By Ooi Kee Beng
Penang Monthly editorial, February 2017
Culture, if you ask me, is the joint expression of the inter-personal behaviours of a particular society over time. Within that, we find comfort and orientation in life. The key word is “time”. When profound changes come at us at great speed, how we behave towards each other becomes awkward, stumbling and unpredictable. Much more than usual, that is.
We are forced to modify and develop new ways of relating to each other, and we have to do it fast and without a guidebook.
We see that for example in how we have embraced—or been overwhelmed by—the Internet. In its wake came SMSes, MMSes and emails, and we see how we over the last few years have had to adapt our behaviour: how much trouble we should take, or not take, to be polite when replying to an email, how we increasingly use emojis instead of words, and how uncertain we are about how long we can delay a reply without being rude.
And even before we have worked out a comfortable email culture, we have been hit by the advent of the smartphone—and of countless apps—into our lives. Not to mention tweets and other social media.
And how President Donald Trump has been causing chaos with his tweets is a case in point. There is in fact a cultural clash going between him thinking that tweets are a sufficient means of communication, and the fact that most of the rest of the world does not.
Technological advances in communication that alter how we behave at the daily minute-by-minute level have been coming fast indeed. But why do we seem unable to resist them?
I suppose the easy answer is that, no matter what we think of them, they are extremely useful—and in two important ways at least. They make personnel communication immediate and effective; and they bring an avalanche of personalised information literally to our fingertips. This allows us to chat, to individuals or to groups, without the formalities and delays that beset traditional communication. And so, we try to work out how best to live in such a world, knowing at the same time that what we come up with will soon be outmoded.
The second and more important change that these technological innovations have brought is in the area of knowledge. Information at our fingertips means that the crosschecking of facts that we traditionally could do to affirm their correctness is no longer as thorough or as possible. We are moving too fast, and so we try to rely our common sense to tell truth from lie. That common sense, needless to say, gets weaker and weaker the more information there is rushing at us.
Speed and volume are therefore the elements that in tandem overwhelm us—speed in communication and volume of information. An epistemic revolution—and that is what it is—is upon us, and as with all revolutions, we have to run faster to stay somewhat upright.
Mankind’s search for knowledge about his society and his world in order to manipulate them has been relentless, and he has in the last few decades succeeded beyond imagination.
This makes it necessary to consider these recent changes in a historical context. What was it like when mankind first developed speech? Most philosophers would agree today that language is never neutral, and that concepts hide notions that direct our thoughts. This would have been most obvious when the written word came into being. Literacy became the strongest claim to power, outside of military power. Knowledge as expressed in the paradigms of society’s literati, of its discourse builders—and these were often shamans and prophets—was a manipulative tool that worked because it was also socially useful. Knowledge has always been a means to power. “Holy books” were an ingenious creation through which a few could quickly gain a monopoly on effective political power.
Universal literacy—something very new indeed—was thus a historical blowback that pulled the rug from under the feet of Crown and Church. With that came notions of democracy, universal human rights, the rule of amendable law, feminism, and much more.
Seen that way, what we are experiencing in at the beginning of the 21st century is a continuation of the fight for access to effective knowledge and for the right to generate facts to one’s own advantage.
My little smartphone is in that sense a weapon—a formidable pocketknife—in the endless war we humans insist on conducting against each other.
But while I wield it like a sword, I also know that it is also a ploughshare.