For instance: where journalists used to research and check their stories, and obtain them straight from the mouths of sources whose reliability would be carefully gone into, today, anyone, including a teenager half a world away can make up any story and post it on social media platforms in such way as to make it news, and more than that, make it news that they know you want to hear.
Where the written word once needed to carry demonstrable weight – even if it was never without the exploitation and malign intentions of propaganda – today, the explosion and importance of video and other visual material has made that danger even more insidious. Where considered responses were often conditioned by the slowness of communication channels, in the epoch of fibre and 5G, knee-jerk and reflex could become the order of the day. Where communication was often simply channelled from one to the many, now it is deceptively, one to one – and that in itself can be very convincing, when it comes to dubious facts. Where a picture could once be worth a thousand words, the world of deep fake can make anyone think twice, or not enough
When you become the message
What’s more, where communication was once for information that had general import, there are now targeted snippets based on your own individualised preferences, tendencies, affinities and interests. And more than that even, there are psychologists who are defining what these mean for you, and whose work goes into algorithms that will talk to you personally, likeably and convincingly, to make you aware of a product or service, , in a carefully constructed piece of integrated marketing communication, where brand, service, taste and even news are rolled into one – just for you.
Perception or persuasion
Much of this will be real and positive, as much for our pleasure, entertainment and information, as it will be for benefits in medicine, in social crises, or in emergencies of one kind or another. Much of it, however, will have darker motives and consequences. All of it begs many questions – about privacy, about power, about ethics, and even about human nature and our willingness to trust. So where does entertainment stop and manipulation begin? Where does persuasion start, and information end?
These are the questions, among many others, that the University of Johannesburg (UJ), as one of the most innovative leaders of academic thought on our continent, is committed to asking. As part of its rigorous interrogation of the benefits, drawbacks, challenges and innovation in the era of 4IR, UJ is hosting its second Cloudebate on [date] at [time], on this very subject of communication, and everyone’s invited, because everyone’s voice is important.
That’s because in an age where the reality of personalised targeting and fake news raise issues of ethics, motivation, agendas and outcomes, there is also the other side of the coin – the defence, rather than the erosion of rights, the safety of the individual, rather than invasion of privacy, and a greater sense of community and shared destiny, rather than the poisoning of minds. And all of it is to do with, and comes to our attention through, communication in all its forms – journalism, public relations, gaming, marketing, as well as the fusion of all these things – and all of it enabled by the technology of 4IR. Is communication there to confirm your beliefs, or to call into question the convictions of others? If it’s there to inform, is personal taste and belief part of the information, and vice versa?
Reimagining the future
So, join the debate. All you have to do is visit uj.ac.za/4IR to register for free. Lend your voice to the discussion, whether as an individual who is already targeted via your smartphone, as a member of a community already subject to fake news, or as an inhabitant of Africa, a continent which could yet see untold progress arising from the ethical communication of ideas and possibilities. Be part of the discussion, about what we want to see communicated to us, and how we want to see it communicated to us in this future that is taking shape before our eyes – be it virtually, in augmented shape, in reality, or in a mix of all these things.
Communication is a quintessential quality of humanity. We depend on it, we enjoy it, we live from it, and in many instances, we live for it. UJ, in one of its unique contributions to innovative communication – the Cloudebate – is going to be looking at all its aspects. Communication is what makes the modern world what it is, and in interrogating its meaning for our shared future, UJ is demonstrating the commitment that makes the university what it is as an institution – a leader in reimagining the future.