Technology divides, Enthusiasts arise, Extremists we become.

Ericson Chan offers his unique perspective that the tech-empowered media actually divides rather than unites us.

Extremists we become. – 23 Sept 2016

 

There are plenty of forums debating whether the mass adoption of social media and smart devices divides us or unites us. These debates have been focusing on the increasing lack of face-to-face communications as technology advances. Families communicate via WhatsApp while all sitting in the living room. To many, such communication methods sound pathetic. To others,  this is just another mechanism to communicate, a more efficient and no holds barred mechanism. One might not be able to be blunt, or as honest if it is a face-to-face conversation. C’est la vie. It does not necessary divide us, but elevates efficiently the conversation to a higher level. It is all part of the communications Millennialization.

 

However, technology divides us in other very profound ways – and not just the obvious that three billions of underprivileged still do not have Internet access, or that face-to-face communications are rapidly diminishing among those that are hooked on to digital media. Technological advancement has delivered seismic shifts on how we consume information. Technology makes us less tolerant towards other views like never before.

 

Technology allows us to tailor-made the way we consume information … when, where, how, but most importantly “what”. Flipboard, Twitter, Weibo, Facebook, Wechat and plenty of purposeful apps out there exist to deliver bespoke information seamlessly.  In fact, more and more apps deliver customized information through automated analytic engines. Everyone focuses on the information they are interested in and block out the rest.  With personalised feeds, information becomes laser sharp.  Any view can be reinforced by thousands with similar viewpoints. There is less chance to get exposed to counter-balanced viewpoints.

 

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With Google and Wiki, everyone is better informed. More importantly, with customised information feeds and targeted media, a casual hobbyist can easily catapult himself to the stratosphere of the world of gurus. One is constantly bombarded with personalised information from others with similar interests. While people are used to getting some exposure to areas that they are not interested in via generic news feed and above the line marketing, those days are long gone. I used to have a passing interest in celebrity gossips, as I flipped through the newspaper headlines. Now, I don’t even know what Brad and Angelina are up to in the last few years. On the other hand, I am a casual airport whisky shopper. After being bombarded with all the commentaries from other whisky lovers online, I feel like I am a single malt connoisseur now. Well, this has helped boom a number of once-used-to-be-niche industries and hobbies … alternative medicines, obscure travel destinations, indie music and boxfit exercise. While technology has globalized a lot of products and distribution channels, a lot of niche products and hobbies also get elevated at the same time. Enthusiasts arise!

 

While more enthusiasts is fine, more extreme political views and religious beliefs could be a lasting problem.  People with specific beliefs only want to meet and hang out with people who believe the same things as themselves. Once you “Like” an interest group on Facebook, you will get bombarded with the same views.  Hashtags is good to clarify ones thoughts and the theme you want your social group to coalesce around. This clarity and efficiency of communications create a one-dimensional speech.. Twitter is great to let people share themes but does not enable a sophisticated multi-faceted debate. With the far more efficient and targeted information delivery, the world is simply getting more polarised than ever before, in terms of political and religious beliefs. The political environment in many countries are getting more divided with more extreme views.  Political movements evolve faster, and often reach boiling point quicker.  Religious conflicts are getting more violent.  This is not just because of the power of social media to help sort out the logistics of political movement.  It is because efficient media turns one’s view from light grey to white, and from dark grey to black, quickly.  Anyone can find some obscure survey done in Timbuktu to support their argument, like GOP on climate change.  The beauty of grey is gone. The spectrum of colors is slowly replacing with pure black and white extremes.   Extremists we become!

 

20 years ago, it would have seemed like science friction to have ubiquitous contextual information at your finger tip at all waking moments. What they never could have told you 20 years ago, though, is how these information micro-assault divides society. We are entering the golden age of media power. Media has also been redefined beyond the traditional media companies and channels. Marketers leverage online profiles, in a big data fashion, to present contextual promotion to further fuel the dividing interests.  Secondary Public Relations companies use those lopsided media stories to support the specific view, and make them seem more credible. Black and white views are gaining momentum like a run away train. This is why the political parties around the world have become more ideologically polarized than ever. Politicians are taking advantage of this phenomenon to divide, with sentiment like “if you are not with me, you are against me”. Animosity is so deep that close friends and relatives drift apart because of political beliefs.

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Should the media be a channel to market a specific viewpoint or an independent party to present balanced facts?  I will take the latter, but unfortunately, the former is often the case today. We all now have more freedom than any time in the history. We ought to be a more diversified and inclusive society. Do we have a 360 view before we judge?  Instead of always watching CNN or BBC, shouldn’t we watch Al Jazeera at least once in a while? Instead of getting our usual customised news feed when traveling, read the local news feed. Instead of fixating on Facebook updates, which is a place double the frequency on announcing oneself than normal speech, get unplugged for a day and smell the roses. Otherwise, we will spiral and fail to find a way out of the clashes of values and political beliefs. It is now the age that Palin is considered to be a moderate. In the past few decades, we have been successful in amalgamating the seemingly contradictory values and culture…… Humanity simply cannot afford to take a giant leap, backwards.

 

 

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by Ericson Chan, Non-Executive Director, Madison Communications.

Chan is also Technology Head of Ping An Technology, and Former Regional CIO of Standard Chartered Bank, North East Asia.