This is turning out to have been quite a year. Who would have thought that the immolation of a jobless Tunisian graduate in December 2010 would have sparked off the Arab Spring, with uprisings in North Africa and Middle East and that a variant would appear in Britain?
Other than the social unrest fermented by unemployed youth upset with government corruption and inability to create jobs, the common element was the use of the social media. Even the high speed train crash in the Chinese city of Wenzhou sparked off micro-blogging that spread the news faster than before. Twitter, Facebook, Google and mobile phone texting have changed the nature of news transmission and the whole governance structure globally.
Human behaviour reacts to new information, hence our obsession with breaking news. We need information to plan, respond and act.
Traditionally, the control of news and information was confined to a relatively-small number of powerful newspaper groups around the world or government media. Radio and television changed the game, but the information was essentially one way. “News feed” meant news was fed to the consumer. Advertising was about promoting products and services and conveying information to the user. Society became concerned about the use, and misuse, of information, hence the intense debate about control of media and freedom of information.
With the arrival of the internet and social media technology, information became two-way. Two simultaneous events happened with the arrival of social media, both of which are totally new and not fully understood.
First, information became available, faster and more comprehensive to more people than ever thought possible. Papers like the now-defunct News of the World were considered successful if they sold more than one million copies daily. A successful book would sell 100,000.
However, today, there are five billion mobile phones in use, compared with nearly seven billion people. More and more people everywhere are connected to the internet. Every month more than 30 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook. Twitter can reach millions instantaneously.
Second, because millions of people can receive news simultaneously, they can react synchronously. This is the rise of flash news and flash mobs. The news feedback mechanism has moved from months to nano-seconds.
Governments which previously had time to react to news, now have no time at all to understand and respond to instant public opinion or even sudden appearance of thousands in a social protest.
When someone rich and famous like Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested, there was almost an instant verdict on the Web as to whether he was guilty or not.
In the past, legal justice could have the pretense that the jury should not be biased by newspaper comment. Today, there are no “clean” decisions as everyone is affected by public opinion.
There are several serious implications for the media industry and social governance.
In economic terms, the traditional print media is suffering in the advanced countries. The good news is that print media is still growing in the emerging markets, where there is less access to the internet and a rising young population looks voraciously for news.
More and more people are turning to instant news on their mobile phone and the Web. The bad news is that with instant news come instant judgements Like or Do Not Like. The fates of major social events are no longer judged by Royal Commissions of Inquiry, but by 140 character limit of news transfer by Twitter or other micro-blogs.
The events and responses of daily life are now black and white, demanding instant solution, not complex matters of grey requiring careful analysis and cautious response.
Thus, in many ways, the world has moved into a multi-dimensional complex transformation, facing simultaneously forces of demographics (more and more young people and at the same time ageing people), urbanisation, industrial transformation, dramatic technology advances and the visible effects of climate warming and natural disasters.
Hence, mankind is facing changes in the natural environment even as we are confronting massive social change. But the most profound change is the great divide in the inter-generational understanding of each other.
The baby boomers of my generation marched in the streets in 1968 to demand greater social equality, including gender and racial equality. Less than 5 per cent of our age group went to university. We were an elite.
Today, the baby boomers (those born after World War II who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s) are beginning to retire. They have become the establishment.
University or tertiary education has become much more broad-based. More than half the population of the world is under the age of 21. The protesters in the Arab Spring or the rioters in Britain represent a generation different from their political leaders.
The new generation has largely grown up not in an age of war, but in an age of global peace. But the biggest challenge for social stability is the challenge of jobs for Gen Y or the “millenium generation, people born around the turn of the century.
In China, there is general acceptance of the fact the post-1980 generation (after the implementation of the one-child policy) has social behaviour different from those who grew up in multi-children families.
In the next 15 years, more than 700 million young people will enter the labour force, of whom 300 million will come from Asia.
Already, the International Labour Organisation estimates that there are roughly 100 million unemployed people in Asia – and that was before the global financial crisis.
If we cannot create enough jobs despite massive fiscal deficits and industrial restructuring, expect more social disruption from the new generation.