"Asia: Information Poor to Information Rich: Strategies for the 21st Century"
For the first time in its 26-year history, the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) held its annual conference in South Asia in mid-year. A major regional resource center based in Singapore and funded largely by governments, inter-government bodies and non-government organizations from within Asia and the West, AMIC ambit is primarily Southeast, Northeast and South Asia.
Adopting a quite cumbersome theme, the conference sought to sum up the sweeping changes in media, communications and information technologies and software in Asia over the late 1990s. Like many a conference this year, it also yearned over-ambitiously to predict future change and suggest consequent strategies for an entire century. In his key-note address Prof. Monroe Price of Yeshiva University, USA advocated a shift in research perspective from the strictly global level where issues will always remain unresolved to the local level manifestations and responses. He might have been preaching to the converted.
Over the three days of the AMIC conference, some 50 speakers from Asia, Australasia, Europe and the US participated in the 18 sessions. Among the wide range of topics deliberated were the role of the new media in enhancing democracy, evolution of television programming content in Asia, the growth of electronic commerce, online newspapers, women and the electronic media, delivery of education via the internet and the like. Unfortunately there are no published proceedings although, traditionally, AMIC publishes some of the better papers/addresses in subsequent issues of its "Asian Mass Communications Bulletin" and "Media Asia."
Not all of the papers/presentations were of sufficient rigor, having not been subjected to peer-review/blind refereeing. The audience was oft-times quite evidently bored by the unreconstructed, time-worn truths such as globalization and even somewhat discredited ideas such as overt cultural imperialism. Perhaps more pathetic were attempts by some government officials and media executives, past and current, to defend somewhat dubious practices or to put a positive spin on questionable changes of policy direction. As a general rule, AMIC conferences skirt controversy and speakers advocate incremental changes to the status quo in Asian media.
This conference betrayed a propensity to provide air-time for executives and officials from the sponsoring/organizing bodies and host nation, rather than identifying and inviting seminal thinkers. Regrettably some of the key researchers and thinkers on media and communications in Asia, such as Goonasekara, P. Lee, G. Wang, J.M. Chan, K.Kumar, Singhal, Jussawalla, Shoesmith, Siriyuvasak, Kitley among quite a few others, were also absent from a conference which might otherwise have been a forum for thoughtful debate.
By and large, the conference appeared to be attended and addressesd by academics, government officials, small-business persons and graduate students. There were a few executives from the newspaper, broadcast engineers institute and PR/advertising agency which part-sponsored and organized the conference. Notably absent from the conference were media practitioners from the television, advertising and market research industries, which suggest sadly that they see little purpose and value in the deliberations of such media/communications conferences.
While there were a number of exceptions, the level of research particularly from within South Asia (for which this conference might have been a showcase) was disappointing, though that might well reflect poverty of resources and funding, rather than of ability and motivation. Of particular interest to the participants was the session on the Internet which attempted to sort out extraordinary fact from undeniable fiction, in no small part helped by the enthusiasm and competence of up-and-coming speakers such as Madanmohan Rao, Mukesh Patel and JA Chowdary.
While impressed, even intimidated by the range of possibilities of new communications technologies, one cannot help wondering whether the impending transformation of social and economic life will be as benign and beneficial as it is made out to be. At the end of the conference it was not immediately obvious that the information wealth to come would result in more egalitarian development or even the eradication of information poverty for all in Asia. In fact one suspects that quite the opposite might well happen.
For those interested in attending future AMIC conferences, the latter seem to have returned to their Southeast Asian heartland, scheduled as these are for June 29 - July 1, 2000 in Singapore, for Manila in 2001, Kuala Lumpur in 2002, and Jakarta in 2003.