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ST Future Economy Roundtable: Reality redefined

In the third of The Straits Times' Future Economy roundtable series, experts discuss the future of the media. Insight Pages B2-4.

Suddenly, irksome little critters seem to be everywhere. They are in the parks, schools, offices and gyms.

Self-appointed vigilantes have set out to nab them, virtually single-handed, to settle scores with the so-called Pokemon.

Millions around the world, and perhaps soon here in Singapore too, have rushed to download the latest technology craze, Pokemon Go, since it was launched earlier this month. In doing so, they have given a fillip to those who have been hailing this year as the year when the much-touted virtual and augmented reality technologies finally take off.

But the Pokemon phenomenon goes beyond being just an innocuous game you might play on your smartphone.

It reflects how technology, as well as changing consumer preferences, is causing massive disruption in the media industry and beyond, as participants at the recent Straits Times roundtable on the future of the media noted.

 

This is the third in a series of discussions organised by ST on issues related to the work of the Committee on the Future Economy.

 

The impact of this disruption is being felt in the way people spend their time and money, as well as how they obtain information, form opinions and make decisions, including critical ones at the ballot box.

 

Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) chief executive- designate Gabriel Lim, one of the roundtable panellists, highlighted the range of uses that augmented reality and virtual reality have been tapped for, from simulators for training firefighters and soldiers who operate in life-threatening environments to those helping surgeons hone their life-saving skills.

In many of these new applications, developments in hardware technologies have come together with those in software capabilities to produce engaging and immersive content, able to hold the fleeting attention spans of today's hyper-stimulated audiences.

"We see this in various forms. We talk about artificial intelligence or virtual reality. The new buzzword is mixed reality. We've seen this in the way viewers consume media. It's no longer just on TV at fixed appointment schedules. It's on the go, on your mobile and increasingly through augmented-reality displays around the world, around the island," Mr Lim said.

"It goes into many aspects, for example, advertising and so on. So I think that space will continue to grow," he added, pointing to the exciting opportunities these new media technologies offer.

These technology trends are especially pronounced in Asia, with its high levels of media consumption and connectivity, noted another panellist, Mr Parin Mehta, Google's head of strategic partnerships for South-east Asia. He said: "In Asia, people spend about 180 minutes on their smartphone a day. We pull the smartphone out of our pocket 150 times. So definitely there is a transition. And we noticed that the activities people do online are getting more complicated... Some people regularly shop online or use transport apps, or they will look for entertainment online.

"And when people have this in front of their faces, they will be engaged even more," he added, whipping out a brown, box-like contraption called Google Cardboard, aimed at making virtual-reality applications simple to use and inexpensive for the masses.

Publications around the world have created content for Google Cardboard, from immersive tours of sports facilities or cities to moving accounts that bring to life the hardships faced by Syrian refugees, he said. "The story moves from just the written word to a kind of visual and also audio-based content, which people really immerse themselves in and get very engaged with."

Yet, while video and more visual modes of communication seem all the rage, they also raise concerns about the impact they might have on the way people gather, share, process and absorb information in today's world.

This concern was flagged by another panellist, Professor Ang Peng Hwa from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University. "As Einstein said, imagination is more important than knowledge. So reading allows you to imagine. What does Red Riding Hood look like or what does Snow White look like?"

But watching a video takes away some of that creative-thinking process, since the viewer is shown a depiction of the character, rather than having to conjure one up for himself, he said. "Whereas when you read, you just imagine. So in a way, it makes you more creative, more curious. So reading is really quite critical to our entire development.

"But reading is work. Because you have to sit down and then try to work it out and make sense, whereas if it's visual, it's easier."

On the flip side, though, the new media technologies have also allowed consumers of content to become producers, creating their own content readily and affordably, which they can also share widely. Just about anyone can be a broadcaster these days, as the communication process is democratised.

The IMDA's Mr Lim noted: "One of the big trends we see is just how much the individual, the consumer or viewer is in control and it's moving more and more from a top- down, hierarchical form of organising ourselves to a more peer-to- peer, crowdsourcing, networked sort of arrangement.

