Monday, April 23, 2007

moving pebbles

[This is a much belated tribute to Kitana. It took longer than expected to come out because I had to scrap a previous few versions that I didn't quite like.]

[On terminology. "Plogosphere" refers to the subset of the blogosphere which talks about local social, political and economic issues. See here for more details.]

I can't make a difference.

This is a not uncommon sentiment in the plogosphere. Many bloggers cite this reason for feeling bitter, tired or jaded, and for quitting. I would beg to differ. I think bloggers can and do make a difference. The relevance of blogging about social/political issues lies in increasing awareness.

We might forget this if we spend too much time on the plogosphere, but generally Singaporeans, and especially young people, are highly politically ignorant or apathetic. I suspect that the man on the street just shrugs off most political issues as "not my problem". Even when they hear of the GST hike, or the ministerial salaries raise, they might spend two seconds to kao peh, but then they put the issue behind them and carry on with their lives unaffected.
I was just like that 7 months ago.

In the past, it may be that it is structurally difficult for an individual to become politically conscious and aware in Singapore, but Web 2.0 has changed all of that. A politically ignorant teenager, out of sheer boredom, may google "Wee Shu Min", "GST hike", "Ministerial Salaries", "Gayle Goh", (heck, or even "Kway Teow") stumble upon a blog or two in the plogosphere, and his/her life (and his/her perception to politics) may be changed instantly. That was how I started blogging.

But how does that change anything? The government is still the same, the ruling party is still the same. Many bloggers carry unrealistic expectations about how much change they can evoke. The PAP is not going to change their mind just because they came across your blog and say "hey, you're right." But that doesn't mean that blogging (and increasing awareness) is worthless.

Power lies in the voting population. Many people treat the government's promise of opening up as a direction that they are advocating, and get disappointed when they don't see much progress in the form of public policy. They way I see it, the "opening up" of the government is not an indicator of what the ruling party wants to do, but what they have no choice but to do, given the way the population is changing in their attitudes and their values. At the end of the day, the voting population will get more liberal and less conservative, and public policy has to reflect that, or the government will risk losing its influence or even its mandate.

That the population gets more liberal and less conservative, is going to happen because the youth of today, more influenced by "western" concepts of democracy and civil liberties than "asian values", will become the major demographic group of the future. The relative affluence (and increased standard of living) of the youth today, compared to the youth of the past, also means that they will probably worry less about bread and butter issues compared to the voting population of today. This is going to happen whether you blog or not. But blogging may help to speed up the process.

This occurs on two fronts. The first, already mentioned above, is creating awareness among politically ignorant individuals. The second front is in changing and influencing minds, even among those who are politically aware. The second front is trickier than it seems, because the plogosphere is not unanimous on issues. There are people who agree and disagree with each other, but each view has the potential to influence others. The most susceptible to influence are the (often forgotten) silent readers who neither blog nor leave comments [commentors and and bloggers are usually quite decided in their opinions and hence their minds are not easily changed].

We all know that there are different ways to blog on the plogosphere. Satire (Mollymeek and Lucky Tan) is a more powerful tool than many realize. I have previously argued that narratives and anecdotes are important tools of argumentation (recently, I find Yawning Bread very good at using anecdotes). But I think there is a line to be drawn between blogging to convince other people to agree with you, and blogging so that you present the reader with alternative points of view for the reader to decide for themselves. Some spats occur in the blogosphere when bloggers accuse each other of doing the former and "misleading" the readers with "rhetoric". Although I personally think it is important that we respect our readers to make their own rational decisions, often the line between what is rhetoric or not is a blurred one. But that is material for another post.

Increasing the number of politically aware individuals does not just have an effect when it comes to electoral concerns. By creating a platform where like-minded individuals come together and share ideas, seeds may be planted for civil societies, which might or might not bear influence in the future. We might be skeptical about the influence of ThinkCenter, Sintercom and RoundTable when it comes to influencing the politics of yesterday and today, but tomorrow it may be a totally different ball game. Singapore Angle, in its own way, is not unlike a civil society at all. SA's influence is probably negligible when it comes to the voting population in general, and it is tiny among the entire blogosphere, but I suspect that it is potentially one of the most influential voices in the plogosphere. When considered as a percentage of politically aware individuals, that is significant influence indeed.

