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Kevin Lamb

ORGL 515 – Interpersonal Communications and Small Group Theory

December 18, 2009

Communication Technology and The Dividing Lines of Freedom


Since the days of Socrates, evident in the works of Plato, there has existed a fear of the effect technology would have on human intelligence, and ultimately humanity (Hamilton, 1971, Plato: Phaedrus & Letters VII and VIII). Socrates feared that something as simple as writing would make individuals receptacles of knowledge rather than owners of an understanding of such knowledge, “[Writing] will implant forgetfulness in their souls… calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks” (Kahn, 2004, p. 155). With the evolution of technology, arose the social evolution of man and a growing dependency on such developments. At the center of the concern is man’s ability to communicate with one another, build relationships, and ultimately communities. In an ever present technological world, it is critical to understand the level of dependency man has placed in machine, and freedom sacrificed as a result of constructing a portion of identity through those relations.

Using the Structure and Agency theory (Giddens, 1984),  the dialectic power struggle between man-kind and its dependency on technology, in addition to the ability to balance virtual experience with authentic experience, will be used to explore the risk diminished interpersonal communication poses to freedom and humanity. Both individual and group focus findings will be paired with exploration to better understand the construction of identity and freedom within the struggle. As for Giddens, “Only in man’s struggle to find identity within a system, can freedom be realized; but what grows upward from mechanism, easily, automatically, running by itself, is not human freedom. Freedom is always a struggle” (Tallbot, 1995, ch. 1).

Ethical and Communicative Implications

While tools like computers and the internet are landmarks in the history of humanity and communication, man-kind’s dependency on these systems to replicate every-day human functions poses great danger to freedom, acting as an enslaving agent to such systems:

Such a recasting of social issues as technological ones points to a thoroughgoing habit of abstraction. What can be mapped from the human being to a machine is always and only an abstraction. One cannot embrace a device as the midwife of freedom without having lost sight of the living, ambiguous reality of freedom as an experience of alternative, inner stances. All that is left is an abstract shadow of these stances, in the form of external, machine-mediated “options.” Where freedom once required the fateful exercise of an enlightened, heart-warmed will, it is now enough to play with clickable choices on a screen (Tallbot, 1995, ch. 1).

Once removed from experience, this virtual relationship based on immediacy has alienated individuals from authentic experience and emotion, giving way to secondary experience and emotion (Tallbot, 1995). For example, a child’s experience of an alligator on a computer, programmed to be active and responsive to the child’s ever whim, versus an alligator at the zoo that spends most of its time asleep. What then is more real? The child’s experience with the virtual alligator educating him or her of every capability the alligator species possesses, or the observation of a living, breathing, likely sleeping ‘gator, in captivity? The nature of the problem lies in the implausible nature of a child actually visiting the Amazon to truly witness a functioning alligator. Thus we have arrived on the allure of the virtual, and other such tools like communication technology that simplifies the way humans interact with the world around them, of which there is no doubt great value, but in value comes great challenge and risk for Tallbot (1995)

The computer, like so many tools, is a specialized and one-sided expression of what we have become, and therefore requires an effort of self-mastery. It requires the restoration of a disrupted internal balance… In this sense, every tool paradoxically offers us one gift above all others: it gives us something to work against. We turn it to our own use — overcoming it in the process — not primarily in order to gain some thing as a result, but in order to have accomplished the overcoming. It is always ourselves we work on, whether we realize it or not” (ch. 1)

