The rapid development in tools for communication such as mobile phones, tablets, and a myriad of Internet-based communication platforms has indelibly shifted our understanding of communication. Luders (2008), for example, highlights the need to clarify the differences between mass media and personal media; a conversation that would not have been relevant a few decades ago. The advent of new communication technologies and social media has arguably presented more opportunities for people to interact with one another, even across vast distances. For those who have access to such technologies and the know-how to use them, physical proximity is no longer a barrier for interpersonal (and intercultural) communication or formation of relationships. The question remains, however, whether this has enhanced the quality of communication and relationships and in turn enhanced perceptions of satisfaction with life in general. Further, what does advancements in technology mean for those who are globally mobile and living in multicultural contexts? This paper takes a two-pronged approach to these questions, exploring answers through existing literature and data collected from a small qualitative study that involved people from different countries.
Communication in a Tech-Saturated World
Marshal McLuhan (1964) proposed, some years ago, that the medium is the message. In today’s modernised societies, the heavy reliance on technological devices to communicate interpersonal messages (such as texts via mobile phones, social media messaging, micro-blogging, etc.) further highlights McLuhan’s point that the medium not only shapes the message but also renders itself somewhat invisible to the consumer when the medium becomes ubiquitous.
The proliferation of various communication media and the availability of technologies that enable instantaneous and abbreviated communication have arguably fostered an environment of functional communication that eliminates the need for relational preliminaries that are necessary in face-to-face or telephone communication. If we wanted to ask someone for a lift, for example, in a face-to-face communication, social decorum necessitates that we say “hello,” ask after the other person’s wellbeing, and perhaps make polite conversation about the latest news story before diving into the request for a lift. If we were to make the same request in a text message, however, the social preliminaries are rendered unnecessary.
But whether this increase in “efficiency” of communication has also enhanced relationships is a question that needs to be explored. While there is some evidence to indicate that participation in social networking sites for example, facilitate easy adjustment to the new culture among students who study abroad, there is also evidence to suggest otherwise. For example, research shows that high levels of mobile phone communication are not only associated with low social skills but also associated with high levels of loneliness. If mobile phones are devices that are meant to ease one’s ability to connect with others, then this finding is contrary to what one would expect. Additionally, research shows that the quality of relationships on social media was a better predictor of positive self-esteem of adolescents rather than quantity of relationships. This further suggests that having hundreds of “friends” on a social networking site is not indicative of quality of relationships and fulfilment. Research also shows that the use of mobile phones (both texts and calls) in relationships has the dual dynamic of increasing feeling of connectedness but at the same time increasing the potential for feelings of entrapment, dissatisfaction and guilt, in that expectation of constant availability/accessibility.
The ubiquitous nature of technology in modern cities is such that it is seamlessly integrated into human experiences and development. Social media platforms provide a sense of a “private” space in which you connect with “friends” of your choice. However, the perception of privacy is an illusion, because the conversations are only a click away from being made public and, in many cases, owned by the company that owns the media platform. Nevertheless, social media platforms serve as conduits for modern-day identity formation, expression, and perceptions of connection, and research shows that people are adapting their use of language to suit the message and the context when communicating in such platforms.
While the dubious relationship between technology and interpersonal communication can be (and has been!) explored at length, the positive effects of technological advancements on ease of communication over long distances and accessibility of information are undeniable. For those who have the means to afford it, technology has made life convenient, in a manner of speaking. But is convenience equivalent to “good?” Is there an understanding of a “good” life that translates across different cultures? These questions need further investigation.
Answers from Real People
Given the cultural diversity in today’s urban cities, gaining a realistic understanding of the relationship between communication, technology, and quality of life in the modern world is arguably impossible from a mono-cultural perspective. Hence any attempt at approaching this subject must incorporate multiple cultural perspectives. While the opinions of a single person from a single cultural perspective may not be representative of others from that same culture, they are nevertheless informative in the way of adding to diversity of points of view. A group of 15 participants (5 males and 10 females) who represent multiple cultural perspectives was therefore selected for the present study. Further, unlike many studies in modern technology that involve younger participants, the present study consisted of participants who were old enough to have known a world prior to the saturation of personal communication devices. The reason for this choice is to elicit views from participants who could arguably make comparisons between quality of before and after the easy access of technological advancements. The average age of the participants in this study was 44.
