Thoughts on New Technolgies and New Media

Article originally written for Ravaya newspaper

Despite all the hype and advertising campaigns extolling the virtues of the internet, many Sri Lankans are still unused or unable to working with the internet and related media. What most take for granted in the West is still unreachable for the masses in countries such as ours – PC based internet access is still limited to major urban areas with rural telecoms copper-wire based telecoms infrastructure still in its infancy. The continuing high cost of access debars even those with access to PC’s and telephones from fully availing themselves of the knowledge resources that are available through the internet. Unimaginative legislation and red-tape serve as disincentives for investment in the telecoms sector and have stripped Sri Lanka of its ability to compete on the global marketplace for e-commerce based services and products.

Hidden amidst this familiar litany of issues are possibilities for a new approach to information communications technology in Sri Lanka. Programmes such as Helawadana Navayugaya from MicroImage (http://www.microimage.com/helawadana/) herald a much needed radical overhaul in our approach to IT in Sri Lanka. Where hitherto we’ve been dependent on foreign sources for IT enablement – either in the form of direct investment or in the form of language enablement to programmes such as Word in order for those only conversant in Sinahala or Tamil to use them – Helawadana Navayugaya enables even those with a rudimentary knowledge of computers immediate benefit from using PC’s in their native tongue. Helawadana Navayugaya, presented recently as the new face of local language computing, allows the user to use type documents, work in Microsoft Office applications, learn Windows XP, learn Microsoft Office and do a number of other tasks in Sinhala – with a soon to be released Tamil language version. The impact of this programme alone in Sri Lanka is hard to undervalue. With English only content and access targeting the very few who are conversant in the language and alienating the majority of those who can only talk and write Sinhala or Tamil, ICT initiatives in Sri Lanka were in the past saddled with the burden of making available the resources of the internet and the power of the PC to the masses. Helawadana addresses this challenge by opening the PC to those who have never typed a word on a keyboard in their life. It is also very important for those who have returned to Sri Lanka from the diaspora, who lack the training necessary to operate the English keyboard to type in Sinhala (such as the Wijesekara keyboard standard). Helawadana allows a user to type in Sinhala by typing in words in English, which are automatically translated into standards based Sinhala fonts based on phoenetics. The emphasis on standards is important here, since Sinhala font implementation in the past has not adhered to any standards, making it impossible to exchange files and data between computers which do not have the required fonts to view the information. The so called UNICODE standards based Helawadana allows any user to read the document on any computing platform (Windows XP, Linux etc) with fonts and formatting preserved.

The impact on local journalists will be profound. Those who have shied away from computers because of their lack of English knowledge will no longer have good reason to not use the internet or PC’s in their research and writing. Those who have not had the capacity to learn computing can now go through the Helawadana tutorials and learn many aspects of Microsoft Office programmes and Windows XP that will enable them to use PC’s with far greater confidence than before. The revolution that the PC has brought forth in the lives of English journalists both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the world is now within the reach of those who speak and write in Sinhala. In sum, this one programme alone opens the door for a wonderful subversion in the predominantly English speaking IT cultures in Sri Lanka, leading the way to more Sinhala and Tamil content and debates informing the ICT policies in Sri Lanka in the future. Furthermore, programmes such as this can undergird media reform initiatives by bringing the power of the PC and the internet to the hands of ordinary journalists who can avail themselves of the vast resources available at their fingertips in aid of professional, standards based public service media.

However, Helawadana is not the only programme and service that is revolutionising the way we use computers and the web. Of particular interest to journalists is the so called New Media revolution that has generated a lot of interest in the West on account of its subversion of mainstream media. On the one hand, new media is often the regurgitation of old media through electronic channels. Old media, characterized by the one to many distribution mechanisms of radio, newspapers and television, have used the web to publish their mainstream content in an electronic format. Even to date, few mainstream print, radio or TV stations have original content programming for the web and instead rely on an existing corpus of content that are uploaded to websites and made available to an audience outside of their transmission or distribution footprint.