The danger of such tools is a human nature known only through a close identification with computer mediated experience. By giving human or lifelike functionalities to machines, we begin to lose the ability to recognize where what is human stops, and what is computer generated begins (Tallbot, 1995). Interpersonal communication is commonly understood as participants who are dependent on one another and have a shared history to communicate using direct and indirect channels (Pearce, 2008) Direct channels include both verbal and non-verbal cues, such as words and facial expressions, while indirect consist of subconsciously received gestures such as body language (Pearce, 2008). In an ever growing computer mediated world, the foundation for which relationships were once harnessed and fostered has dramatically changed. For example, just five years ago, if a single guy met a girl he was interested in, he’s ask for her number, call her some days later, have a conversation, and ultimately take her on date. While, granted, the same process still occurs, more commonly today a guy meets a girl he’s interested in, finds out her first and last name, and later looks her up on Facebook. He requests to add her as a friend, perhaps writes on her wall, or sends her a message. The process helps avoid or diminish the ever so feared experience of rejection, but it is rejection and struggle that socializes us and makes us human:

Much of the appeal of cyberspace appears to be its clean, dematerialized, conceptual nature, born of the programmer’s and engineer’s schematizing, ungrounded and therefore uncontaminated. That many Net enthusiasts see this as a strength — as an opportunity to realize our highest ideals — testifies to the absence of the concrete human being from the idealist’s aseptic calculations. He has forgotten that the improvement of the human being is a messy, lifelong undertaking, inseparable from suffering (Tallbot, ch. 1)

Such suffering is a quintessential to “self mastery” (Giddens, 1984); interpersonal communication must be promoted in order to find balance in identity from the technological system man-kind has embedded itself in.

In an effort to simply what it means to be human, man has in fact dehumanized perhaps the most essential function of what it means to be human, community and communication.   The convenience and allure of communication technology has created a sense of devotion; between social networks, I Phones, Blackberrys, text-messages and even telephones, the basis by which we live and interact has changed, yet hardly even acknowledged as a point of concern; “If we are asked to come to ourselves over against our machines, we remain free to shun this extremely difficult work. So far, there has scarcely been an acknowledgment that the challenge even exists, let alone engagement with it (ch. 25). The growing presence of communication technology is widely acknowledged, but what is lacking, beyond in discussion of scholars, is that there may be something to fear through such interwoven dependence. Certainly only a handful of romantics will make noise pleading that language as we know is deteriorating, which it is, but until it is acknowledged that communication, relationships, and community are suffering as well, there is a slippery slope. Tallbot (1995) speaking from the fears of Socrates claims”

But the relevant comparison is not between oral and literate. It is between the genuinely oral communication that once took place face- to-face, and the “secondary orality” now electronically replacing that communication. Here we see the computer’s influence running exactly counter to the usual thesis: informal communication is tending toward the abstract, disengaged, and remote, with feeling conveyed indirectly through the artifice of written expression, and participation unavoidably constrained by the narrower channel (ch. 1).

The common place for communication is no longer only face to face, it is from the thumbs on the keyboard of a text-message, or the message boards of personal profiles on Facebook. While such tools are making the world a smaller place, they are undoubtedly thinning the walls which hold it in place. How long until children are more comfortable text-messaging one another than talking face to face? Will future generations be capable of socialization without these crutches, and doesn’t the problem really lie in that so few free individuals are asking such questions of themselves? Unmediated devotion is at the center of this struggle, and must be combated to construct identity from authentic experience more so than virtual, secondary experience (Tallbot, 1995) “The possibilities of our freedom, it seems, vanish into the necessities imposed by the tools of our freedom” (Tallbot, 1995, ch.1).

Structure and Agency Theory

Structure and agency theory is found within Anthony Giddens’ theory of structuration (Giddens, 1984), which is an attempt to reconcile theoretical dichotomies of social systems such as agency/structure, subjective/objective, and micro/macro perspectives (Giddens, 1984). Giddens suggests, human agency and social structure are in a relationship with each other, and it is the repetition of the acts of individual agents which reproduces the structure. As used by Durkheim and others working within a similar tradition, structure is a metaphor that denotes qualities of society that are likened to the skeleton of a body in the field of anatomy, or to the frame of a building in architecture (Ritzer, 2007). He insisted that there are patterned ways of acting, thinking, and feeling that are general throughout a society acting as external constraints over its members (Ritzer, 2007). Man’s ritualized implementation of communication technology: text messaging, emailing, social networking, and video chatting, gives birth to the structure by which man depends on those technologies to function. Within these social structures lie traditions, institutions, moral codes, and established ways of doing things (Giddens, 1984).