"We see that in multiple areas. Social media is an example. We're not just readers but actually active contributors. And if you take Facebook, it's a platform. The content and what makes Facebook attractive as a business, with advertising and so on, are user-generated content. If users don't generate the content, everybody just sits back and reads, there will be nothing to read.

"We see this in many other things... like Uber or Airbnb, you are not just a consumer, but you could be a hotelier in terms of renting out your room or apartment. You could even sign up to be a Uber driver, using your car to be a private limousine service provider."

This open and widespread creation of content, and the ease with which it can be shared, has much upside, connecting friends and families, and businesses to customers. But the information explosion - and overload - also means consumers are increasingly having to select what to give their limited time and attention to, or rely more on automated processes to seek out and serve up content that might be interesting to them.

So, unlike walking into a bookstore and discovering authors or topics you might not have known before, automated recommendations from online booksellers suggest books that are similar to what a reader might have bought previously.

Instead of leafing through a newspaper and encountering reports on people and places that you might not otherwise have come across, or being exposed to alternative views, algorithm-based search engines are serving up news and views that might reinforce a person's opinions and world view, if he is not conscious or careful.

Mr Lim warned: "There is a risk where you have a certain echo- chamber effect, where as a viewer I like certain topics, I trend towards certain positions or issues and that algorithm picks that up and reinforces that over time.

"That's one of the issues we are mindful of," he said, adding that in a multiracial, multi-religious society such as Singapore, it is critical to ensure that sensitive issues are well managed to prevent them from flaring up and undermining the social harmony built up over the years.

The panellists agreed that this issue was neither academic nor moot, pointing to the real-life example that played out recently when shockwaves reverberated around the world after the unexpected British vote to leave the European Union.

Top online searches the day after on topics such as "What is the EU" and "What happens if we leave?" suggest how little some voters knew about what their choices meant, or how little attention they had paid to the debate during the campaign.

The Brexit vote showed how deeply divided Britain was on the issues, Mr Lim said. "But, certainly, this also shows us just how powerful the media is in terms of shaping opinion and amplifying or multiplying prevailing points of view."

Here, both the demand for and supply of information need to be borne in mind. The public needs to be well informed so that they can make critical decisions that affect their lives. People not only need access to reliable news and credible views, but also have to invest time and effort to make sense of them.

The supply side is just as critical. The disruption in the media industry is posing a challenge to the bottom line of news organisations, and with it, their abilities to continue to devote substantial resources to reporting and analysing information to serve the public's needs. In this regard, the commercial health of media groups is a critical prerequisite of a properly functioning democracy.

Various approaches have been adopted the world over to ensure this - from state funding (as in Britain with the respected BBC, or Sweden with its state sponsorship of newspapers), to private journalism trusts (such as the Guardian news group in Britain), to privately owned media (as in Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' purchase of The Washington Post, or Alibaba chief Jack Ma's takeover of the South China Morning Post), to publicly listed companies (such as Mr Rupert Murdoch's News Corp in the United States, or Singapore Press Holdings here in Singapore, where the law sets limits on foreign holdings of shares in newspaper companies).

Each one has its advocates and critics, and every society has to judge which works best for it, while being open to making changes to suit its culture, context and the times.

Media groups, for their part, have been racing to find new sources of revenue, from growing digital advertising and subscriptions to embarking on activities such as events, conferences and other services and products that readers and advertisers are interested in.

The IMDA's Mr Lim said: "Media industry structures are not just a reflection of market realities but also the means to a certain end.

"We have to be clear about what the objectives are. At the end of the day, what do we want; what is our vision for the media sector? How do we see the industry growing? And going from there, what is the best way for Singapore to succeed? Within the Government, our overriding question is how do we make sure Singapore succeeds. This applies to whichever sector you might be considering, including the media.

"For both the major players, SPH and Mediacorp, you have gone out on your own to seek partnerships, both in terms of joint ventures or even acquisitions, with players that provide complementary services and business models. That's the natural thing to do.

"Do we foresee something much more dramatic or fundamental than that? We would have to take a step back, review the broader trends and objectives that shape this, before we come to a decision."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'Reality redefined'. Print Edition | Subscribe