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Computer Mediated Communication in the 90s

An exponential increase in the interpersonal, group and mass exchange of information through computer-media such as diskettes, personal digital assistants, digital phones and the Web infers that communication in developed nations is moving towards a CMC basis. This move entails a number of factors, indicating technological evolution, local social and political dissatisfaction and the gratification of economic and personal needs that only computer networks can satisfy.

While people do adopt technologies on their own terms, computer-mediation has expanded into arenas that have already diffused effectively, and has catered to human needs by creating more user and bandwidth-friendly solutions. Now, A large degree of data transfer and telecommunications traffic is facilitated through a new digital standard, employing 'smart networks' and decoders that accord to the definition of a computer as noted in FOLDOC (1995). (December, CMC Magazine, Jan 97) Similarly, desktop PCs have only recently shifted their central function from one of raw data manipulation to a user-friendly base encouraging communication through networks and other group support structures. (The Economist, pp 5-7 & Easterbrook, 1992; Miranda, 1994) With this in mind, it becomes clear that both forms and uses of CMC are increasing (as with their accessibility), catering to a multiplicity of disparate personalities. (Peter Murray, CMC Magazine, Jan 97)

The attractiveness of network tools involves a variety of factors, though all link to the concept of breaching the time/space continuum. Video-conferencing, community fora, Internet Relay Chat, publishing freedom and networked file transfer protocols serve a variety of functions with a speed and ease not possible through traditional means. Meaning can be created, disseminated and perceived as with other media, but with a greater freedom and accessibility, allowing for a certain brand of egalitarianism and liberty of speech to prevail, while fostering purposeful political and social 'communities' that function in a similar fashion to regional communities in the temporal realm.

Since the PC has become increasingly customizable, its dissemination within business has been successful. This has led to further innovation, working to confirm public perception of computers as communications devices. Presently, email and e-commerce have reached such a stage that ambitious businesses and individuals can not afford to forego the opportunity of maintaining a Web presence. Similarly, the recent confirmation of the Web as a mass medium (in light of the Starr Report and the Diana Spencer influx) suggests that in order to keep up with significant current affairs and news reports, one is compelled to connect. This necessity has been identified as leading to class segregation and the emergence of a new 'information elite' due to the continuing barriers to entry in terms of hardware costs. Conversely, fear of the widening information gap has led to a greater adoption of the technology within educational and public institutions, while schemes aimed at granting the less privileged members of (developed) society with access to computer-mediated content have been initiated throughout much of the world.

The Internet's growing popularity has transformed the medium into a rich, multi-faceted forum for the infinite exchange of information and emotion, freeing humans from the nuisance of bodily restrictions. The new media present humans with a method to transcend temporality so that their thoughts and words alone can mingle in the ethereal realm, allowing arguably for a greater level of unconscious truth and honesty to be conveyed. This factor, in addition to networked capacities for data organisation and its exacerbation of social divisions (in regards to those who can afford access) is redefining the dynamic concept of community, just as McLuhan (1964) and Boorstin (1978) had predicted.

Fitting the established communal criteria and dimensions as penned by Van Vliet and Burgers (1987), while encouraging individualism, the increasing popularity of computer-mediated communities has been seen to reflect the lack of fundamental human regard and counseling present in the 'real world'. (Rheingold, 1994, p.175) In addition, the absence of any rigid regulation on the Net facilitated the exchange of communication unsubverted by power or politics, which encourages a global new order in a just and equitable sphere.

While this continues to be the case, and while people seek information and relationships online, and through other computer-based media, those who aren't 'wired' will be at a disadvantage culturally, socially and technologically, which again encourages adoption through the force of peer-pressure and intellectual necessity.

Written by Joshua Smith. © 1998

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