Many times, as bloggers we get discouraged when we find ourselves talking about the same issues over and over again, without any sign of progress. Often, it is a struggle to find something original to say, as everything seems to have already been said before. While that is true, it is important to continually keep the engagement going (what likely is going to happen is that blogs close and new blogs are created and fill in the void), because there are new people who read the plogosphere, maybe everyday. Current material, as opposed to archived material, is much more accessible (and appealing) to the new plogosphere explorer, and that is why repeated engagement, even if but rehashed arguments, is relevant and important. Singapore is still getting more wired, and more and more people (especially the young) will take to the internet in the future. It is important to still stay active if you want to influence these individuals. The best evidence of the plogosphere's increasing influence is the government's attempts to engage the blogosphere (i.e. we are no longer insignificant).

As an individual, you can also carry your influence outside of the blogosphere. You can talk to people within your sphere of influence: your family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, taxi drivers and kopi-tiam uncles. Can you convince them to move away from a self-centered lifestyle into thinking about issues which affect not only them, but their fellow Singaporeans? Can you convince them to want to understand what they are really voting for or against, in the next elections?

Lastly, I feel that it is important to guard yourself against cynicism. When I was younger, I thought it was hip to be cynical. Being cynical means I could go around labeling others as "idealistic" or "naive", and made me feel as if I was more enlightened. Cynicism is dangerous in the plogosphere because it is infectious, and if more and more bloggers feel that what they do cannot make a difference, then not only are you missing out in influencing the new readers who enter the plogosphere everyday, but instead you instill in them a sense of hopelessness, and that social/political issues of Singapore are ultimately not bothering with. Someone once said fear was the ultimate paralyzer. I think cynicism paralyzes more than fear, because you can overcome fear with courage, but when you are a cynic, you already have no hope.

Kitana was surprised by the number of individuals who responded to the closing of her blog. It is easy to underestimate your influence, because it is hard to gauge how many silent readers are reading your blog and being influenced by your views. As bloggers, it is important to realize that while we cannot move mountains, we can move pebbles. Often, we don't realize when we move pebbles, there are others observing us, and a few of them will be inspired to move pebbles of their own. And in turn, these individuals inspire others to move their own pebbles. Over time, the first blogger might look over her shoulder and be surprised that a small hill has been moved.

We may not seem like we're helping to cause any immediate change. But we're influencing minds, and each convinced individual may in turn influence others. That is a very promising and exciting reason for hope. But that is also a very heavy responsibility. Our opinions influence others. Do you respect others enough that you have seriously thought through your opinions before you start influencing others?

Kitana once wrote that the Internet is the most powerful voice we have. It was actually the first Kitana post I ever read. I don't agree with what she said, but I think it is true. The internet is the most powerful way of influencing change for us, even if it is not in the way Kitana imagined it to be.


Agagooga said...

"Idealism is what precedes experience; cynicism is what follows." - David T. Wolf

I think people hope to change the world, but get disillusioned when nothing happens. The key to success, then, is lowering expectations so you don't get disillusioned and burnout.

Rational apathy explains low voter turnout - one vote can't change anything. With blogging it's a bit different since you can influence people, but mostly it's preaching to the choir. Why else did we have 66.6%?

"If you care too much about Singapore, first it'll break your spirit, and finally it will break your heart." - Alfian Sa'at

BL said...

"A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing." - Oscar Wilde

The whole art in making things happen is to do the most reasonable amount of small changes as quickly as possible. Idealism helps to spear the drive, but the pragmatism steers the course along the way.

The key is to have some nonchalance but keeping the aim in sight.

Quirkz said...

Heartily agree with your views... The plogosphere has been instrumental in getting me interested in politics in S'pore. Previously I was apathetic with regards to the socio-political going ons here, but after reading the opinions and thoughts of individuals who care enough to talk or even rant about, it opened my eyes to see more.

It also provided a platform to discuss issues that would otherwise be buried by the silence of the Straits Times.