I am a technological determinist who adheres to transmission models of communication. Surprised? I am, but this is indeed my impression after reading David Holmes’ Communication Theory. Media, Technology and Society. Of course I feel seriously mis-placed. Very briefly Holmes aims to discuss the implications of new communication technologies for media studies and the sociology of communication. I do not intend to write a full review of his book, but I just have to share a few points that I find strange. In all Communication Theory is a valuable textbook, and I recognize many of his points such as the importance of examining on how technologically constituted mediums bring about new qualities and context for communication and social integration. Evidently, this is partly what I see my own research project to be about.
Holmes sees media and communication theories as two-folded: either focusing on the interaction-aspect of communication or focusing on the integration-aspect of communication. To me it is pretty difficult to discuss the social integration functions of communication (whether mass, personally or interpersonally mediated) without also talking about how media facilitate possibilities for interaction. Initially this seems to be Holmes’ view as well, arguing that interaction is still important, yet emphasising that interaction always has a ritual function of social integration (he argues that integration does not necessarily involve direct interaction at all, but I’ll have to leave that for now). However it still this distinction that I find problematic. I strongly object to his claim that on the Internet interaction without reciprocity is a systematic reality. “Most Internet identities are avatars for whom reciprocity is not possible” (p. 150). I need to be fair, Holmes does in fact differentiate between communication between friends and communication between people who are anonymous to each other. But I think his discussion of online interactions is too crude and general when he argues that in most cases, obligations to reciprocity do not exist in network communication due to low visibility, no commitment to the online avatar, and lack of offline context of recognition (these reasons just seem so mid-90s). With no reciprocity there is no form of social integration, as he argues that social integration is made possible by reciprocity, via interdependence, long-term continuity of association and strong identification with another (p. 152). He seems to be arguing that network communication does not in a very large extent facilitate social integration.
Finally (well for now at least), Holmes repeatedly argues that mediated communication supplants face-to-face interaction without explaining the complex relationships between mediated and face-to-face interaction: “The more reliant individuals are on CMC to meet communication needs, the less they engage with embodied interaction. No empirical studies are necessary to demonstrate this relationship” (203). That is kind of too simplistic isn’t it?
That being said, the book was a very interesting read. Besides, reading books is a lot more fun when you don’t take all arguments at face value.