The participants were all employed professionals, occupying positions in a variety of sectors such as education, public service, non-profit work, marketing, information technology, accounting, catering, and clergy. Because of the time constraints of participants, each one was only interviewed once (face-to-face), the average interview lasting 60 minutes. The participants were asked to describe what they would consider as a “good life,” to comment on whether they see differences in cultural perceptions of values between their country of origin (in the case of immigrants) and the country of residence, and asked for their opinion on whether new technologies have contributed to enhancing communication and relationships.
A Good Life
While the participants’ responses to what they would call a good life varied, “family” featured as a central component of all responses, regardless of whether the participant was single or married. The general consensus was that relationship with one’s family is a necessary component of a good life. While all participants emphasised the importance of family, the participants from Fiji, Philippines, and Zimbabwe heavily emphasised the importance of connections with extended family well-beyond one’s immediate family. In addition to family, another common thread in the responses was that a good life has some measure of financial stability. In addition to expressing that the ability to afford basics and a bit more is ideal in a good life, some participants in particular highlighted that a good life is being in a financial position to help other members of the family. A few of the participants identified having a purpose (particularly in relation to faith and spirituality) is an important aspect of a good life, and a few others identified professional fulfilment as a component of a good life.
One participant (age 30) observed that having too many things distracts you from what happiness is, saying, “when you have enough of what you actually need it’s kind of easier to just be happy I guess because you’re not worrying about needing a bigger house or this or that; if you have the basics you’re kind of forced to be happy with that.” Another participant (age 37) succinctly noted three aspects of what he would consider a good life; namely, a good relational support-system with friends, a good relationship with one’s spouse or other members in one’s living situation, and professional satisfaction. He observed that one can “do OK” if any two of these three areas are operating well. While financial security and job satisfaction do play a role in the participants’ conceptualisation of a good life, the relational aspect of family in particular is at the forefront.
Technology and Communication
The participants were asked whether technology has improved the quality of our relationships. The unanimous response was both yes and no; while technology has greatly improved people’s ability to connect with their loved ones over long distances, the participants felt that it has been more of a hindrance when it comes to communication between people who have the opportunity to interact face-to-face.
Mostly being immigrants, the participants enthusiastically observed that technology has enabled them to stay connected with their loved ones overseas and provided them with access to television shows and other cultural products from their home country to which they did not previously have easy access. One participant (age 48) said that, prior to the availability of applications that allow free international phone calls and texting, she found it quite difficult to stay connected with her friends in her home country. However, today she is able to text her friend from work, sending her a picture of her desk and saying how much work she has to do, while her friend would reply with a photo of her lunch saying that she is on her lunch break. This participant said such exchanges make her feel so much closer and connected to her loved ones across the miles. The ability of smart phones which include visual capabilities and location devices to enable people to find a sense of place and “co-present intimacy” is evidenced in research.
Another participant (age 57) observed that she uses Skype to communicate with her siblings overseas, and seeing her sister sitting in her kitchen makes her feel much closer to her sister than a traditional phone call once did. The participants highlighted the fact that technological advancements have significantly reduced the cost of communicating with loved ones over long distances, while significantly increasing the quality of such communication.
