Over the last two decades, our general view of mass communication in modern society has been extensively reconfigured by the ‘new media’ applications stemming from the rollout of digital technologies. In so many different ways, digital media have come to be seen as the definitive technology of our times. The powerful combination of mechanical calculation, electronics, binary code and human language systems touches us in almost every aspect of life. Quite literally, the digital media have become the ‘operating system’ of almost everything else.
As a consequence, the ‘new media’ are no longer encountered as the technology of tomorrow. They have already become interlaced with the here and now. In everyday life, our interpersonal relationships are conducted in a large part through digital communications. The institutions of work and governance are finely regulated by the inexorable logics that lie at the heart of information technology. Our ready access to the vast stores of human knowledge, to cultural expression, and to significant events unfolding in societies across the world is overwhelmingly mediated through various forms of digital ‘content’.
Digital technologies, then, take us close to the rhythm of social life across the broad scale of human affairs. To understand these phenomena fully we must seek to discover how a ‘whole way of life’, in all its complexity, becomes infused with the presence of digital systems. We must reflect upon how we got here, and what our present trajectory indicates about how we will live in the coming decades. As such, the multi-faceted relationship between digital media and human actions poses one of the most compelling questions facing contemporary sociology, and one that impacts upon almost every academic discipline in one aspect or another.
In this introduction to the field, I have chosen to approach the digital media with close reference to a range of key sociological traditions. This allows us to encounter many of the classic subjects of sociological inquiry in their digital manifestation: the competing forces of structure and agency, the predominance of conflict or consensus, the relationship between action and meaning and the interface of individual and collective experience. All of these framings have something to offer to a reader willing to make their own assessment of the various claims being made about the digital age, where social networking sites, internet auctions, online dating, mobile devices, workstations and cloud computing all provide fascinating examples of contemporary social experience.
‘Digital society’, the guiding term for this book, is not presently in common use. I use it precisely because the other available terms are all in some sense partial or overlapping with the terrain to be explored. Each of them favours the structure, usage or content of digital communication in different ways. Taking the broader notion of a digital society allows us to consider their significance in more relative terms. The term ‘digital society’ is therefore deployed on a qualified basis, claiming only that the presence of these technologies is sufficiently expansive to warrant this wide ranging discussion of how ‘we shape our tools and our tools shape us’.