2020 taught many of us how to live differently. For me, it seemed to have accelerated what could otherwise have occured a decade or two down the road. Mass swathes of the population were forced to digitalise or risk losing their business or livelihoods. All of a sudden, we were made to think of what an “essential worker” means in our societal context. COVID-19 has not only killed many lives, it has also turned into reality some of the coffeeshop talk we had about how people would adapt to a “VUCA world” (as always, VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity).
For a number of people, 2020 was also a year of contemplation. Thanks to how 2020 has forced many of us to stay at home, the more privileged ones among us (not all homes are equally liveable!) managed to find some quiet time away from the physical spaces we otherwise had to report to to think about philosophical questions. I had my moments of contemplation too, and am still unsure if I’ve all the answers to all the questions one can ask about life.
Pardon my indulgence in the digital world. 2020 has made me realise our dependence on the digital world for almost everything. We use it to shop, order food and update ourselves on the happenings of the world. Previously, my sentiment that many who use the digital world do not understand it was merely grounded in theory. I have learnt how it can be validated in practice. Some of the nastiest happenings in the digital world happened this year, be it the Solarwinds breach (cyber domain) or how pervasive fake news about COVID-19 (information domain) could spread. In Singapore, we also had an election where campaigns were conducted primarily through digital media as opposed to physical media for the first time. This highlighted issues that plague our information domain such as how algorithmic suggestions of articles different groups of users might enjoy reading, supposedly used to drive more sales and maintain eyeballs on social media, can have the inadvertent effect of political polarisation, inhibiting the ability of people from different, sometimes conflicting groups, from bridging these divides.
At the heart of all these reflections, however, is also another topic that permeates the digital world — privilege. The word “privilege” has been a term littered to discuss all sorts of politically contentious and noisy issues such as race relations around the world. The privilege I am concerned about, however, revolves around digital access. Those who understand the digital world can find good jobs and find themselves in positions where they can influence their fellow people. Those who do not become part of the data set for a digital world operator (could be a cybersecurity practitioner, social media analyst or digital content creator). The OECD has published a paper in 2017 that looks at ICT access and whether different aspects of ICT access and availability have any correlations with certain measurable outcomes such as test scores, and whether ICT policies in various countries help advance public policy objectives. My fear from a societal lens is whether those who are slow to learn will eventually lose out in a digital world that seeks not to wait for people to come onboard. After all, the private sector innovates not for the slowest adopters, but for those who are willing to challenge boundaries and convention.
My personal interests behind the “privilege” of being able to use and understand ICT stems not so much from a technological perspective as a social one. If you recalled the paragraph on how COVID-19 has forced digitalisation as a whole, the human in me cannot help but wonder what we have short-circuited in the process and whether we understand these social consequences that result. For instance, the way we make amends for the lack of physical connection through video conferencing retains both video and audio feed, but the dynamics of conversation would have subtly changed; we can disable our video feed to avoid giving body language cues if we wanted. Neither can we sense “tension” because we cannot see people sitting at the edge of their seats unlike at a coffeeshop. Here we have an unanswered question of information fidelity and whether that might correlate in some way to how we continue to maintain social connections. Here is one little example of “privilege” because contemplation bought time to think about such issues. This cannot happen if COVID-19 had, for instance, affected my livelihood.
Understanding the position of privilege was perhaps one “pull factor” towards trying out something ambitious in 2020 — to set up “Very Clear Cut“. Themes of information warfare, fake news and political polarisation recurred in discussions with different groups of friends. All of these issues have some relation to the digital world. But the digital world, by itself, is merely a platform, and is otherwise ideologically agnostic. What matters is what we do on these platforms. I don’t claim to be an expert in any of these domains, but I managed to find friends who share my sentiments on these issues and understood that these are issues that my generation will continue to grapple with. Many of us, especially in Singapore, simply want to live life like middle-class citizens, setting up families, and helping their children do well in life. But what if their information sources, not by their doing, cannot be trusted due to the agendas that information propagators may have? Being cognisant of these issues, I thought “Very Clear Cut” could help be one of many initiatives to cut through the digital world to restore some sort of agency for people to think for themselves. Like the introduction on “Very Clear Cut”, none of us are monopolists on all domains of knowledge. That is simply impossible. But what is possible is to make use of topics young people are concerned about to show how we think about them, and to provide adequate starting points to begin research on topics young people care about. (But we try not to end up becoming a tabloid, hopefully.)
Did 2020 end up well? I don’t know. But we can make 2021 better even under the specter of COVID-19 and the ills in the digital world that have been actualised as a result.