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

Trusting Remains a Process that Takes Time in the Information Age

ONCE UPON A time, information was generated slowly and carefully. The time and distance between thought, expression, dissemination and reception were substantial.

Most of us do realise that the disruptions that information & communication technologies bring are inevitable. They are a flood that you ride and manoeuvre, or that you drown in. Standing by the bank to see it flow by is a luxury given to the very old, or to the few remaining hermits in the world.

Industry after industry have been transforming themselves. But as if that were not enough, we acquired a global pandemic to deal with, at the same time as the dynamics of globalisation began moving in different directions again. (To be sure, whether globalisation has ever been a smooth uni-directional process may be properly questioned, but that’s a discussion for another day).

Then came the Invasion of Ukraine. This opened yet another Pandora’s Box to wreak further chaos and uncertainty upon the world.

Worldviews are in open conflict, and in much more complex ways than was the case during the Cold War, for example, when one could be against capitalism or for it, or be anything in between.

As they say, Truth is the first casualty of War. And this European war comes at a time when Truth, after Trump and after social media’s harangues, was already in the emergency ward, if not the morgue.

This is a world not only of news, gossip and propaganda; of science, quasi-science and superstitions; but also of personal impulses, biases and egos—all vying for our attention, no matter how short its span may have become. Information today, to define the word as broadly and inclusively as possible, is delivered as messages—visual, textual or audial, seeking attention and aiming to impact our minds. On one extreme, they hunt for clicks; and on the other, they aim to draw you, not only into a discourse, but into an information bubble.

The key disruption, in the end, is not in information generation, but more inescapably in information dissemination and information reception. The time and distance between thought, expression, dissemination and reception have never been shorter. And everyone is taking part, responding and adding to this universe of information. “We the people” are at fault.

Messaging is now ultra-democratic, and constructing a filtering system is now a key survival tactic for the receiver of messages. For the receiver, maintaining a manageable balance between news and knowledge, entertainment and inspiration, is the order of his 21st-Century day.

So what do those of us who consider truths vital to our wellbeing do? How do we survive this morass? How much salt we take with a piece of information depends greatly upon how much reliability we place on the source of that information. But how is reliability built?

When do you trust a politician, when an academic, when a journalist? Briefly, trust is built up through experience, over time. It’s like meeting any person in our daily lives. Some of us trust new acquaintances until we get disappointed, and then we trust them successively less; while others distrust new acquaintances until they have shown themselves to be trustworthy. Whichever the case, relational experience is always required for trust to grow.

Thus, where public persons are concerned, or public channels of information are involved, the same applies. What may be at fault today is that we assume that just because information flows are now fast, we can then do away with the tiresome and slow process of deciding the level of reliability of our sources of information. It saves so much time and effort.

There is no shortcut. We may rely more and more on our intuition, be more of a gambler, but in the end, it’s always a trade off. If you are in a hurry; you must be willing to pay the price.

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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