As the 19th Century was drawing to a close, the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (later immortalised in Citizen Kane) cabled a leading astronomer of the day: ‘Is there life on Mars? Please cable one thousand words’.
The scientist replied: ”Nobody knows” – written 500 times.
This would be my answer today, if a modern-day media tycoon were to ask me a different, yet equally compelling question: where are we headed with the bewildering developments in information and communication technologies, in which the mainstream media are a part?
And that would be the easiest 1,000 words I’d have written. But being me, I laboured a lot more in addressing that question in my talk to an assembled group of media tycoons and senior journalists in Colombo earlier this week, at the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009.
If I was too reflective on media futures, I can probably blame it on the venue: the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo’s oldest and grandest, where only a dozen years ago Sir Arthur C Clarke wrote the final chapters of his novel, 3001: The Final Odyssey. A bust of Sir Arthur still stands in the hotel’s lobby.
So, with the Indian Ocean lashing gently on the rocky beach only a few feet away, and under the slightly bemused gaze of Sir Arthur, I took my audience on a quick and rough tour of the near future — the one no one about which nobody is an expert!
Here are some excerpts:
Two waves that started separately have combined to radically change how people generate, access, store and share information: the rolling out of broadband internet, and the phenomenal spread of mobile phones.
The headline figures are impressive. For the first time in history, we now have the technological means to quickly reach out to most of humanity:
• More than 4.1 billion mobile phones were in use by end 2008, a majority of them in the developing world.
• Nearly a quarter of the world population (over 1.5 billion people) has access to the web, at varying levels of bandwidth.
• Thousands of radio and TV channels saturate the airwaves – these still are the primary source of news and information for billions.
Many of us don’t realise that even the basic mobile phone in use today packs more processing power than did the entire Apollo 11 spaceship that took astronauts to the Moon 40 years ago.
Where this growth in processing power and proliferation of devices might lead us, we can only guess — no one really knows. This can be both exhilarating for some — and very disconcerting for entities that were previously in control of the free flow of information, such as governments, academics – and dare I say it – the mainstream media!
They may not accept this, individual governments, and their collective known as the United Nations, don’t have full control over what is going on. But the ‘information genie’ is now firmly out of the bottle, and evolving by the day that it’s impossible to put it back inside. This is both fascinating and frightening.
If it offers any comfort, even big corporations like Microsoft, Apple or Google are all learning by doing. Everything seems to be permanently in experimental — or beta — mode…
What would emerge from the current chaos? The best brains on the planet are trying to come up with plausible answers.
There is talk about the ‘post-media age’. In the broadcast circles that I move in, they now acknowledge, quietly, that the post-broadcasting age is already dawning.
Is what we hear the death cry of the Old Order…or birth pangs of a new Information Society? Or perhaps both?
And how inclusive is that information society? As Asia Media Report 2009 reminds us, not everyone is invited to the party. Large sections of Asian society are left out.
But don’t expect such people to remain excluded for too long. Armed with mobile phones and other ICT tools, they are going to crash the party, whether we like it or not.