The term fourth industrial revolution is not new anymore. Whether or not we understand what it means and its implications, we have a sense that technology has led — and will lead — us to a very different world. More industries are being disrupted and new business models are emerging almost every day to enable us with more capabilities.
Has this transformational change sweeping throughout the world affected information in general and the role of media? We hear “fake news,” “post-truth era,” “alternative facts” and “freedom of speech” much more now than few years ago.
How has the landscape related to information and media changed for the public? Specifically, in what kind of information world do we find ourselves in 2017?
Shifts, opportunities and threats
I see several major shifts related to the industry and new opportunities, as well as threats, related to information and the media. These include a shift from information scarcity to information overload. Not long ago were the days when we had to be cost-conscious when we collected information. Today, we can access much more free information than ever before. Information has become perceived as free in consumers’ minds, challenging the viability of the traditional media industry.
Another shift can be seen as we move from a few selected providers of information to mass providers. One of the reasons why there is so much information accessible is because, due to technological advances, providers of information have shifted from a select few professionals to mass sources.
In a one-on-one interview with The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman at the 2012 Annual Meeting of New Champions organized by the World Economic Forum (often called “Summer Davos” focused on innovation, science and technology held in China since 2007), the columnist described the shift as follows: “I used to know about 10 people who I competed against in writing my column. Now I compete against millions of people who write from many different parts in the world.”
The phenomenon has accelerated as more social media has become available and more people start producing information.
A third shift can be seen as the traditional media industry is being disrupted. As the amount of information provided by mass media has exploded, traditional media such as newspapers, TV and radio were forced to transform. Information freely available online has increased dramatically, making it difficult for established media to charge for content. As Twitter and Instagram, for example, can provide more “real time, on the spot” news and information than traditional media that goes through the editorial process, traditional media professionals need to revisit their missions and re-evaluate their unique offerings, which are different from the public’s activities.
The print versions of newspapers have almost disappeared, as a variety of means have emerged to communicate content. It may be difficult to believe now, but I recall a discussion on paper media about a decade ago where one of the journalists said, “We need newspapers to go with coffee in the morning.” Compare this view with the fact that very few read physical newspapers in commuting today in Tokyo, as the majority are looking at smartphones to get their news.
Implications for the public
The public now has an abundance and variety of means to receive and access information from anywhere in the world if they have internet access and the ability to overcome language barriers. More important is that the public now has an abundance and variety of media and means to express themselves. Ordinary people, rather than just the media who used to have that privilege, have become producers of information, in addition to consumers of information.
Do you know how much information people consume a day? How much information people express a day? Members of the public are the disrupters of the traditional industries such as newspapers as the main customers of information exchange today.
As the transformation is now in process without a clear endpoint in sight, I can think of several scenarios for us.
One possible scenario is that we can be drowned or blown away in information storms. It is possible to be overwhelmed by the amount of information accessible without proper validity checks and evidence, as can be seen in heated debate around “facts” seen in the U.S. today. The intensity of debate around the validity of information is much lower in Japan than in the U.S., but the issue is significant and warrants more discussion. In fact, we had two reports in 2016 describing the concern about increasing government pressure against critical and independent media, specifically, the “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016” by the U.S. State Department and a Reporters Without Borders survey on self-censorship in the media.
We need to be more aware of the status of media and the press in Japan and be willing to take necessary action. We should never give up our right to free press, as it will eventually lead to the absence of freedom of expression.
Another scenario that may be more difficult to detect and be aware of is self-inflicted bias, made increasingly possible through social media. Now we can identify the type and scope of information of our own interests and select the people and sources to access on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. By focusing and selecting the sources that fit our own interests and views, we end up living in small, sheltered silos. This is known as confirmation bias, which is difficult to be aware of and correct without a conscious effort.
We need to consciously make ourselves aware of the other side of the debate, as Ian Bremmer, political scientist and president of the Eurasia Group mentioned in a tweet, “If you are not following some people you dislike, you’re doing it wrong.”
The best scenario I can envision is to develop information literacy in today’s context and be active and responsible members of the information society as both producers and consumers.
To do this, there are some things that we must do, including scanning a broad landscape and examining views contrary to our own, tapping into information from diverse sources, validating news by looking for supporting evidence from multiple sources and forming our own views while being ready to change as more information becomes available.
In addition to what we must do, there are some things that we must avoid doing, including relying on too few sources, in particular those agreeable to previously held views, taking on information at face value without validating and reading without forming personal views.
People are reluctant to form and express their own views because they are afraid of being wrong, sticking out and taking positions in a society where kuki o yomu (literally means read the air, or to read between lines and not stick out) is valued and appreciated.
We need to realize the world is our stage, where we play the lead character. We need to be in charge and shape the story by expressing ourselves and constantly reviewing our perspectives. In other words, we ARE disrupting the landscape and we need to take responsibility for that.
New role of media in this context
What is the role of media such as The Japan Times in this, then? Do they still have a role to play? I believe the only way they can survive and prosper is to offer unique value to the empowered public. The Japan Times has a 120-year tradition of serving the community mainly in Japan in the English language.
English is the de facto global standard of communication. As voice recognition in English is far more advanced than that in Japanese, English — as one of the most-spoken languages in the world — has its own value. Operating in at least two societies with multiple languages offers the benefits of both.
The Japan Times needs to revisit the advantage of having a solid network for both societies with multiple languages. It needs to go a step further through investigative capability to go beyond the two languages of English and Japanese. By being in two worlds, The Japan Times has an inherent advantage of offering multiple and different perspectives supported by evidence not broadly available outside of Japan.
Hitotsubashi University Professor Emeritus Yoko Ishikura currently serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She also serves as a non-executive director of Shiseido Group, Nissin Foods Holdings and Sojitz Corp. Ishikura is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council.