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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Growing Old and Staying Young in a Brave New World

OOI KEE BENG, Editorial for Penang Monthly, January, 2018.

The ICT revolution has been taking place all my adult life: I bought my first home computer in 1990 when I was 35, my first mobile phone a decade later, and then my first smartphone about a decade after that. I am already into my fifth or sixth model now, and am both painfully and pleasantly dependent on it.

Of course, all these innovations were continuations of a global trend that has been going on ever since capitalism – riding on the back of the scientific revolution – let loose human technological ingenuity. And conceit, I should add.

But in exploring the possibilities of the science of electronics as successfully as humanity has done in the last few decades, we are now at a point where anything seems possible. What this also means, of course, is that we are fully convinced that our daily life will continue to be altered by hand-held devices, network bandwidth, cloud services, search engines, and smarter and smarter algorithms. At the same time, we are individually unsure if we will manage in this brave new world. Most of us do feel that we definitely will not: the wired future belongs to the young and in fact to the increasingly younger generation.

What’s more, the functional use of “generation” will now be measured more and more correctly through a timeline drawn by device versions, and bracketed more and more clearly by disruptive industries. For example, in Malaysia, we have seen how election campaigns since the turn of the century have been configured by ICT innovations – from news websites like Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insider to chat groups that have developed via Facebook to WhatsApp. Our recent generations of voters know democracy through the devices and apps they use to develop their political consciousness and interest. And they move around the world with the help of their devices, booking taxis, flights and hotels at the press of a virtual button, collecting information that suits them for the moment.

The old are growing old faster while the young keep getting younger, if we measure by level of skill in handling electronic devices and level of comfort in using disruptive business innovations. The ICT slow boil that societies and individuals have been undergoing has recently increased in temperature and speed. And this exponential rise will not stop.

In the very near future (some would say “now”), staying young will be to stay abreast and ahead of innovative advances that work through big data and clever logarithms. In most cases, even that will be measured through the ability to use, more than through knowledge about the workings of the tools used.

More and more of us will become users rather than knowers because the knowledge involved in making future devices and businesses work will be generated by super-computers with access to incredibly dynamic and integrated databases. We don’t need to know because there will be machines that know better and which can apply that knowledge in ways that are more effective and ingenious than we can individually, or even collectively, command.

So in the very near future, growing old will be accelerated by alienation from a world that changes markedly with every successful global disruptive innovation.

An ICT-savvy class now emerges to labour for a progressively tiny breed of business oligarchs (a more exact term than “entrepreneurs”) who have no need to bother with national borders and regulations. In fact, politicians will be putty in their hands. The rest of us will take on the key role of being users of devices and being zeros and ones in databases. Where we will get our income from to pay the bills is not clear.

And democracy will be largely reduced to a choice between devices to be addicted to. 1984 took a while coming, but now when it comes, it comes in a form more profound, dynamic and stable than Orwellian legend could imagine. Also, we won’t need to be brave in the new world to come; we just need to press “I Agree”.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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