Nothing in history, not even the Industrial Revolution, has produced anything remotely like the staggering level of change that has descended on the world with the technological revolution now spinning faster and faster around mankind. In the maelstrom of change overtaking us, one of the most extreme shifts has been the staggering upsurge in our ability to relay information via social media and public media technology. Compared to just 15 years ago, reflect on the flood of information that gets thrown at us now, daily, whether one asks for it or not, and at the results of this exposure.
The awareness of mankind today at what goes on around him/her has been enormously expanded, and for people in prominent positions who are accountable to the public, the pressure, compared to even 20 years ago, has to be like going from pitch black to bright light. In this media flood, even if we were to eliminate the jaundiced or one-sided views (very difficult in the unfettered media) you’re still left with so much potentially explosive material about to make for extreme nervousness in public officials. The information flood, and the speed and accuracy of it, means that in the political sphere there is literally no place left to hide.
Going back several years, it would often take days, and sometimes weeks, for a decision taken by government officials to become known to us. In contrast, technology these days means that a comment made by a Minister at noon at a press conference is in next morning’s paper, and even on the same day on radio and television.
And the window is often more narrow than that. In that earlier era, if the action was taken in private, it would not reach the media for weeks. Today, persons with knowledge of any sort of pivotal act or contentious statement are communicating with friends or family within minutes of its occurrence, and it is therefore almost immediately widely known.
Indeed, even while the statement is being made, today’s discreet cell phones are transmitting the remarks (as in Mitt Romney with his “42%” comment) simultaneously with them being delivered.
In Guyana, for example, following the recent election, one could have been on a trip to the interior, in some isolated community, and would have known the instant the choice for Speaker in our new Parliament had been made.
The obvious consequence of this state of immediate public knowledge is that persons in official capacities are subject to enormous pressure. They are constantly under the microscope, and not only constantly but immediately.
For the public official – and the higher up the ladder the worse it is – there are two major dilemmas at play, the principal one being the media’s ability, using modern technology, to present exactly what was said and eliminating the “I-didn’t -use -those-words” possibility.
Under the previous system, where reporting was based on note-taking, or the recall of participants, there was some leeway, when contentious matters arose, for the official to claim being “misrepresented” or “misunderstood” or “quoted out of context”.
Today, commonplace battery-operated electronic gear allows for the reporter to present the exact statement verbatim without leaving the room, or even without leaving his/her seat, and that cat, once out of the bag, cannot be put back in. The electronic record speaks like thunder.
Additionally, the faux pas or the scandalous information is now immediately relayed through the various social media so that the spread of the information is now geometrically increased.
If we compare the information process of 30 years ago to a gentle wave coming ashore, the situation today is akin to a tsunami propelled by an earthquake.
The speed of it, as well, is transformational; within minutes of it happening, the lady planting bora in Essequibo knows of the turmoil on the East Bank Road – her neighbour with a cell phone shouted the news at her from a window.
That second condition, that of the individual Twittering, Facebooking or texting, has emerged, virtually overnight, as the one presenting the biggest dilemma for persons seeking public office because at base it means the general populace, not just the insiders, have the information and have it in real time. More directly put, the voters (the first concern of all politicians) know, and they know now.
Persons in political life, or aiming at it, are therefore now required to be more circumspect in what they say and what they do and even in the opinions they may express.
The individual higher up, with the higher responsibility, will also now be required to be completely au fait with the details of all he/she rules over; any lacks in that area, or even momentary confusion (as Sarah Palin with her “Russia” remark) are immediately transported to the public who are only too happy to send the gaffe Twittering across cyber space.
Furthermore, although this may not apply to Guyana as yet, the technology now exists to go back over the record and reveal some damaging comment a public official made many years ago that becomes a political gunshot when replayed today.
The other factor in this shift is the speed and enthusiasm with which John Public has embraced this new connectivity. In today’s world, you can be sure that almost any happening of note, from comical to tragic, is being relayed, by audio or video, within seconds of it having occurred.
And the reach of the message as well has been expanded geometrically by the commonality of the cellphone. People are getting this information wherever they are – walking the street, in their vehicles, even at the Pegasus poolside.
For persons in public life, this condition must make for enormous tension and anxiety in their daily endeavours. It means they must be not only fully aware of the details of the posts they hold, but they must be very careful about what they say and do because wherever they are, at home or abroad, they are unwittingly always on the record.
The younger people in public life may be comfortable with this closer scrutiny, having grown up with it; for the older ones, getting used to it will take some doing.