For Giddens, structures are rules and resources organized as properties of social systems. It refers to the recurrent patterned arrangements which seem to influence or limit the choices and opportunities that individuals possess. A social system can be understood by its structure, modality, and interaction. Structure is constituted by rules and resources governing and available to agents (Giddens, 1984). Structuration theory aims to avoid extremes of structural or agent determinism. The balancing of agency and structure is referred to as the duality of structure (Giddens, 1984): social structures make social action possible, and at the same time that social action creates those very structures (Ritzer, 2007). It is in the duality of structure (Giddens, 1984) that we discover the reflexive individual necessary for “self-mastery” (Giddens, 1984).

Social networking websites such as Facebook are an example of specific social systems within the dichotomous relationship of man and machine. The individual users within the system are examples of agents (Giddens). Agency according to Giddens is human action, it refers to the capacity of an individual to act independently and make their own choices (Giddens). The modality of a social system is the process under which structure is translated into action (Giddens). A social system cannot exist without modality; Facebook is not a social system unless individual users create profiles and give it functionality. Interaction is the activity that takes place through the agents experience within the social system (Giddens, 1984). With a single user Facebook is not a social system with agents capable of modality; it is not until there are multiple users, enabling “friending” that modality occurs.

Giddens defines ‘ontological security’ as the trust people have in social structure; everyday actions have some degree of predictability, thus ensuring social stability (1984). Ontological security paired with a lack of “self mastery”, has resulted in the devotion of man, or agents to the social systems resulting from communication. At the heart of the debate over primacy of structure or agency is the question of social ontology: Do social structures determine an individual’s behavior or does human agency (Giddens, 1984)? Many individuals create much of their social identity through their relationships in the world of social networking, leaving structuralist theorists to suggest that the perceived agency of individuals can also mostly be explained by the operation of this structure (Turner, 1991). In direct opposition, social phenomenologists content that the capacity or freedom of individual agents allows them to construct or reconstruct the world (Turner, 1991). This dichotomous relationship between agent and social system helps portray mans struggle within a world interwoven amongst machines. Bourdieu sheds light on this struggle, “symbolic power is a power of constructing reality”, it is “invisible power which can be exercised only with the complicity of those who do not want to know that they are subject to it or even that they themselves exercise it” (1994, p. 164) Agent’s within the social system do no consider the fears of structuralist, they are born free men and women, and believe that is the way it will always be.

The third alternative contended by many modern theorists, is to attempt to find a point of balance between the two previous positions. They see structure and agency as complementary forces – structure influences human behavior, and humans are capable of changing the social structures they inhabit (Turner, 1991). Giddens theory of structuration is where process of “self-mastery” (Giddens, 1984) is made possible. It is only the reflective individual that is capable of such processes. Giddens contends we possess different levels of awareness which affect the way we act in the world. We switch between them in differing contexts. Practical consciousness; describes the practical skills and knowledge that we employ. Discursive consciousness refers to the ability to reflect on and comment rationally on our behaviour (Giddens, 1984). It is in shifting to one mode of consciousness to another that we employ another characteristic of agency – our ability to reflect on and monitor our own behaviour (Giddens 1984).  Thus we become reflexive agents.

Focus Group and Interview Results

For the purposes of the focus group, five students were selected, three in high school, two in college. The meeting was held at a Caribou Coffee. Prior to the meeting the students were emailed the following set of questions, to help prepare them for the discussion, in addition to see how quickly individual prepared stances may or may not be altered by the group’s responses. In the instance of the interview, a high school student and I met at Caribou on a different occasion. I considered using one of the members of the focus group, and interviewing him or her prior to conducting the focus group, but since group dynamics are not a focus or necessity of this study, deemed otherwise.

