telephone] that people used daily in private life, a technology that may have affected social relations, community, and culture.”
Berry, W. “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer.” http://home.btconnect.com/tipiglen/berrynot.html
Butler Bass, Diana. TCU Magazine, Spring 2011, p. 14.
Fischer, C. S. (1992). America calling: A social history of the telephone to 1940. Berkeley: University of California Press. Kindle version.
Marvin, Carolyn in Fischer, C. S. (1992). America calling: A social history of the telephone to 1940. Berkeley: University of California Press. Kindle version.
McLuhan, Marshall. “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis.” Understanding Media. 43.
Turkle, S. (2007). “Can You Hear Me Now?” Forbes. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/free_forbes/2007/0507/176.html