New Media, Old Minds: A Bridge Too Far?

National Media Summit 2012 at University of Kelaniya, 25 May 2012

New Media, Old Minds: A Bridge Too Far?

This was the title of a presentation I made at National Media Summit 2012, at University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, this morning. I was asked to talk about New Media and policies for Sri Lanka.

In my audience were academics and researchers on journalism and mass communication drawn from several universities of Sri Lanka. I was told the biennial event is to help frame new research frameworks and projects.

Now, I’m not a researcher in the conventional sense of that term, and am fond of saying I don’t have a single academic bone in my body. Despite this, occasionally, universities and research institutes invite me to join their events as speaker, panelist or moderator.

University of Kelaniya, a state university in Sri Lanka, has the island’s oldest mass communication department, started in the late 1960s.

Perhaps inertia and traditions weigh down such places — while I had a patient hearing, I found our ensuing discussion disappointing. The historical analogies, policy dilemmas and coping strategies I touched on in my presentation didn’t get much comment or questions.

Instead, rather predictably, the ill-moderated discussion meandered on about the adverse social and cultural impacts of Internet and mobile phones and the need to ‘control’ everything in the public interest (where have I heard that before?).

And much time was wasted on debating on what exactly was new media and how to define and categorise it (I’d argued: it all depends on who answers the question!).

Part of the confusion arose from many conflating private, closed communications online (e.g. Facebook) with the open, more public interest online content (e.g. news websites). Similarly, the critical need for common technical standards (to ensure inter-operability) was mistaken by some as the need for dull and dreary orthodoxy in content!

Concepts like Citizen Journalism, user-generated content, privacy, right to information were all bandied around — but without clarity, focus or depth. Admittedly we couldn’t cover everything under the Sun. But we didn’t even discuss what options and choices policy makers have when confronted with rapidly evolving new media types.

Half anticipating this, I had included a line in my talk that said: “Academics must research, analyse & advise (policy makers). But are Lankan academics thought-leaders in ICT?

I was being a polite guest by not explicitly answering my own question (but as a helpful hint, I mentioned dinosaurs a few times!). In the end, my audience provided a clear (and sadly, negative) answer: far from being path-finders or thought-leaders, they are mostly laggards who don’t even realise how much they have to catch up!

And some of them are framing Lankan media policy and/or advising government on information society issues. HELP!

Don’t take my word for it. Just try to find ANY online mention of National Media Summit 2012 that just ended a few hour ago. Google indexes content pretty fast these days — but there is NONE that I can find on Google as May 25 draws to an end (except my own PPT on SlideShare!).

Or try accessing the Mass Communication Dept at University of Kelaniya. For the past few weeks and even now, it remains inaccessible while the rest of that university website works.

New Media, Old Minds: A Bridge Too Far? YES, for now, it does seem that way…