Can the Internet replace traditional media?

Technology has brought us many exciting innovations, including the ubiquitious Internet. Could this new communication tool bring the death knell to the good old fashioned television, radio and newspaper?

Full steam ahead

TECHNOLOGY AND ELECTRONIC innovation, which we in the modern world accept as proof of progress, challenges the cultural worldview of our present and past, leapfrogging, into the distant corners of the Third World. This inexhorable reality is largely ignored in the hype with which governments and businesses embrace this new technology, without understanding its limits or dangers.

Into this unresolved debate, intrudes the Internet's promise of a new electronic and technological innovation. This new medium is caught in globalization's perceived reach, and comes with promises it cannot fulfill. Too much is expected of it than as a tool to ease how we work and play. This worsens with the speed of innovations, with computing power doubling at half the cost every year or so. What makes this debate so dangerous is this superficial insistence that speed resolves everything.

A long way to go
Rational voices disappear in this hyped, largely one-sided debate on what it represents. The Internet, despite the hype, is still an elitist means of communication, available to those with money to sustain it. We do not need it, unless our work or interest or purse or inclination or a combintion of them require it. But the dominant worldview of business and government in every country in Asia and the world raises the relevance of the Internet into wishful thinking. It has, of course, a role. It is a useful tool for many, but not all. Hundreds of millions of people around the world, at all walks of society, could sail through life without knowing what the Internet is.

But this projection of the Internet and other toys of the technological and electronic revolution as the cutting edge of communications overawes the man-in-the-street. He is dazzled by technological innovation when it first makes its appearance, but does not understand it. People who freeze in front of a computer come from all walks of life, the same fear some people face when driving a motor car or adjusting the television screen. A "breeding ground" for alternate views
But what saves the Internet from being written off is people's perception that if people believe instinctly, rightly or wrongly, any news from that medium. The Malaysian government's biggest hurdle in the internal political division, rarely surfacing because of its tight control of the official media, is to respond to the huge mass of contraditory opinions and attacks on it. If it does not, it has lost ground; if it does, it cannot catch up. The British government had a taste of that during the Second World War, when its people believed the brilliant psychological warfare broadcasts by an Englishman turned German sympathiser, William Joyce (as Lord Haw Haw) about Britain's impending doom in the war against Hitler. Joyce was arrested and, after the War, sentenced to death and hanged for treason. But while the broadcasts lasted, it could be deflected with much effort. And so of television coverage of the Vietnam War. The Internet's importance in this perception of the world is as important today as the radio and the television was at their prime.

But unlike the radio and television, the Internet is unstructured and amorphous. It can be fashioned to work in particular circumstances of purpose, but it cannot have the world wide dissemminatory powers the newspapers, radio and television has. It is believable because the recipient instinctly accepts the truth, rightly or wrongly, if the message comes from the Internet. This is not the result of progressive technology, but as an instinctive reaction to contraptions beyond his comprehension. He is led to believe in the usefulness of modern technology, and he would not be seen to decry it. And so he would believe, until he is proven otherwise. That is easier said than done. The Internet's short life -- the speed with which it moves ahead; the Internet I hooked on to in 1996 is outdated compared to the more modest setup I have to run my Sang Kancil mailing list on Malaysian affairs -- makes it difficult to imprint the importance of this medium in the minds of people who are conditioned to accept the latest technology. It's not just e-mail you know
My greater worry about the insidiousness (and I use this word advisedly) is that the Internet is a manipulative medium. It can be fashioned to whatever the manipulator wants it to represent to the world at large. This would make the Internet putty to these dictators of the mind. But this also means that unlike with radio, television and the newspapers, others can manipulate it to provide an alternate view. For the government, especially those with an authoritarian bent of mind like in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar, the dissent comes through a medium it does not control, and its equanimity is maintained only if it goes on the offensive. Apart from the Singapore government, which contains this dissent, or tries to, none of the others could or have. The Malaysian government, despite its commitment to the information highway, stumbles at the starting block while its critics stream ahead to the goal post.

Today, there is more to the Internet than sending emails and taking part in discussion groups. It is now the alleged medium that would set the world on fire, with news variations like Intranet concentrating on what in this hyperbolic atmosphere goes under the catchwords of e-commerce in a K-society. It does not matter if you do not know what they mean and what they can do. But these systems are integrated into a world which for a millennia have done things the way they always did, making incremental changes not overnight, as the Internet and other technological advances have us do, but gradually. The confusion in the mobile phone market -- now that is a welcome development, even if I use it mainly to call people than have them call me! -- with the public seduced into smaller and more powerful phones at half the arm and leg you paid for an earlier model, ignores the intrinsic improvement, such as it is, in our lives. But the Internet still far from the ground
So, ultimately, the question of the Internet's role in every day life depends on its utility. If people find it useful, they will integrate it into their lives. What holds it back -- and this is so of every electronic contraption since sliced bread -- is the high cost of hooking on to it. Most of us are suckers for progress, and jump to every incremental model of what we have. We forget to investigate the usefulness of these contraptions, and use it for the work at hand. In this I am a dodo. My computer system, which I had a friend assemble, uses an Intel chip called the MMX-200, an earlier Pentium model, but because I know what I want it for, I am impervious to how "old fashioned" it is. But it more than serves my purpose, and I am upgrading the UNIX operating system on it. If I had taken the MS-Windows route, I could not even install its latest operating system, let alone use it.

There is too much emphasis on the technological advances of the Internet, as a marketing campaign, for its use to be used fully. Which is why it is immensely expensive for the man-in-the-street to embrace the Internet as he did the earlier instruments of communication. Its acceptance is in its perceived modernity, not in its use. This means that its continued placement in the public consciousness is dependent on the marketing campaigns to ensure its relevance. This brings out the anarchic boundaries in which it exists. The Internet therefore becomes a symbol of technological advance than a useful tool of practical use, like the radio, the television, the newspaper. Its relevance in the future depends on how well a purveyor of information it is than its use by the user. This is why I do not believe it would or could replace the existing print and other media. Even if it challenges the existing orthodoxy -- in business, politics and every endeavour of human behaviour.