We need not go into the technical details of New Media to value ths strong possibilities it offers for media reform in Sri Lanka – in particular, the development of a new and alternative media that takes it legitimacy from the voices of the people. A recent workshop conducted at Ravaya newspapers concluded that even traditional print media organisations have a lot to learn from new media, instead of treating it as a threat to their existence.

But what exactly is new media? A generic term for the many different forms of electronic communication that are made possible through the use of computer technology. The term is in relation to “old” media forms, such as print newspapers and magazines, that are static representations of text and graphics. New media includes:

• Web sites
• streaming audio and video
• chat rooms
• e-mail
• online communities
• Web advertising
• DVD and CD-ROM media
• virtual reality environments
• integration of digital data with the telephone, such as Internet telephony
• digital cameras
• mobile computing

Using one or more of these devices, services or frameworks, new media seeks to engender a media culture that promotes the voices of the people on the ground as opposed to the same voices that are mediated through the agendas of national or regional news organisations. The effort is to provide media that is by the people, for the people – eschewing partisan bias, editorial slant and parochial agendas of mainstream media.

In reality, as is always the case, new media falls prey to the same bias and parochialism as most mainstream media. However, this does not take away from its ability to engender new voices in support of issues like democracy, peace and governance in Sri Lanka. It does so by creating programmes such as Real Voices Radio (RVR) that used new media technologies and radio to bring a greater awareness of those who were directly affected by the tsunami. Carried out in Sinhala and Tamil and soon to be available as standalone programmes that can be downloaded from the internet and listened to or boradcasted many times over, this new media promotes the use of community voices in the debates related to post-tsunami rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Newspapers can also join the bandwagon. Many leading columnists in the West now have their own blogs, which are sometimes as or even more popular than their syndicated columns in newsprint. Media organisations in the West are also promoting and developing content specifically for the web. Web services such as Flickr (www.flickr.com) and Del.icio.us (http://del.icio.us/) also engender what is now commonly being referred to as Web 2.0 or “folksonomy” – ways through which entire communities can be built online based on shared interests.

The impact of such new media advancements is hard to predict on a country like Sri Lanka. However, it can be safely said that while Web 1.0 and the internet access through the PC may have left Sri Lanka lagging behind, the phenomenal year on year growth of mobile phones coupled with the recent availability of cheap CDMA based phones which don’t require wires to work and can access the internet are set to revolutionise the ways through which rural communities also access the internet and the web.

This begs the question as to when journalists are also going to avail themselves of the internet and the web, given that there is now the availability of both cheap and ubqituitous access as well as the option of using Sinhala or Tamil to access such knowledge resources. Furthermore, the access of the internet through mobile devices, such as mobile phones, the introduction of new high speed data services through such mobile telephony service providers such as Dialog Telecom can be seen as the harbinger of a new ICT and new media culture in Sri Lanka with the power to radically transform the media landscape.

It begs the question whether new media can engender more democratic and accountable governance in Sri Lanka. If new media encourages journalists to use the internet and the web in their reporting to enhance the quality of their investigative journalism, there is much room for hope for a new media culture in Sri Lanka. Government and the private sector must work in concert to ensure that the benefits of such new technologies aren’t limited to a few, but must actively encourage their dissemination and use in all sectors of society. Reciprocally, media organisations and institutions must actively encourage their staff to use and avail themselves of such new technologies in support of professional and standards based reporting that promotes a public service media culture by encouraging the promotion of grassroots voices in all media productions.

The future of media in Sri Lanka lies in part with its ability to embrace new technologies and new media in support of the capacity building of all media personnel. It behoves all media institutions, government and related support mechanisms to promote such technologies as much as possible – for at the end of the day, any technology that strengthens journalists and helps them promote a holistic and reformist social agenda through their reporting benefits all citizens in Sri Lanka.

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