  1. What is your preferred method of communication? Face-to-face, text-messaging, Facebook or other social networking site, email, or other form of instant message?
  2. Of those options, which do use the most? Second most?
  3. Are there certain things you would rather communicate face-to-face rather than via text or Facebook? Vice versus? What type of things?
  4. Are there certain levels of relationships associated with the type of communication used on occasions like birthdays? Meaning, if it was one of your best friend’s birthday you would call or text them, but if it was just a pretty good friend you’d write on their Facebook wall.
  5. On the reverse, are you excited or possibly disappointed when certain friends congratulate you by a means other than you hoped or expected. Meaning, your best friend who usually always calls you on your birthday, wrote on your wall instead.
  6. Do you find it easier to stay in contact with a wider range of friends because of Facebook, or other social networking sites?
  7. Do you find it easier to talk to the opposite sex via text than in person or on the phone?
  8. How would you describe your Facebook use, very rare (once a week), rare (five times a week), moderate (once a day), active (four times a day), very active (10 times a day) or religious (20 or more)?
  9. Have your parents ever tried to regulate your Facebook use? Often?

10.  Have your parents ever tried to regulate your text-messaging, other than due to running up your phone bill?

Focus Group Results

In response to questions one and two, what is your preferred method of communication? Face-to-face, text-messaging, Facebook or other social networking site, email, or other form of instant message? Second most? The students responded that they preferred face-to-face, but often they’re not in the presence of the people they want to be talking to. This is the appeal of texting and Facebook, because they could do it anywhere, and with anyone. They expressed that it was easier to communicate via text and Facebook as well, allowing them time to prepare, write, and rewrite what they wanted to say. Facebook allows them to watch people, know where they are, what they’re doing, and who they’re friends with. This seemed to be a greater appeal for the high school students. They would friend students of other schools, because they had common friends, although they expressed they often wouldn’t ever physically meet, yet still monitor via status updates. When asked why they still paid attention to theme even though they had never met, they mostly responded that it was without thought, or because it was right in front of them, or they had something cool to say.

In response to the third question, are there certain things you would rather communicate face-to-face rather than via text or Facebook? Vice versus? What type of things? The students said there were few things they’d rather say in person, but examples of them were if something really good, or really bad happened, although they often would text-message anyway. They indirectly answered question seven, do you find it easier to talk to members of the opposite sex? Expressing strong preference for texting, or Facebook’ing members of the opposite sex in terms of rejection, some flirtation, and asking for plans or a date. They said it was easier to explore boundaries that way, see if a guy or girl was interested without being rejected, and in turn, to reject someone, or convey difficult to express feelings.

Are there certain levels of relationships associated with the type of communication used on occasions like birthdays? The students said yes and no: that they would always call or text a good friends, rather than writing on their wall, others said they were happy to remember them at all, or that they would do one or the other on a whim regardless of the type of friend. Regarding whether they’d be excited or possibly disappointed when certain friends congratulate them by a means other than they hoped or expected: The males said no, the females yes. The females expressed disappointment when one of their good friends wrote on their wall, or sent a text, rather than phone call. The guys didn’t express disappointment, but did express excitement and satisfaction when a friend would call, or even send a text rather than writing on their wall. It is important to know for the sake of this study, that Facebook announces birthdays days in advance, leading up to the actual day.

Responding to question six, do you find it easier to stay in contact with a wider range of friends because of Facebook, or other social networking sites? The students all replied; “absolutely, even if they move away or we move away you can look at their pictures, see if they’re dating someone, what type of job they are working, where they are in school, what music they listen to, videos they watch” etc. This transitioned easily into the next question; How would you describe your Facebook use, very rare (once a week), rare (five times a week), moderate (once a day), active (four times a day), very active (10 times a day) or religious (20 or more)? This was the most interesting question in terms of the group, at first the majority of them answered active, but one answered religious, resulting in three of the four remaining to laugh and admit they were also religious, resulting in four religious, and one active users.

