I was asked to speak about the youth of today at a recent Asian Youth Forum in Bangkok, and I tried to identify what it is that makes the youth of today different from the youth of, say, a decade ago. One salient difference is how much digital technology has changed our behavior today, even more so among the younger generation.
We know already that Indonesia is the third, if not second-largest user of Facebook and the microblogging site Twitter, and one needs only look around to see how mobile gadgets are becoming an indispensable part of the lives of young people. The youth of today are creatures of multitasking. They can eat, talk, drive and do other things while their fingers continue to text at lightning speed on their mobile phone.
So, I would say the youth of today, thanks to the ubiquitous technology, have a power that they didn’t have a mere few years ago.
First, they have at their fingertips the power of communication. Through the many social media platforms such as Twitter and blogging sites, young people have an endless and continuous channel for expressing whatever it is they have on their minds — their thoughts, fears, opinions, ideas and dreams about everything and anything under the sun.
They are no longer mere consumers of the media and passive targets of advertisers. Instead, with their opinions on things that matter to them, from fashion, music and celebrities to politics and current issues, they are generators of trends and shapers of taste, influencing advertisers on how to market and sell their products, and the government on its policies. Breaking news is no longer the domain of the electronic media, but is often born in the Twitterverse.
The other power that the young people of today have is the power of connectivity. Distance and time are no longer constraints as they are constantly connected to a world that deals in the now and in the instant, whether in Jakarta or New York. Everybody on the planet is only a tweet away. Even Lady Gaga.
Both revolutions and riots can be organized through social networks in ways that real-world institutions find difficult to track or control. Today’s youth are no longer objects, but masters of their own identity. They are also effective change-makers and activists when they wish to be.
Another power that technology brings is the power of knowledge. Today’s 5-year-old is a research master when she’s with her iPad with Internet connection. The youth of today have the key to knowledge at their fingertips and can access the wealth of information through their friend Google. Not only are they no longer at the receiving end of information, they are producers of information through their blogs, Facebook posts, YouTube uploads, websites, etc.
These days, the role of a teacher is someone who facilitates their learning process rather than passing on knowledge.
Today’s young people also have an incredible power of creativity at their disposal. YouTube can turn a nobody into a superstar and everyone with an Internet connection can set up their own video channel. Photographic sharing sites and blogs can turn them into photographers, writers, publishers and even citizen journalists complete with their audience and critics.
Altogether, they have the means and capacity to change the world for the better. In the Middle East, they helped bring down autocratic regimes.
There is, however, a downside to this power. When the use of technology itself becomes the end and not the means. When it controls human behavior and not the other way round. And when easy access to information results in information overload and the inability to tell the difference between what’s relevant and what’s merely noise.
So that instead of changing the real world, they’re in danger of getting lost in the virtual world.
Desi Anwar is a senior anchor at Metro TV. She can be contacted at desianwar.com and dailyavocado.net.