Tribolum.com Making Light of Things

The State of Digital Health Today

The democratisation of media has been one of the largest events in recent human history. The power to speak to the masses, once available only to a privileged few, is now made commonplace in the pockets of everyone with a mobile internet connection.

We are now surrounded by the products of this reality: blogs, social media posts, tweets, YouTube videos, Instagram and Snapchat photos and stories. Many of us share almost as a force of habit.

It has become time to rethink that habit.

Don’t get me wrong, many amazing and wonderful things have come forth from being able to share our experiences and perspectives, but I have been thinking hard over the past couple of years as to where things might have gone awry. The relentless push to make content generation easier and easier has led to a proliferation of overly-simplistic and malformed ideas; which in turn has incapacitated us with infinitesimal attention spans.

We have become a society that is not only unable to produce competently crafted content, but also to appreciate its complex flavours. The ramifications of this are widespread and dire. Politics - an arena that draws power from populism - is reduced to a pandering to the emotion du jour, and less about solving real societal issues which are endeavours that outlast the lifespan of a viral post or tweet.

That is the core of the issue, isn’t it? That in our drive to make content more easily generated and shared, we have shortened the lifespan of issues ideas, but the implementation of solutions to real problems require much longer timeframes. The twitchy and fickle waves of social sentiment become counter-productive to the ones who put their noses to the grindstone. It is slowly becoming impossible to find anyone who would devote large portions of their lives to solving big problems, both because the personal cost on these individuals is too great, and it is easier to focus on short-term project-based work because the risks are lower and the rewards more immediate.

Looking at my own online evolution from frequent long-form blogging to tweeting to instagramming, this has been true. I have often neglected writing in lieu of the quick photo, and many ideas and opinions have dissipated because of a reluctance to rigour. I am appalled at the deterioration of my ability to find words or construct sentences to convey thought.

Some things have to change.

Which way is up?

A lot has been said in speculation over why Minister Tan Chuan-Jin was nominated by PM Lee to take over the role of Speaker of the House.

Well-liked by many, the general sentiment is that he has been a very down-to-earth minister, often seen with his constituents or hanging out with sportspeople representing our country in international competitions. This move came as a surprise to almost all of us, and quite a number of armchair pundits have mooted that it amounted to a demotion, and that he must have fallen out of favour at some point in time.

Some things have changed from the days where every Singaporean child had to grow up to be a doctor, lawyer, or architect (we all know the architect was a reluctant compromise for our parents). The education system offers many more pathways than before, but change that needs to happen within us has clearly not taken place.

We are obsessed with status ladders and assume that climbing it is the universal purpose of life. We don’t understand why DPM Tharman isn’t the next Prime Minister and conjure conjectures of conspiracy theories. It could very well be that he doesn’t want the job and reckons he serves better in his more specialised role.

We’ve applied the same lens to Minister Tan. It’s amazing how we try to figure out where the rungs on our imaginary ladder are. People have pulled out the salary scale to compare if the Speaker of the House makes as much as a full cabinet minister in a bid to determine if this move was lateral or downward.

This is something I too grapple with in my own life. Am I moving up? Am I stagnating? Where is my career headed? Faith, who has spent the last few years of her life as a homemaker has it even tougher because the ladder as we know it doesn’t exist in her world. Well-meaning friends and relatives often coax her to go back to work because corporate work gives one a “sense of value”.

How sad our lives must be, that we are so easily taken in by this race that causes us to perpetually feel inadequate, to continually assess our own worth against that of others, and to push others down in order that we may hold our own heads high. We place these cares of the world on our shoulders, and a lot of it ultimately amounts to nothing. The admiration (or jealously, really) of our peers means nothing at the end of the day when we dial it in and meet God.

I’m still learning how to step back from this all-consuming tunnel vision and allow God to show me a glimpse of the larger picture. His plans for us often seems counter-intuitive, and His paths aren’t the ones we would choose. I’m discovering that He is more interested in what we are than where we are, and to take the time to reflect on how I can spend the little time I have left to serve something more tangible and lasting than the satiation of my own ego.

