Internet age brings conflicting messages

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 October, 1998, 12:00am

We are constantly being told we live in an information age. The speed and volume of communications ratchets up month by month as the Internet and digital television turn the world into a village with a mind-expanding variety of choice.

But, while the channels through which news, comment and entertainment flow are growing all the time, there remains a considerable information deficit which needs to be kept in mind when we try to weigh up such matters as whether Asia is about to move out of its economic crisis, or whether it is time to go back into the stock market.

Transparency has become a fashionable watchword, for governments and companies. Sometimes, one cannot help feeling it is a quality which many would prefer to be demonstrated by others rather than applying it too rigorously to themselves. On top of which, it is all too easy to see an almost umbilical connection between secrecy and success, whether it is in amassing wealth or pulling off a diplomatic triumph.

As is now becoming increasingly clear, some hedge funds were able to get away with only the briefest of financial statements to investors. In a telling example, the New York Times reported at the weekend that when representatives of a private Swiss bank went to the Long-Term Capital Management fund to discuss increasing their investment, notepads and pens were removed from the meeting room so that they could not record what was being said.

If the bankers from Switzerland were so treated, what can mere mortals expect? And, to come close to home, how effective can the media be in spreading transparency? The realistic answer is that, while the press and broadcasting organisations can paint a broad brush picture and home in on individual companies or government bodies, the scale of reporting required to present a true picture of, say, the state of the East Asian economic situation is beyond us.

The international media may be under attack from some quarters in the region for adopting too critical a stance. But, to don a hair shirt for the space of a sentence, the more pertinent criticism may be that too many journalists took an altogether too optimistic view of Asia for too long, largely because they did not have the information to take a cooler view.

Then the consensus changed and all was doom and gloom. Now there are signs of another change of media mood. Signs of a new dawn are being glimpsed, with the Washington Post, for instance, identifying an easing of the crisis which might show the worst has passed.

It would be good news for the region if the Post could look back in six months and remind readers it was ahead of the game in recognising the light at the end of the tunnel. Recent experience, though, has shown the fragile nature of the information we have to go on.

Take China's chances of maintaining the growth it needs: you can read equally persuasive reports which point in opposite directions. The truth is that nobody knows, and that, as we have seen in so many parts of Asia, hidden problems and unexpected events can upset the best-laid forecasts. Last week, Russia was in the pits; now, some business magazines see glimmers of hope.

That is why we are likely to go through a whole set of mood swings in the months ahead, which will be relayed through the media. The reports will not be wrong, but each may not last long, either.

Until real transparency comes about, we should not allow the speed and scope of communications to obscure that the depth and breadth of our knowledge is a good deal less dazzling than the channels through which it moves. But we'll keep on trying.