Lastly, when asked Have your parents ever tried to regulate your Facebook use? Often? The students responded as following: “they did at first, when we first started using it, before everyone was using it, but then they stopped, they started using it, wanted help with how to use it. Sometimes when we’d get in trouble they’d tell us not to use the internet, or to go on Facebook, but for a lot of us, it’s on our phones, they couldn’t help it if they tried.” This lead to the final question; have your parents ever tried to regulate your text-messaging, other than due to running up your phone bill? Two of the students responded yes, and that it bothered their parents when they’d text at the kitchen table, or in the company of others, or in school, or when they were trying to talk. The other three said their parents had posited similar annoyances, but made no attempt to deter the rate with which they text.

Interview Results

In response to questions one and two, what is your preferred method of communication? Face-to-face, text-messaging, Facebook or other social networking site, email, or other form of instant message? Second most? The individual responded; “Face-to-face”, as he received and responded to a text-message. He replied when prompted that “texting is easier, you can respond quicker than calling someone, or waiting to see them in person”. He expressed belief that face-to-face and texting have become practically the same thing. He was an avid user of Facebook but thought it was more removed than the other two. In response to the third question, are there certain things you would rather communicate face-to-face rather than via text or Facebook? Vice versus? What type of things? He replied; “I’d rather tell my parents I screwed up, or got in trouble, I’d rather do that in person, even though texting it would be easier, they couldn’t yell at me until later”. He conveyed similar findings regarding issues of the opposite sex, expressing gratitude in the ability to be smoother via text than at times in person.

Addressing the question, are there certain levels of relationships associated with the type of communication used on occasions like birthdays? The student expressed that he and his good friends would text each other, but even that didn’t always happen, sometimes they’d just write on his wall, and vice-versus, but they didn’t care either way. His response to whether he found easier to stay in contact with a wider range of friends because of Facebook, was inline with groups. He talked about a good friend that moved away when he was young, that they used to never talk, but because Facebook, will occasionally write on each other’s walls. He was also a religious user of Facebook, citing his I Phone as the reason to blame, “it alerts me whenever I get a notification, keeps me from boredom in class”. Finally, he said his parents were more concerned how to use Facebook, than regulating his use, and that his mom rarely calls him anymore, sufficing to text.

Theoretical Application to Results

Results indicate a positive and prevalent relationship with communication technologies. There is great indication through “religious” Facebook use that socialization within a social system has occurred. The students, or agents, within the social system, or Facebook, give great indication that they have been reconstructed by the structure found within the social system they are embedded, in line with structuralist theory. A sense of “ontological security” (Giddens, 1984) is reinforced by their peers, teachers, coaches, and even parents use of such social systems. They are given little reason to question their “religious” commitment to Facebook, because its use is becoming as natural as butter to butter. Few parents seem willing or concerned to even fight the surrendering of their children to the powerful forces of communication technology. The “reflexive individual” (Giddens, 1984) seems to be a ghost, students in some instances are liking text-messaging to face-to-face interacting, unanimously citing it’s ease, and ability to reach places where he or she current isn’t for their devotion. Highlighting the fallacy of surrendering the passion of personal face-to-face connection; Tallbot writes “The efficient distance from which such a user interacts with the person and meaning behind the text can hardly be a reflective distance. It is more like a reflexive and uninvolved immediacy” (1995, ch.25). The overwhelming convenience of monitoring other agents to reinforce individual activity has further embedded the students within the system. Despite citing disappointment in the cases of the girls who failed to receive a call from a good friend on their birthday, but instead wrote on their Facebook wall, those very girls were indifferent in their own communication to good friends on such occasions.

