Reflections on the new media

About two weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the Second Inquirer Conversation held at the University of Santo Tomas. I gave a brief PowerPoint presentation to introduce the topic—how the Internet and the social media are changing our lives. People have since asked for a copy of that talk, but I have not written it out. What I have decided to do here and, hopefully, in subsequent columns, is highlight some of the crucial points I tried to develop in that speech.

It was Bill Gates, I think, who said that the most important technological breakthrough in the modern era is not so much the invention of the personal computer (PC) as the interconnection of all PCs and other similar mobile devices through the Internet. It is this interconnection that created the cyber world, a community in virtual space that enables instant communication across all hitherto existing borders and hierarchies.

The Internet has placed at the disposal of anyone who has access to the Internet—and that is practically everyone with a mobile device and an Internet connection—all the amazing capabilities we associate with digital processing, mass storage, retrieval, and dissemination of vast amounts of information. Until recently, such powers were the monopoly of a few. Information flowing from the traditional mass media is basically one-way. The recipients of information have a passive role; they could neither contradict nor quickly react to the information they receive through the mass media.

Newspaper publishers and broadcast network owners wield the power to decide whether and when to accommodate rejoinders from readers and viewers. This is why existing laws and ethical codes hold the mass media accountable for any error in the news or any defamatory comment made in print or broadcast against persons. The power of mass communication is such that governments have not stopped enacting laws to ensure its responsible use. In addition, the profession of journalism has created its own code of ethics to guide its practitioners.

But all this is changing. What makes the so-called “new media” new is precisely this—that those who have been at the receiving end of mass communication not only can react to information in real time now but also can, in fact, be the originators of mass communication. This, by any measure, is an enormous amount of power that is today potentially in the hands of every individual. Given its complexity, this system cannot easily be controlled or regulated. The ease with which anonymity, for instance, can be maintained through layers of fictitious accounts has lent to this wonderful facility an unlimited potential for abuse. But the same freedom it allows has also empowered countless individuals to express themselves in the most exquisite ways possible, without fear of ridicule or ostracism.

As with any invention that has become part of the daily life of almost everyone on our planet, the gap between norms and practice tends to widen every day. Every new application that is found for the new technology increases that gap even more. The guardians of social order everywhere are understandably concerned about the pernicious criminal uses of this new technology. But so are the advocates of human rights and civil liberties who have seen how this technology can reinforce the capacity for surveillance and control that is already in the hands of the powerful in society.

It is interesting that the former tend to turn to legislation to curb abuse, only to realize that they can never catch up. In contrast, the latter try to neutralize its deployment as a tool of oppression and exploitation by using technology to create greater transparency. Their hope is that the system will in time evolve its own regulatory mechanisms. I doubt if, short of dismantling it, any government can ever fully control access to the Internet.

Yet, remarkably, the Internet would have found very limited use by itself. What made it the revolutionary tool it is today were the phenomenal advances in digital technology, microprocessors and integrated circuits. Today there is an embedded computer in every smartphone that can process, store, and transmit in seconds an incredible amount of data.  Such capability was previously associated only with large mainframe computers.

Whoever had the brilliant idea of integrating a camera with a mobile phone probably never imagined that the transmission of “selfies” would become an obsession of our time. But this is the reality before us—all these new technologies have become integrated with one another, creating novel products that enrich and ease our lives but whose long-term impact on human relationships has become ever more unpredictable.

We don’t write long and thoughtful letters anymore or engage in unhurried conversations. Instead we send e-mail, or cryptic text messages, and post photos of the food we eat.  We try to stay in touch by “updating” our profiles and sending ready-made signals to people we meet in virtual space. We have no patience for carefully wrought ideas, preferring the easy form of thoughtless and impulsive commentary. We accumulate more friends, discover more relatives, and find more classmates than we can meaningfully interact with except through the off-the-rack greetings that we are urged to click.

Yet ironically, we bare more of ourselves in these encounters than prudence might counsel. We project ourselves in ways that we probably would not allow if we were more mindful.