Convergence is a term that can be broadly used to define multiple contexts. In relation to technology the growth and development is evident in information, communication and business around the world. The Internet technology is a prime example of all three categories, which contribute to the understanding of convergence in today’s form of communication and new media.
The emergence of social media network communities and free market economies were brought to life due to the birth of the internet while the technological convergence of products such as computer and telecommunication devices also brought about the discussion of whether or not these developments were fulfilling the predictions of future utopia and dystopia possibilities portrayed in texts such as ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley and ‘War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High tech Assault on Reality’ by Mark Slouka.
This essay will focus on the technological convergence and its consequences – Utopia or Dystopia. The development of the ‘Net’ began with the interconnection of computer networks using computer-mediated communications technology to connect people around the world, in public discussion forums and sharing of information through the telephone systems. It was soon the nucleus for ideas and fueled by the ‘gift economy’; a social act of sharing valuable information or goods with no immediate returns or even future rewards.
With the steady increase in active participants and common interests, various types of virtual communities were born. Having a utopian position in regards to technology, is to imply that there are technological solutions to social problems (Ward, 1997). These solutions are defined in terms of technology’s effect on communitarian mindsets such as the need to balance individual rights and interests with that of the community as a whole through self-governing participation.
While a large part of a social utopia is achieved through the realisation of a virtual community on the internet, critics such as Howard Rheingold define this community as being an opportunity to “find connection in a computerised world” (Rheingold, 1987). The communitarian argument suggests that because the Internet will ease the process of civic engagement, the accessibility of communication between individuals can go beyond geographic and social boundaries.
Rheingold believed that online communities created opportunities to contribute to virtual relationships based on common interests with a ‘hunger’ for a community environment. It is a place where one is both the performer and audience while the connections made by these interactions encourage the formation of new deliberative spaces and of collective action. Rheingold who authored ‘The Virtual Community’ in 1994 provided the cushioning for society and their first encounter of new technology, portraying the internet as a utopian potential.
His interpretation of the virtual community has provided developers of today to produce sophisticated commercial applications that now exemplifies Rheingold’s ‘theme park’ concept into graphics-based virtual realities where individuals may recreate themselves with virtual bodies or “avatars” as the focus of interaction. Through a virtual world, while utopia seems to be the overall idea most people derive from being able to communicate with others about common interests, it also gives the user the opportunity to create a virtual identity.
The idea of the detached self from a utopian perspective means that people are ‘self represented’ and not bound to social conventions and physical discriminations. The level of anonymity provided by the lack of face-to-face interaction meant individuals were free to explore issues from identity to sexuality with no limitations. Therefore a utopian online environment is largely based on the notion that the communication medium is vital in determining effects (McLuhan, 1964).
This approach promotes the democratic potential of computer-mediated communication by referring back to the design of the network. Utopians hypothesize that cyberspace will make it easier for people to communicate both politically and socially. The utopian environment of cyberspace is similar to the sociologist Jurgen Habermas belief where the communicative action that emerges as a result of these forms of interaction, can limit the subversion of deliberative democracy by market-driven imperatives (1992, 1989).
On the other hand, the dystopian perspective of the Internet and its effects on society relates more closely to the works of Slouka in ‘War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High tech Assault on Reality’. The dystopian position in the argument of convergence and communication believes that the internet has the potential to affect communication so that it may change the practices and means of communication that has been supporting democracy, in a negative way. It is believed that the democracy system will fail as the structure of society and the people become distant and isolated from each other with minimal or no face-to-face interactions.
With the loss of connections with others in society, sociologist Manuel Castells states that the internet will “limit connections between those who are at the center of an information based communicative structure and those who are on the fringe of that structure” (1989), disturbing both political and social lives. A virtual community that encourages multiple identities with no continuum or consistency operates on a limited psychological and social path where there is no focus on the continuity of the self.
The dystopian image of convergence portrays an unstable environment with the inability to cope with internal conflict due to the dependency of the virtual world where no traditional values, cultural integrity, or politics exist. The consequences on society’s blind social indulgence in the virtual world isn’t about what technology can do for society, rather what technology will undo. Huxley’s “Brave New World” is an example of a potential ending to humanity and its vital sources if societies accept the overload of information technology and uncontrolled growth
The idea of dystopia is almost always linked to the idea of totalitarian systems, where the ruling humanity seems to be the underlying message. Organisations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was established as an advocacy group for electronic communities, preserving the civil liberties such as privacy and freedom of expression in and on the online communities. Rheingold attempted to portray the EFF as a key entity to allusions of a utopian organization (1994) the frontier rhetoric is still being debated today with establishments such as these being see as a virtual form of governmental intervention and attempted control.
William Gibson’s fictional work also portrays the key concepts like ‘cyberspace’ and ‘virtual reality’. His dystopian vision although classed as being a science fiction novel, sits in between the future and the present with realistic contexts and theories arising from his interpretation of global corporations, technologically driven governments and the future. Key components of his text ‘Burning Chrome’ such as cyberspace being the matrix of electronic data and global corporations being able to overpower or outdo governments, financially and technologically are factors that truly do exist today.
The world we live in and the lives people call their own are being shaped by the trends of globalisation and identity (Castells, 1997). The conflicting opinions about the internet and its advantages and disadvantages to society are still and will be heavily debated as the years to come. While online communities provide escape and freedom of expression to isolated individuals, the reality of escapism into an anonymous online narrative, although providing the opportunity to explore harmless fantasy, is not real.
With corporations and governments generating wealth, opportunity and flexibility in the free market made available through the internet, society must remember the internet is merely an exclusive tool not a way of life. To determine whether or not the convergence of technology and social culture has brought the world and its communities to a utopia or dystopia is too early to predict although society must be aware that human development and technological progress will continue to move forward together and the questions remains on how we as human beings allow the influence of technology affect the nature of our society.
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