Responses in admiration to mediated communication with matters of the opposite sex, while no surprise, signify a strong presence of social systems in identity formation. Learning to talk, and interact with the opposite sex is historically an awkward and exploratory experience, necessary to developing meaningful relations. Communication technology aims to erase that once age old aspect of being human; it is not of great reach to link this with the progressively regressing age by which children become sexually curious and active. No longer can parents mediate the communication through which their children share with the opposite sex; as one student replied, “they couldn’t helped it if they tried”. By removing a stress for interpersonal communication, through the prevalence and acceptance of communication technology in social institutions, the flood gates have been opened in so far as the means by which individuals communicate.

The children’s particular fondness of the Facebook at the fingertips, via I Phone or Blackberry demonstrates their affect on the social institution they are a part of. Social institutions have catered to the every whim of its users, or agents. This is not to suggest that the social institutions efforts are met without resistance; several students indicated restrictions they placed on themselves regarding what they would allow on their Facebook page. However, any ability for these agents to reconstruct the social systems that they are a part of, come strictly to instill further devotion in such agents. For example, individual agents create groups to protest for a “dislike” button, in response to Facebook’s implementation of a “like” button. While this demonstrates the freedom of the agent to organize and reconstruct the social system, Facebook will eventually comply, resulting in agent fueled change in the system, a lot of happy users, but what has been accomplished? Autonomy of the agent must be in the form of reduced use, or more realistically, the awareness that continued “religious” use poses a threat to an agent’s freedom, and humanity.


The great philosopher’s fears have been realized, but rather than intelligence being sacrificed, freedom and humanity have ventured down a slippery slope due a lack of interpersonal communication, authentic experience, and opposed resistance. Every aspect of society, from schools, to sports, to business and community, sing the song of praise and embrace for communication technology, and the ritualistic nature by which it has become interwoven in what it means to human. There is a distinct difference however in what is man and what is machine; the problem lies in man’s desire to recreate machine in his image: “Our experiment with the computer consists of the effort to discover every possible aspect of the human mind that can be expressed or echoed mechanically — simulated by a machine — and then to reconstruct society around those aspects” (Tallbot, 1995, ch. 25). It is no wonder why technology is scapegoat for all of humanities social problems; for crime and violence we blame television and music, for obesity and eating disorders, once more television, yet it is what we continually enthral ourselves with. Imagine the magician who pulled of the mastery of creating an assistant in his image, while simultaneously citing him for all of his own shortcomings.

The “self-reflexive” (Giddens, 1984) agent of structuration is only possible in a world that acknowledges this struggle. Abstinence was hardly ever the answer to promiscuity, and to ask man-kind in either instance is impractical, but we still educated children in health classes across the globe. There is no question of the value of technology represents, bur in order to conquer the threat such value poses, value must once more be restored in authentic interpersonal relationships, and their staple in what it means to be human. Human language, communication, and ultimately relationships are based on one another, not the tools by which the former are made easily reducible.


Barnett, Pearce (2008). Making Social Worlds: A Communication Perspective, Wiley-Blackwell, January 2008.

Bourdieu, P. 1994. Language and Symbolic Power, Oxford: Polity Press.

Hamilton, Walter (trans.) (1971): Plato: Phaedrus & Letters VII and VIII. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Giddens, Anthony (1984). The Constitution of Society. University of California Press.

Kahn, Charles H. (2004). “The Framework”. Plato and the socratic dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. Cambridge University Press

Ritzer, George (2007). Structure and Agency. Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Retrieved December 09 http://www.sociologyencyclopedia.com/public/tocnode?id=g9781405124331_chunk_g978140512433125_ss1-293

Talbott, Stephen. L. (1995) The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst. Sebastopol CA: O'Reilly & Associates.

Turner, J. H. (1991), The Structure of Sociological Theory (5th edn.), Wadsworth

Publishing Company: Belmont CA.

[MP1]Although Jane cited only one reference in her paper, we’ve added some additional references to demonstrate the variety of references and how to cite them

In Jane’s actual submission she would ONLY include references that were cited directly in the text of the paper.