Hurtling towards Information Society at the speed of light – with nobody in charge?

Who can crack this web 2.0 challenge? Image courtesy i4d magazine
Who can crack this web 2.0 challenge? Image courtesy i4d magazine
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!

Is that your final answer? Surely not...?
Is that your final answer? Surely not...?
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.

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

5 thoughts on “Hurtling towards Information Society at the speed of light – with nobody in charge?”

  1. I didn’t know you were a believer in an omnipotent god.

    The entire universe is hurtling around at high speed with no one in charge. Why should there be someone in charge as we hurtle toward the information society?

    To claim that we do is subconscious statism. Monotheism and statism are both failed religions.

  2. Rohan,
    You’re quite right – and that’s why I made my blog heading a question, rather than a statement. As a life-long anarchist living in what I consider to be uncaring and anarchic universe, with no proof of an omnipotent god, I’m enjoying this roller-coaster ride without a driver. What’s our choice, anyway – to believe in what we know isn’t true (my favoured definition of faith)?

    It’s precisely this anarchy that worries, irks and unsettles whom I have called ‘entities that were previously in control of the free flow of information’! We see them squirm, cry foul and try to block the march of electrons.

    What do we tell them?

  3. Cant you men discuss anything without taking potshots at God? Not that He is in anyway affected by your little barbs. He is above all that, and above you and me. But keep Him out of your discussions.

  4. MadelineM,
    I’m sorry if the candid discussions above offended you, for that was certainly not intended. I have my own rules for moderating comments on this blog, and try to accommodate as wide a range as I can. I generally leave out only those comments that are outright slanderous or blatantly self-promotional or links to commercial sites. A couple of other readers had earlier asked about my own religion, and I refuse to be drawn into such polarising and irrelevant debates. My own religious faith, or lack thereof, is a strictly personal matter.

    But while at it, I must share this clever argument that I came across online some months ago. It goes as follows:

    Most/all religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will surely go to Hell. Since there is more than one of these religions and since most people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all of us will go to Hell, eventually, no matter what we do or don’t do.

    More on this at

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