In 1949, George Orwell stunned the literary world with his prophetic novel 1984. The central theme was on human nature, but the instrument to physically maintain the empire of evil was technology. George Orwell made the bold prediction that technology would be a centralizing, totalitarian influence. Without denigrating the achievements of this great literary work, we need to say now that George Orwell's fears have proved to be one of the worst predictions in the century.
Technology As Driving Force
Scientists have for a long time argued that technology is neither good nor evil, just neutral. Technology, these days, can be looked at as a force for openness and individual empowerment. In the sphere of information and communications, technology has been the driving force behind recent developments, bringing in dramatic changes to our way of life.
A lot has been said about how the arrival of the printing press changed the western world. At that time, there were only about 30,000 books on the entire continent of Europe. Fifty years after the launch of the printing press, there were more than 9 million. It represented a revolution in communications and ensured a quickened and wider spread of information and knowledge.
The widespread use of the microchip probably has a similar effect in changing the landscape of modern day living. Intel, which makes about 90% of the planet's PC microprocessors, was founded in the sixties when Andrew Grove, a Hungarian refugee who managed to escape Nazi persecution in his youth, foresaw the power of the microchip. One of the earliest chips made by Andrew Grove and his colleagues was the Intel 8080 which was launched in 1974. In his book The Road Ahead, Bill Gates, then a Harvard student, recounted how the Intel chip impacted on him and his long-time friend Paul Allen. Bill Gates never finished Harvard. He and his friend started a two-man operation, and Microsoft is now a company with 17,000 employees and a dominant power in producing computer software.
These people were pioneers to create a new environment, heralding the arrival of the age of information technology. The broad range of technologies being developed are changing how we work, learn and use leisure time. The new systems are fascinating hybrids which mix together technological developments in television, telephone transmission, computer science and satellites. They have bucked the inflationary trend and will probably continue to do so. The famous "Moore's Law" applies: CHIP POWER DOUBLES AND COSTS FALL BY HALF ROUGHLY EVERY 18 MONTHS.
While the cost of roast beef has risen and will continue to rise, the cost of computers and softwares has declined as they became popular and mass-produced.
What are the main characteristics of this new environment? Here are some interesting observations which I have picked up from a recent TIME article :
■ It's global.
■ It's networked.
■ It's based on information. In today's knowledge-based economy, intellectual capital drives the value of products.
■ It decentralizes power. The Internet allows anyone to be a publisher or pundit; e-mail subverts rigid hierarchies. The symbol of the digital age is the Web, with countless centres of power all equally networked.
■ It rewards openness. Information can no longer be easily controlled nor ideas repressed nor societies kept closed.
■ It's specialized.
It is the last point that I am particularly interested in. The new communication systems do not require audiences in the millions to make them economically viable or socially appealing. They find their audiences through narrowcasting, and they service special-interest groups. So is there still such a thing called the "mass media"? Given that the new technologies are giving people more choices and more information, does this not signal the demise of the traditional "mass media"? Where, and how, do the media find the "mass"?
One way to describe the change that will ultimately be brought about by the new technologies is offered by digital guru Nicholas Negroponte:
"Instead of delivering a thousand television programmes to everybody, it may be better to deliver one programme to each person in one-thousandth of the real time. This will totally change how we think of broadcast media. The broadcast of most bits will have absolutely nothing to do with the rate at which we consume them as humans".
The way Negroponte sees "bitcasting" leads him to declare - "The medium is no longer the message".
How is this reflected in the real world? The United States has been at the forefront of digital developments, and is a very big market. The once dominant powers of the television networks have been challenged by the rapid ascension of cable/satellite television and computer-based video/entertainment systems. The combined ratings of the major networks have fallen below the magical mark of 50%. However, despite the perennial decline in market share, the television networks are still the most influential media on the national agenda, and they continue to do good business. I think we may be arriving at more or less the same scenario in Hong Kong.
Changes in Hong Kong
Let us not forget that the environment has drastically changed. Here in Hong Kong, in the old days, media power meant that for a spectaular television show, the ratings could go up to 60%, or even higher. In the present day environment of choice and plurality, this is no longer achievable. The media that could manage 30% must necessarily become the envy of the industry. Advertisers have little other option because reaching 30% is probably still the most effective way to promote their product. I think we will see a continued decline in the ratings of mass appeal programme. However, it is still premature to predict the demise of the "mass" media. Even when people do gravitate to their own interests and withdraw from the broader world - because technologies enable or even encourage them to do so - I do not believe that common experiences and values will just fall by the wayside. People want a sense of belonging to many communities, and there are many moments in life that a feeling of togetherness would emerge from the sharing of common experiences. That is where we will find the "mass".
It should not surprise you that optimism permeates through my presentation. As a media practitioner, and having been association with the public broadcaster of Hong Kong for many years, I am presenting to you the positive aspects of our operating environment, as we continue to see a bright future for the broadcasting industry in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, we are mindful of the changes, in particular the technological innovations, that are affecting our media.
Role of RTHK
To survive in the IT age, broadcasters should keep a close monitor over outside changes as well as the services that they can offer.
(1) The environment - we should have proper respect for technological advancements and promptly react to new ideas.
(2) Inside the station - we should provide programmes of a high quality to our audiences. In any place and at any time, content and quality count.
That brings me to my favourite paragraph in my recent presentations - that of the role of Radio Television Hong Kong and how we are coping. We are keeping abreast of the newest developments in the technological side. We were the first local broadcaster to launch onto the Internet, a pioneer in the Asia-Pacific region. When we first started in late 1994, we had a daily hit rate of about 7,000. Now we are providing television on-demand, and radio both real-time and on-demand. The number of our daily hits exceeds half a million. We have also been working closely with our government and industry colleagues on trials for digital audio broadcasting. Experimental broadcasts will be tested in a couple of months' time. On the television production side, we are moving steadily to digital and computer-based formats. Both our television and radio programmes achieve high appreciation ratings and have won many prestigious international and local prizes. As a public broadcaster, we continue to pledge quality and distinctiveness in our productions, meanwhile fulfilling the traditionally recognizd role to inform, educate and entertain.
WHATEVER CAN BE DONE WILL BE DONE
Andrew Grove quotes this as a fundamental rule in technology. Indeed I think this quote gathers more relevance as we see a continuing opening up towards a free, de-regulated and pluralistic environment in the information and communications industries. Broadcasters might heed the same piece of good advice in order to survive in the IT age.
* Extracted from a presentation at Hong Kong Economic Forum panel discussion on Information Technology Development, June 29, 98