- Politics and Social Issues
How the Internet Impacts and Changes Civil Society
What is Internet's Effect on Civil Society?
New technology has historically had unpredictable and unprecedented impacts upon society. With the invention of the telephone in 1876, its uses were thought to be limited to businessmen alone and socialization by phone was even discouraged (Putnam 167); however, within half a century its uses became overwhelmingly social and the telephone worked to strengthen relationships by "reinforcing, not transforming or replacing, existing personal networks" (168). Television, popularized after World War II prohibitions ended, also had unforeseen effects upon society not realized until Robert Putnam's The Strange Disappearance of Civic America, the product of research begun in the 1950s, outlined television's role in the decline of civil society. Now, with the recent advent of the Internet, popularized after the public was given access in 1988, its effects on society are largely debatable and open to speculation, pending further research. Therefore the question: "On balance, does the Internet contribute to the advance or the decline of civil society?" can only be answered by the process of analogy, comparing the Internet with the trends created by past technologies more properly researched.
In order to properly address the question: "On balance, does the Internet contribute to the advance or the decline of civil society?" the concept of civil society must first be defined in a way that allows the reader to understand the concept itself, as well as its key components that measure its advance or decline. Adopting Robert Putnam's interpretation of civil society as the combination of both "social capital" and "civic engagement," it is therefore measured by the amount of social capital or "features of social life--networks, norms, and trust-that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives" (1), as well as the amount of civic engagement or "people's connections with the life of their communities, not only with politics" (1) present in society. Arguing by analogy through the comparison of television with the Internet, the Internet contributes to the decline of modern civil society much as television contributed to the decline of civil society in the past. However, this argument cannot be carried too far, as it assumes that the context of the argument is analogous as well, whereas the circumstances surrounding the Internet are far more complex and interactive than those surrounding the television. Therefore, until properly researched no decisive conclusion can be reached as to the Internet's ultimate effects on civil society.
The impact of technology, specifically television, on civil society exceeds all other proposed culprits as the primary cause of its decline, according to Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. Robert Putnam analyzes other potential causes such as "busy-ness" and time pressure, economic hardship, residential mobility, suburbanization, women's entrance into the workplace, disruption of marriage and family ties, changes in the American economy, as well as the civil rights revolution (2); yet, although he finds some of these elements do contribute to the decline in civil society, he determines the contribution to be minor and that there remains only one primary cause: "the culprit is television" (2). Putnam provides statistics specific to television to illustrate the immense amount of time it monopolizes in the average American household, and therefore its negative impacts on both group membership and social capital. However, when he explains the reason he has singled out television from the rest of technology--because he finds it the "principal exception to [the] generalization" that "most forms of social and media participation are positively correlated" (15)-the legitimacy of emphasizing television alone comes into question.
This skepticism lies in the fact that Putnam never supplies statistics comparing television to any other form of media associated negatively with social participation, although he acknowledges others exist due to describing television as the "primary" but not "sole" exception to the rule. The facts on television alone are impressive, but even the statistic that "television absorbs 40 percent of the average American's free time" (14) does not represent a guaranteed majority as the other sixty percent of free time is unaccounted for. However, Putnam quotes Ithiel de Sola Pool, author of the book Technologies without Borders, in support of his own conclusions, by writing that "Pool concluded that the electronic revolution in communications technology was the first major technological advance in centuries that would have a profoundly decentralizing and fragmenting effect on society and culture" (16) and as Pool cites "communications technology" in general, not only television, it is therefore implied that Putnam himself agrees that technology in general contributes to civic decline as well. Furthermore, Putnam ends his analysis of civic decline with the statement that we as a society should "not merely consider how technology is privatizing our lives-if, as it seems to me, it is-but to ask whether we like the result" (16), which suggests that despite his ultimately finding television the most important form of technology contributing to civic decline, he finds that other forms of technology in general privatize our lives as well, not just television exclusively.