Chuan-Jin’s move might not make sense to us if we only look at it as “up, good, down, bad”. But I believe this is a man who will serve with his utmost wherever he is. I thank God for the person that God has made him, and pray that we all will find the path that leads to eternal value.

The Golden Age of the Internet

The internet is always changing, its complexion the nexus of technological leaps and cultural fickleness, each affecting each other in an endless spiral. Arguments could be made about whether the spiral has generally led upward or downward.

It’s been twenty-something years since I first connected my external USR 28.8 to my computer’s LPT port and scoured for numbers of neighbourhood bulletin boards. The internet of today is such a different place, and I can’t help but reflect nostalgically on the past, what was beautiful about those times, and perhaps how we can recreate that magic for this new generation of digital natives.

The late 1990’s to early 2000’s was perhaps my favourite era of the internet. In terms of tech markers, we saw the arrival of the 33.6 and subsequently 56k modems; IRC was at its height; and Napster was the staple of all college networks.

Culturally, it was a vastly different place from the internet of today. For starters, it was a much smaller place. Large IRC networks like DalNet and EfNet brought together tens of thousands of users on really busy days, but smaller networks we frequented like GalaxyNet numbered in the thousands. You mostly stuck to the same few channels, much like how the characters in Friends would gather at Central Perk all the time.

The bandwidth speeds at that time were conducive to text-only interfaces and afforded the occasional image file. This meant people went by their chosen internet nicknames and not graphical avatars. Everyone started out anonymous, and it was only after many deep conversations where you’d learn the other person’s name, where they were from, or even their gender. I can’t even begin to tell you how liberating that was for a scrawny dark-skinned introvert like me.

The more I think about it, the more I am led to believe that what was special about that era of the internet was that it was populated by introverts. We invented blogging because we wanted a way to speak to the world without having to make eye contact with others. We had so much pent up inside of ourselves, and the ecstasy of finding others who underwent the same journey we did and understood was indescribable.

We understood how fragile all this was; how quickly it could be lost. Even when we organised the next inevitable step of actually meeting up with each other we did it so cautiously. We pondered over and over whether meeting face to face would change the relationships we had. If others would judge us by our outward appearance or social standing, or if our views would be discounted because they found out how young we really were.

Enter the internet of today, a confluence of broadband speeds, ubiquitous high-quality video cameras, and the possibility of fame made sustainable by online advertising. Enter the extroverts. Enter selfies - a million of them a day. Enter personal video channels where everybody can be their own talkshow host. Enter heavily photoshopped avatars.

We all love what continuous innovation in technology brings us. That Mandy Harvey could overcome her hearing disability to put on a stirring audition at America’s Got Talent is the tip of the iceberg of new possibilities we have today that weren’t there yesterday. We celebrate when anyone overcomes personal disabilities and gains acceptance.

The internet of today is a vastly more crowded space, and it often seems only those who are savvy self-promoters stand a chance of being found and appreciated. The bright lights and glitzy glamour is attractive to many, but the introverts have all but slinked away. In all the noise, we wonder if it’s worth speaking up to be heard. It has become that much harder to find each other.

I am thankful for the people I’ve met in my early years, and if you’ve been here reading I hope you know how much you mean to me. But I’m constantly thinking of how we can make this internet a more inclusive place with halls filled with bright lights, and also more intimate spaces where whispers can be heard. I’d like us to regain that sense of reverence and awe, to relearn how fragile great communities really are: how beautiful and precious each individual, and how we cannot go about our blustering ways expecting everyone to grow thicker skin.

I miss you and the times we could share the real things that matter. I miss the times we sat down and thought carefully about how we could make everything better for everyone.

Family at Work

It wasn’t without trepidation as I looked again at the email asking if I could host a small group of techies at Google. It was a good mutually beneficial arrangement: I’d be able to reach and preach to these tech professionals on pragmatic tips to keep themselves safe from the latest (and evergreen) online scams; and they’d get to have their meeting at our pretty nifty office.

