As we go to print (Monday night), Canada Post has postponed its decision to lock out its employees, which would have meant that there would be no mail delivery for the foreseeable future. This situation, however resolved, is not something that will go away. Canada Post is dealing with a revolution: one that has affected each of us in the past two decades. When was the last time you took paper and pen and wrote a letter, put it in a stamped envelope, and popped it in a mailbox? When did you last write a cheque to pay a bill and send it off in the mail? The fact is that the way in which we communicate with each other has changed almost beyond recognition in a very short period of time.
We are living through a digital revolution, something that has changed the way we live and how we see the world, in an incredibly radical way. More and more of us look to Facebook, Twitter and Google, for example, for news, contact, communication and information.
Although they seem to have been around forever, these entities are very recent additions to society. Facebook only started in 2004, yet today it has more than one billion users. Twitter has only been around since 2006, and the biggest, perhaps, of them all, Google, was founded all the way back in 1998, and now enjoys annual revenues of $74.5 billion. Then there’s Wikipedia, which has become the major source of information for a vast number of internet users. It started in 2001. And that is not to mention LinkedIn (founded 2002), Instagram (founded 2010), or any of the myriad of others that have sprung up in the last twenty years. All of the above information was found in a few seconds using Google search and Wikipedia!
All of this was made possible by the spread of the Internet. Although it has been in existence since the 1980’s, it was only in the mid-1990’s that it began to become available to personal users. It has rightly been seen as the most important and influential development in technology since the harnessing of electricity a century before. What this all has meant for you and me is still unclear.
People can now stay at home in front of their computers and communicate across the globe, play games, watch TV and movies, and even shop, all without having to ever talk to another person face to face (unless you use Skype, founded in 2003). The long-term effects of this are unknown, of course, and things are moving too quickly for anyone to even hazard a guess. There are serious concerns already, however, about how much power Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, etc. have to shape our thinking by controlling the information we see, and deciding on our behalf what is important for us to know in terms of news, and what perspective we are given in terms of education and data.
It may not be common knowledge, but individual users do not control what gets posted on their Facebook page, for example, or what entries come up first on Google searches. This is controlled primarily by the algorithms which a small number of computer geeks in places like California create to run those applications. This has serious implications for each of us, as an apparently free access to facts, knowledge and information is, in reality, a highly controlled process run by a small number of people with their own philosophies and ideologies.
This digital revolution also has implications and effects which are, perhaps, more positive. In the field of news journalism, for example, the revolution has been profound. When everyone has a chance to write an on-line blog, when news and developments around the world are almost instantly accessible to everyone with an internet connection, it has become impossible for anyone, for any Government, or any media conglomerate, to control the flow of information. People in general are more informed, more aware and also more demanding when it comes to news information. Traditional reporting is being superceded by a demand for more than just a recitation of facts. People are demanding something more in-depth, more nuanced, more considered.
After the results of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, the BBC faced criticism for its handling of the referendum campaign reporting. In its traditional attempt to be “balanced” and “objective”, it had given equal time to economists who said Brexit would be a disaster for the British economy, and those who believed the opposite. The problem was that the vast majority of economists were in the Remain camp, and the few who advocated Leave were not of the highest calibre. But the BBC gave both sides equal time, without comment, thereby giving the public the idea that both sides had arguments of equal merit. This was not the case, and hence the anger and criticism.
In this rapidly changing environment, people are looking, not for reporting of facts, but journalism: the consideration of all sides, with appropriate opinion, discussion and analysis. Faced with an almost endless choice of sources, people now want a forum in which they can listen to discussion, debate and open dialogue, one, moreover, in which they can take part too. This has its pitfalls, of course, and on-line blogs and below-the-line comments sections can be full of the most unbalanced and ignorant comments and ideas. But this is the digital revolution that has come to us so suddenly, and we have to find our way through it. After all, however, surely dialogue, open discussion and a free sharing of viewpoints can only be good for society in the long run?