This is an important point, as it opens Putnam's arguments to technology as a whole and therefore his argument becomes less time-sensitive. If Putnam maintained that television alone brought about the decline of civil society and no other technology was involved, his argument would have little relevance now upon the rise of so many new technologies. Putnam's past claim that television is "the only leisure activity that seems to inhibit participation outside his home" (15), can be easily modified to present-day society by inclusion of the Internet without changing Putnam's meaning, at it is also a form of media entertainment and a leisure activity. Because the Internet can also arguably be considered to inhibit participation outside the home, this equates the Internet and other more modern technologies as having the same type of impact upon present civil society as television had on past civil society: a detrimental one. However, although Putnam later states that "the timing of the internet explosion means that it cannot possibly be causally linked to the crumbling of social connectedness described in previous chapters" (170), that is irrelevant to this argument. The argument is rather that technology, specifically television, was proved to bring about declines in civic society in the past and therefore, by analogy, more modern technology that shares these specific important traits in common with television, should therefore have a similarly detrimental effect in present civic society.
Scott London also extends Putnam's argument to modern technology. In direct reference to Robert Putnam's conclusions that television reduces social capital, he responds: "It follows that computers, VCRs, virtual reality and other technologies that, like television, "cocoon" us from our neighbors and communities exacerbate the loss of social capital" (London 1). However, London follows this statement by suggesting that these same technologies may also have a potentially beneficial effect, enhancing society and working against the loss of social capital by "strengthening the bonds of community" (1). This brings to light the one difference between modern technology and past technology that cannot be properly taken into account through arguing by analogy alone: that television is a one-way source of entertainment, whereas the Internet is two-way and involves a more complex form of interaction. Therefore, the Internet can potentially increase social capital whereas television cannot.
Online communication meets the criteria for social capital as defined by Robert Putnam, as it provides a network where people can get together and interact in specific forums designed for people with specific interests. Communication online also allows for civic engagement, as the Internet can engage people in local communities and bring about their interaction, such as within online classroom discussions. Robert Putnam himself seems unwilling to extend his own former argument to encompass more modern and complex technologies, and does not take a decisive stance in reference to either the telephone or the Internet. In regard to the effects of the rising popularity of the telephone, he writes that "socially speaking, the telephone both gives and takes away" (168), thereby suggesting that it has had a mixed effect on civil society, sometimes beneficial and sometimes detrimental, and both effects should be recognized. But in terms of the Internet he is even vaguer about its ultimate impact on society: "one central question, of course, is whether ‘virtual social capital" is itself a contradiction in terms. There is no easy answer" (170), bringing even more uncertainty into its effects on civic society as it is applied in contexts that cannot be readily interpreted with the definitions Putnam previously provided.
Putnam employs statistical evidence in his arguments gathered from over fifty years of research before concluding that television must be the primary cause of civic decline. It follows then, that whether Internet ultimately contributes to either the advance or the decline of civil society requires more time to gather evidence and experience. More time spent analyzing the impact of the Internet will contribute greater amounts of data which can work together to highlight an obvious trend and thereby suggest a supported conclusion. For although Putnam and two other individuals performed separate studies to analyze the effect of Internet on civic engagement, the results were insufficient as "the absence of any correlation between Internet usage and civic engagement could mean that the Internet attracts reclusive nerds [...] but it could also mean that the Net disproportionately attracts civic dynamos" (Putnam 171), and there is simply too little information available to eliminate any of these possibilities and come closer to a definite answer. Therefore, statements about the long-term effect of the Internet on civil society will be speculation at best, and although proven somewhat inaccurate due to complexities of modern technology, the argument by analogy to television that the Internet will ultimately have detrimental effects on civil society seems a valid one, based on the absence of any concrete contrary evidence and Putnam's question "whether ‘virtual social capital' is itself a contradiction in terms" (Putnam 170).
London, S. Civic Networks: Building Community on the Net. Policity.com [Internet]. [cited 2008 March 12] 11:45. Available from: http://www.iog.ca/policity/CP/Public%20Library/library reference civicnetworks.htm#f17
Putnam, R. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. 2001. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Adult Publishing Group.
Putnam, R. 2002. The Strange Disappearance of Civic America. The American Prospect [Internet]. [cited 2008 March 13] 12:15. Available from: http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?articleId=4972