The trepidation came from the fact that the only date that seemed to fit everyone elses’ schedule was on Faith’s birthday. A quick passing consult seemed to me like she was ok with me having to work an event on her birthday, but my spider-sense couldn’t help tingling.

On the day of the event itself, I felt terrible about spending the evening of my wife’s birthday at work. It’s not that she made a big deal about it or anything - it just felt like a misstep on my part.

As I rushed about to ensure that the logistics were all in order, I told the facilities folks who were helping me out that it was my wife’s birthday and how it nagged me a little that I had an event to take care of.

It didn’t take more than 20 seconds for them to pull together a small bunch of beautiful purple roses. They were meant for an earlier welfare initiative of theirs but they were so quick to come to my rescue. I gratefully accepted this lifeline.

When the event was over and I got home late in the night, I brought the bunch of roses into the room. Lit only by the light of her mobile phone, I saw Faith smile as she saw the flowers in my hand.

There was a nanosecond of a dilemma, but soon as she pulled the earphones out I told her how the Google gang pulled this together. There was an initial puzzled look on her face. I can only imagine the conflict of emotions, but my wife accepted my apology, and then said that it was nice that the fabled hospitality of the Google facilities team extended even to her on her birthday.

I’m thankful to have married a wife who forgives my mistakes, and on this occasion, very grateful to the team at work for caring far above and beyond the demands of their job.

This is what it feels like to be part of the Google family. Really, really awesome.

You Don't Demand Heart

I am no longer a public servant and it has been more than two years since I left the service, but I have always considered building the nation a duty I carry whether or not I am on payroll. I hope you’ll pardon me when I lapse between identifying myself as part of the service, and also part of the people whom they serve.

When I read that several Members of Parliament lamented that the Public Service has “lost its heart” and called for the service to show greater empathy when dealing with the needy, I felt the sting of those words like a slap across the face.

Not many people know what it is actually like to be on the frontlines of the public service. I am proud of the tradition we have: that we do not tolerate corruption and work hard to maintain the highest standards of integrity. We are by no measure infallible, but every breach is met with a burning fury and steely determination not to let mistakes repeat themselves.

We fall short of perfection, but it is a standard to which we believe the Singapore people deserve. It has also become the standard the Singapore people demand.

Every year the Auditor-General combs through how Ministries and Statutory Boards conduct their business and publishes a list of what it believes are infringements. This is a healthy process that keeps our public agencies accountable to the people, and provides a level of transparency rarely seen in governments around the world. Public servants put their feet to the fire, and are called to answer these lapses in processes. The alternative media has made it an annual event to jump into the fray to stoke the flames.

We’re fine with that. We’ve worked on making our processes more iron-clad. Nowhere in Singapore will you find it harder to host a lunch for stakeholders or even buy a pencil. Any public servant will tell you that we’ve had to spend our own money at work because the by-the-book processes would have taken too long and cost too much pain.

I cannot even imagine how much these stringent measures cost the nation; the most expensive of which are the many public servants who have left the service because it was getting too difficult to serve.

You cannot demand pinpoint precision from the public service and not expect the creation of automatons. Mr Louis Ng brings out the example of how the computer-generated letter was heartless - and he is correct - but would he support a judgement call made by a junior officer if and when it is scrutinised by the armchair critics? Would our MPs be there for the public servant who exercised their knowledge to say, buy good quality bicycles at a reasonable price, when there is public outcry from the non-cycling community about those decisions?

I do not disagree that our public service needs more heart and more empathy, but I’m calling it out that we all do. It’s easy to stand in a hall and berate the service, and constantly demand excellence like it were a naturally-occuring state of things, but we need a different approach.

We need to empower the public service, and it sometimes means not sweating the small stuff. If we want officers to show heart and empathy it means giving them the power to make judgement calls, and not kill every mistake, especially those that have no ill-intent. We need to stand up for them and defend them in public and in private, and acknowledge that the quality of public services we enjoy in Singapore is commendable.

The relationship between the public service and the people needs to change from a master-slave relationship for us to progress beyond precision in process. For any relationship to flourish, finger-pointing needs to stop.