Communication technology encompasses a broad range of mediums, from the internet to radio to television to wireless signal providers. It is used in the business sphere, in personal relationships and also in public spaces that are neither primarily commercial or personal, such as a subway stop that uses televisions to broadcast schedule changes. Traditionally, communication technology is limited to hardware such as radio receptors or television sets. However, the popularity of wireless technologies has correspondingly made the concept of communication technology slightly more ethereal. Although “hot spots” are required to transmit wireless signal, the seemingly unlimited variety of wireless devices makes this form of communication technology particularly invigorating in terms of its potential growth.
Regardless of their specific form, the last few decades have seen an unparalleled rise in the availability of these technologies among the public. In 1985, for example, there were a total of 340,000 cell phone subscribers in the United States. In 2012, there are now 5.9 billion cell phone subscribers worldwide. This shift in the span of only 27 years has had a dramatic effect on how people relate to one another.
In previous eras, for example, there was a clear line between the “public” and “private” spheres of daily life. Because communication technology could only be transmitted in very specific forms like a television set or radio signal, people interacted with the technology in limited bursts. The news cycle was geared to produce a compendium of relevant stories at specific times, leading to more thoughtful and well-researched presentations. Because the hardware was somewhat costly, people tended to gather in groups to experience presentations together. When the presentation was over, people would turn off the technology and return to their particular social grouping without the expectation of further media interference.
In our present society, communications technology is never “off” in the same way that it used to be only a few decades before. While people can elect individually to participate with the technology, the public/private boundary has become very hard to differentiate. Cell phones, which allow people to connect to the internet, are designed to remain receptive to messages unless their battery has died. The natural human urge to connect with others is now a constant option, instead of an occasional luxury.
The presence of older communication technology such as radio or television in people’s lives does not have the same significance that it once did, although it still plays a role. Increasingly, communication technology is viewed as a kind of platform. A radio show might be more popular than a television show, or vice-versa. People accord relevance to content, not necessarily the platform on which it is found. This has forced content providers to become increasingly competitive in terms of branding themselves in the market in order to attract attention. Television competes with Twitter competes with radio competes with memes on the internet. There is no center in the communications technology universe, only a constantly revolving door of options. The consumer chooses what content appeals to him, and the benefit to the communication technology provider is therefore second-hand.
This is partially why the rise of wireless technology may ultimately become the distinguishing factor in who influences major communication shifts. Much like electricity, without wireless access many people will be unable to access the content. However, the sheer numbers of people who are actively participating in communications technology by virtue of owning cell phones makes it unlikely that only one provider will be able to capture all wireless communications. Because cell phones and tablet computers have evolved so quickly, it is likely that smaller markets will be able to create sophisticated “off-grid” technologies that use a specialized form of wireless signal to transmit messages to a select group, much as the London rioters of 2011 sent each other private messages over their Blackberrys or iPhones.
Regardless of what the future holds, the present is very much an environment influenced by communication technology. It is not an uncommon sight to see someone walking down a crowded street, completely absorbed by the display of their smart phone. The way we choose to connect with people has become largely mediated by communication technology. Most of us, perhaps not surprisingly, have accepted this transition without question.