Advances in information and communication technology have consistently given us more efficient means of obtaining information and sharing it with others. This trend has not abated; we are continually developing faster ways of communicating with one another. While this has helped foster new eras in science, industry and commerce, many believe that it has also resulted in a depersonalization of the way we communicate. As our communication methods become increasingly rushed and abbreviated, tones, inflections, gestures, and other meaningful aspects of conversation are lost. Additionally, as our communication becomes less interpersonal and more anonymous and automated, some participants feel deprived of their character or sense of personal identity. This paper examines the various ways in which this depersonalization is sociologically important while not necessarily permanent.
Awareness and criticism of this trend has grown in recent years among academics and consumers. As a result, developers of new information and communication technologies are attempting to create products that offer consumers “re-personalized” interaction with computers or electronic communication with other people. Both Microsoft and Apple, for example, have attempted to re-personalize their latest operating system software by replacing “usernames” with “names” and offering an assortment of both functional and aesthetic personal customization options. Oddcast, a web-based software developer, has created a unique product named SitePal which it calls “conversational character technology.” SitePal is a customizable animated character that can deliver product information, answer customers’ questions, and simulate basic interpersonal conversation. Many prominent organizations have already recognized the value of this technology; Oddcast’s product has been implemented by Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, NASA, Heineken, and dozens of other large corporations. While such technology is relatively inefficient in providing information, its simulated form of interpersonal interaction is attractive to many Internet users.
The depersonalization of information and communication technology has been often viewed as a harmful sociological phenomenon. George Ritzer, author of The McDonalidzation of Society, suggests that consumers are becoming disenchanted because of the implementation of various efficiency-maximizing technologies. Ritzer presents creations such as the fast food drive-thru and automated food ordering machines as examples of this trend towards depersonalization. Ritzer affirms that while these technologies benefit corporations by lowering costs and increasing customer predictability, they result in a loss of value for consumers. Ritzer also infers that the depersonalization of consumers through the use of such technology is unethical.
As the theories of sociologists like Ritzer are becoming more mainstream, some consumers are beginning to identify and resist the depersonalization that now permeates consumer culture in the United States, Europe, Eastern Asia and other economically developed areas. Consequently, companies are developing re-personalized products in an attempt to create value for these consumers. For example, camera phones are now being sold heavily in these areas. Marketing campaigns for camera phones often encourage consumers to share their photos and customize their phones, color themes, and ring tones to match their personality. A decade ago, cellular phones were purely designed for function; now, they are marketed largely based on their aesthetic appeal. Cellular phones are also marketed towards younger generations as socially desirable items; Verizon’s most recent slogan is “Are you in?” Apple uses a similar strategy: Personalization through brand association. Apple has capitalized on consumers’ growing propensity to define themselves by the brands of electronic products they use. As a result, Apple users have become significantly more loyal to their brand than users of other computer brands.
This paper first provides an overview of the depersonalization trend that has gathered momentum over the past thirty years. We focus on several key developments that were particularly crucial in this process, including the advent of the fax machine, cellular phone, email, and instant messaging. Secondly, this paper investigates how communication technology such as instant messaging and two-way cellular radio has lowered our expectations for proper conversation and refocused our concerns on saving time. Thirdly, and most importantly, we focus on how the movement towards re-personalization began and is continuing to grow. To illustrate the growth of this trend, we examine how naturally depersonalized products such as cellular phones have been modified with added functionality and branding to give consumers a feeling of renewed personalization. We also explain how the use of web-based technologies like SitePal and online journals are being used to re-personalize the experience of using the Internet. Further evidence of this movement towards re-personalization in technology is given by the presentation and analysis of several cases, including the changes in Microsoft’s operating system software and Apple’s overall product design. Finally, this paper concludes with an ethical analysis of the new trend of re-personalization in information and communication technology.