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

A Tsunami of Cultural Disruptions is on the Horizon

By Ooi Kee Beng, Penang Monthly editorial, January 2019

The digital revolution that in recent years has been pigeonholed as Industry 4.0 in reality transforms modern life in more ways than merely through new products, new production processes and new consumption patterns. No doubt it has transformed the taxi industry and is undermining the hotel business, but the times that are a-changing leave no stone unturned.

We call these processes disruptive and not chaotic because they provide radical substitutes while destroying the old structures. Information flows have changed, and traditional mass media is in crisis. School systems are also in a quandary. Indeed, while Malaysia is trying to tweak its deteriorated education sector, the whole world is wondering how to transform schooling as such – even in countries where schools have functioned well.

Not-so-social Media

The disruption to governance has been tremendous in the United States of America, as we know – even if it has not been recognised as another expression of industrial disruption yet. President Donald Trump’s tweets and dismissal of the established mass media, and his unashamed populism and narcissism, have indeed thrown his country’s establishment into chaos. Things will never be the same again, even after he leaves the scene. And not only for the US.

Culturally, social media has been an overwhelmingly powerful force. One could call it people power, or one could call it a weakening of the national collective and of national discourses. It is disruptive in any case.

It has changed my day, and transformed how I work, how I interact with my children, and how I connect with the rest of the world. The same goes for the rest of you. In allowing for speedy and spontaneous interactions between people whom we may never meet, it has democratised dialogue more quickly than we are able to grasp. Whether this democratisation as a whole is seen to be a positive or a negative development, it has happened and it will continue to happen.

Therefore, while we talk about industrial disruptions as the trend and the sharing economy as the dynamic that will undermine all economic sectors sooner or later, we should take time to consider the depth to which our key social, cultural and political patterns of behaviour are disrupted at the same time, in parallel with these economic transformations. These broad changes considered as a whole cannot help but spawn multiple paradigm shifts in society, almost in a globally orchestrated fashion.

This is a revolution indeed. It is broad and it cuts deep. And because it is broad and cuts deep, it is often not recognised as the revolution that it is. We are still looking for words to describe this new stage in the globalisation of the world. Millennial culture – increasingly incomprehensible to the middle-aged and the aged – is but one patent manifestation of this profound change that is now upon us. New generations will appear – and a generation will be defined by shorter and shorter time periods – and they will be formed more by being logged in, connected and registered than by parenting and schooling. They will be educated, no doubt, but not in the way we may imagine. And their values will not be recognisable, not even to their immediate generational forebears.

As the world continues on this roller coaster ride propelled by digital devices and databases, even politics and all the concepts that define politics will change. How we understand and exercise leadership will shift, how we communicate will move with each upgrade, how we buy and sell will be transformed.

Leaders as Followers

Will we come to think that electoral systems are the enemy of individual freedom; that the mass media is basically manipulative; that schools are a great hindrance to education; and that politicians are populists, plain and simple? Will leaders lead and followers follow, or will leaders merely pretend to lead – is that not what populism is, in any case? Will the nation state be hollowed out by localism on the one side and regionalism on the other?

If women are indubitably better multitaskers than men, will a digitalised world not increasingly favour the traditionally weaker sex? Will childhood and adulthood blend more and more, and wisdom become a quaint idea?

Even the notion of money is not spared. Cryptocurrencies have appeared to challenge the role of the state in determining value; and more and more societies are going cashless already. To be sure, perhaps it is in the financial world that the pioneers of global disruption have been having a field day – 1MDB comes to mind.

Social media is not done yet. It will experience its own internal disruptions, time after time; and in the process, it will undermine traditional slower processes of socialisation and collectivisation.

It will be interesting to see how the politics of identities will continue to be disrupted. Whose personal identity will survive humanity’s own accelerating cleverness? Will race and religion become but a private hobby, challenging the world only now and then the way lone hackers now do? Or will things go the other way, and those disorientated by this tsunami of change will seek comfort in the embrace of the charlatan?

To end on a bright note, disruptions may reduce our propensity to destroy Earth’s environment and extinguish other species of life, and make us come to our senses. One can always hope.


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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