Monday, 1 January 2007

Reflections on the Communication Blackout

Everyone was caught by surprise that the earthquake in Taiwan on Boxing Day has caused an unprecedented chaos to online communication not only in Hong Kong, but almost everywhere in East Asia.

It was reported that up to six major undersea cables have been damaged by the earthquake, thus causing serious internet disruptions in Hong Kong, Mainland China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. The financial and logistics sectors that rely heavily on electronic communication are the worst hit of all. Currency transactions in Korea were also reportedly suspended on 28 December due to the disruptions.

Routine office work like mine was no exception either. I could not send or receive any emails in the office since 27 December. Overseas calls and faxes could not get through as the lines were heavily jammed. Like many others in Hong Kong and the rest of the world, I work on emails every day on both business and personal fronts, and the disruptions flung me into a dark isolation that was neither splendid nor brilliant.

While we should thank God that the Taiwan earthquake last Tuesday did not claim as many lives as the devastating tsunami did two years ago, which I did, I think we should take the disconnections more seriously than just a costly lesson about the lack of backup systems and alternative means of communication.

Let the multinationals, international banks and financial institutions worry about the economic losses caused by the disruptions. What seems more interesting to me is how people may possibly think and react to the unexpected communication blackout when too many of us have taken this form of convenience for granted.

Not surprisingly, many heartless people in Hong Kong complained about the inconvenience and loss of business over the last couple of days. They don't seem to care about life and death in Taiwan as much as they did for millions of people hit by the tsunami two years ago, when the local media was flooded with disgusting pictures of rubble and dead bodies.

This gives a vivid explanation of what the Cantonese saying means, "He only sheds a tear until he sees the coffin." And this is actually a common state of mind among the people of Hong Kong, if the mankind as a whole.

I wonder if anyone would be interested to adapt Oscar Wilde's The Model Millionaire for film or television series as part of the moral or civil education programmes that we desperately need. For those who have absorbed into their bones the obsession with short-term, tangible benefits, the money incentive is by all means the right approach.

The opening lines of The Model Millionaire said, "Romance is the privilege of the rich, not the profession of the poor." So does morality.

The communication blackout after Christmas also reminds us of the limitations of technology, in which we have taken for granted for many years.

While we enjoy the convenience of technology, it would be dangerous to assume that the basics can be completely replaced and wiped out as a result of technological advances. This is especially true when technology always runs on electricity, which is expensive to produce and limited and unreliable in supply. When the plug is pulled off, everything is gone.

Isn't the internet disruption a timely reminder of this old wisdom just one week after Time magazine hailed the cyberspace for bringing about revolutionary and irresistible changes to all parts of the world?

I really wonder how many business firms and organisations in this part of the world have ever thought of the worst scenario of losing all communication by telephone, fax and email. When everything breaks down, the most basic and primitive form of face-to-face interaction will still be the only thing that works and matters.

A 22-year-old university student from Portland of the United States told the last issue of Time magazine in a proud and complacent voice that, "If anything, my friends and I are more in touch than was ever possible before. Older people had written letters or called each other or whatever. I mean, really, we have a much more convenient way of doing things."

This is very true. Even though I may be considered one of the "older people" who used to write letters and call people on the phone, I also enjoy the privilege and convenience of keeping in contact on the boundless cyberspace. However, unlike the student who prefers doing everything on the internet, I am still convinced that face-to-face interaction is something that the cyberspace can never fully substitute. Internet gets people closer together despite their physical distances, but I believe human relationships can only last if people have a chance to meet and talk to each other. Imagine if the web-based communication breakdown would last for months, I wonder how many relationships would evaporate quietly as a result. But if you know someone in person, the relationship is likely to survive despite the technology failure.

Needless to mention are the straightforward and real-time emotional and body-language reactions you receive when you get along with people. Even ugly scribbles on a hand-written letter deliver a sense of warmth and intimacy that neatly designed email templates can hardly achieve. This is also why I still insist to write letters to those I love and respect most unless they prefer receiving emails.

Pardon me for dragging along but I just want to make a final note before closing: Commentaries in the local press in Hong Kong have so far focused on two issues – reduce the risk of relying on one route of transmission and review the notification system of the Office of Telecommunication Authority.

Again, they missed the point terribly. The superficiality of the media and the fact that nobody seems to care about this short-sightedness is but a shame. How can a city like this ever possibly become a knowledge-based economy?

Stop day-dreaming, mate.

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