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Navigating the Opportunities and Challenges of Communication Technologies in the Century of the 4th Industrial Revolution

This is an excerpt from the dean's speech which I have prepared during the MedCom 2018 conference in Bangkok, Thailand.
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Navigating the Opportunities and Challenges of Communication Technologies in the Century of the 4th Industrial Revolution


John Culkin, a contemporary of the great communication scholar Marshall McLuhan, was once famously quoted saying, “we shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us” (1967). Nothing is truer than that. We are living in an interesting period of time in the course of our human civilisation: a period of accelerating technological change, where a lot of revolutionary changes are rapidly taking place driven largely by information and communication technologies. And they in turn have produced tremendous amount of effects within our society today; from the way we consume our news and information, the way we connect and communicate with our families and friends, to the way we work, shop and play; communication technologies have fundamentally shifted our norms and cultures, something unimaginable to many just a generation ago.

 However, it is also worth noting that the shift that we are witnessing today is not actually new. A simple reading of history would show that history has always repeated itself, again and again. From the time of Gutenberg in the 15th century to Zuckerberg in the 21st century, technology has always brought about significant changes towards transforming socio-culture, politics and economy. The invention of the printing machine in the 15th century sparked the first information revolution. Access to information and knowledge were no longer limited to the hands of the few but became immediately accessible to many others. Likewise, similar socio-cultural changes have been produced by 21st century inventions like Facebook and other internet and social media platforms.

The fundamental question here is, how do we respond to such technologically-driven “disruptions” such as automation, big data, robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality? Perhaps one of the solutions is – as cliché as it may sound, to think out of the box – and that means not just about anticipating and adapting to the future, but perhaps more importantly, to steer the future, to seize the opportunities and to be part of the change. In a recent shocking report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), published in 15 December 2017, it was projected that by 2030, “more than a fifth of the global labour force - 800 million workers - might lose their jobs because of automation.” It is an amazing shift considering that 2030 is barely 12 years away. The report suggested that up to 375 million workers around the world may need to switch jobs and learn new skills. So, what are some of the critical skills for the future? In another report by the WEF, three of the most important skills listed are; complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity.

Acknowledging these new dynamics and realities would be and should be the first step towards addressing the issue critically for the benefit of the nation and the world at large, especially in matters related to policymaking, human capital development and so on. What happens in future depends on our actions, or lack thereof, today.

 Students today must be well versed about the changing media systems and environment as well as things including media ownership, balanced news reporting, social media, and all forms of popular communication. The media education system must embrace the new wave of the 4th Industrial Revolution and the concepts of Sustainable, Development and Growth (SDG), if it wants to remain current and relevant.

Speaking of sustainability, we have got to understand that sustainability is more than just a buzzword. Sustainability – of the environment, economy or society – is an attempt to ensure that the way we conduct ourselves today will not impose unfair costs on future generations. It is about real problems that requires real solutions especially when one considers the fact that since the 1970s, we have been overusing our resources unsustainably. Experts have long predicted that if current business-as-usual trends continue, we will need the equivalent of three earths by 2050. So how can we constructively contribute to this cause?

What better way of unlearning and relearning, than by attending conferences and trainings alike. I am reminded by the late Alvin Toffler – one the leading futurists of the 20th century – who once remarked that, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”.   

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