On the other hand, the participants also unanimously agreed that technological devices are interfering with traditional face-to-face interactions with people to whom you have access. One participant (age 39) said, “It’s funny we were in the car the other day, one person was driving, everybody else was on the phone talking to somebody else that wasn’t in the car even though the most important relationships were right in that car.” While the participants acknowledged that they used technological devices for functional communication (such as texting a family member across the house to communicate information or using real-time locator devices to find out where a family member is), they also observed that the presence of technological devices serve as distractions from opportunities for face-to-face communication. In the words of one participant (age 30):
I do think when you’re in a city it is easier to be individualistic and a bit more materialistic because everything is there at your fingertips. I don’t know if people stop to just have a good conversation or good relationship…you’re checking your Facebook to find out what your friends are doing instead of just spending time with your friends or you go out for dinner and instead of conversing with the person you’re having dinner with you’re talking a photo of the food! Technology makes us miss those intimate interactions. Whereas when you don’t have all those things…when I go home for example sometimes I would spend time in the rural areas with my grandma and there’s no radio, no TV, there’s nothing, and so the only thing you have is conversation and stories; so you’re forced to sit with each other, talk to each other, laugh with each other, you’re forced to have real relationship and after half the day the battery is done so you can’t take photos of the hut anyway, so you have to connect with the people around you or become a hermit.
Another point of observation was that the ease of communication that technology has facilitated has also brought about an increased expectation of promptness or expediency in communication. As one of the participants (age 30) said, the availability of audio lectures, for example, has increased expectations on students to be able to be more informed and be more productive in shorter amounts of time. But this expectation overshadows one’s choice to separate leisure from work, such as choosing not to read emails while sitting on the beach. While the participant acknowledged that it is good to have the option to read emails on the beach instead of a “florescent lit office,” people should have the freedom to not to do so, if they choose.
Overall, the responses indicated that technology must be seen as a tool that can be used either to enhance communication or hinder it. But the responsibility of how to use this tool solely rests on the user.
What Does It All Mean?
The results from this study show that, when it comes to perceptions of a “good life,” cultural differences do not affect the need for a life where the basic needs are met and where there is fulfilment in relationships. While some of the participants from more collectivistic cultures did emphasise the contribution to family and connections with extended family as a significant component of a good life (in contrast to the individualistically oriented participants’ view of fulfilment of personal purpose as a key component), quality relationships with members of the family featured prominently overall.
The view that technology has improved transnational and long-distance communication while (in some ways) debilitating face-to-face interpersonal communication, is another common thread in the present study. Researchers, for example, have observed that digital media have reshaped our understanding of intercultural communication by altering the nature of contact and presenting possibilities that did not once exist. While it was interesting to observe that one participant said that she used television as a way of immersing herself in English (in adapting quickly to the country to which she migrated) while another said that she used the Internet to download television programs from her country of origin to feel more “at home,” there was no obvious evidence in the participants’ use of technology to improve their intercultural communication.
The observations from the participants indicate that the use of technology has not necessarily influenced the dynamics of their intercultural communication in any significant way. In other words, the way in which they use technology in communicating with people from their own culture is the same as they would to communicate with people from other cultures. The significant difference is that technology presents the possibility of being able to communicate instantly with someone in an entirely different cultural setting. While some of the participants said that social media help them to stay informed of what is happening in other parts of the world, there was no further information on how (if any in any way) this affects the participants’ intercultural communication.
Technological advancements have indelibly shifted the nature of communication and relationships in modern communities. But whether this shift has also increased our fulfilment in life is the main question. Through a discussion of literature and a study involving participants from different cultures, this paper highlights a few points worth noting:
First, people from a variety of cultures agree that a good life is one where your basic needs are met and where you have fulfilling relationships with loved ones.
Second, regardless of cultural perspective, people agree that technology has facilitated long-distance communication while at the same time debilitating face-to-face communication.
Finally, in multicultural societies, there does not appear to be any significant difference in the use of technology in interpersonal communication compared to intercultural communication.
Thus the convenience of technologically facilitated communication has not necessarily replaced the satisfaction of face-to-face communication, at least amongst those who are old enough to have known a world where personal technological devices do not play as central a role as they now do. It would be interesting to compare these results with the views of younger people whose reality has always included personal communication devices. But based on the present study, it can be concluded that the extent to which technology enhances perceived quality of life is dependent on the extent to which it is used to enhance interpersonal/relational connections.
 Lunders, M. (2008). Conceptualizing personal media. New Media & Society, 10(5), 683-702.
 McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media. New York, NY: Mentor.