#POPSProfile: Jeremy Wagstaff
Posted By On February 19, 2018

For our first POPS Profile we are pleased to turn the tables on one of the region’s most prolific journalists. Jeremy Wagstaff has worked in Asia for more than 30 years, as a journalist for Reuters, BBC, The Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review, as well as a consultant in development, media, elections and technology.

You have been reporting in Asia since before the advent of social media. How has technology itself changed how the media report on technology?

The technology has changed immeasurably and yet not at all. We still write on computers, we still write in sentences and mostly in the inverted pyramid style (most important information first) and we still hope people will pay for our output. I got interested in technology primarily because I realised it was probably the most important tool we had to collect and deliver news. I learned the hard way that not understanding the technology was no excuse for missing the story.

The way we report on technology has changed a lot, and also, not enough. In the early days being interested in tech was considered somewhat eccentric, and we were confined to the lifestyle pages. Indeed, my WSJ column was primarily about persuading skeptical users that technology could be their friend. (Nowadays, because of social media, I’d probably argue the opposite.) Now we don’t need to persuade readers of the power of technology, but we’re still constrained in how we report on technology, usually confining ourselves to looking at technology as ‘technology companies’, rather than the pervasive role of technology in upending more or less every aspect of life and work. Covering technology these days, when everything is moving so quickly, should be as much about covering disruptive technologies that are changing or creating new industries as it is about whether the latest iPhone has a swiveled double-bezel and sixteen cameras.

To what extent do and could the media play an active role in promoting tech for development, both through reporting and also more direct engagement with influencers from the private sector to government?

This is definitely an area the media could write more on. It’s not necessarily media’s job to ‘promote’ anything, but there is ample room for stories about the impact — both positive and negative — of technology on development. I think the important thing here is to engage media with compelling stories that are worth writing about — and not shy away from the downsides too. I’ve been fascinated by the rise of freelance outsourcing (here’s a story I did more than five years ago now, I should try to update it) which offered at least anecdotal evidence that such services helped create mini ecosystems of entrepreneurial spirit far away from Silicon Valley, and far away from the big cities where startups thrive.

In your recent reporting in Asia, have you come across a couple of notable examples where the tech community has spearheaded positive policy reform?

Well the most exciting one of course was the work around open data in the 2014 election in Indonesia (I wrote about open data here) and I feel there’s lots more potential in that. Of course the world has changed a bit since then, and not always in a good way, so I’m not sure I can point to an example of this. But I’d love to see it.

You have been taking a good look at blockchain. Is there potential in blockchain to promote positive social impact, or is it—at least for now—cyber snake oil?

I do think there is, but it’s early days. I think the blockchain may offer some useful applications, for example in the field of provenance. I believe also cryptocurrencies may eventually make it easier for money transfers that do not skim too much profit off the top. For example, gaming is a huge business, and surprisingly large amounts of money are spent on it by young people in the region. Blockchain and cryptocurrencies may allow these people to earn money as well as spend it. So we might see, way too early to say when or whether, the rise of frictionless digital currencies may end up helping developing regions more than the rich world.

Think of blockchain as the early web. Everyone realised they could be online, so they all built static websites. Which is fine, but was just the beginning. As usual, we are poor at understanding the potential of new technologies; we know they’re important somehow, but it takes a while to think of how they might best be used. I have great confidence in the potential of blockchain, but like a lot of technologies, we’ll just absorb it and the innovations that do best from it probably won’t even mention blockchain in its pitch. It’ll be like we don’t need to mention that our website has flash, or javascript, or uses a MySQL database. Blockchain are the rails; we don’t usually describe the rails when we’re admiring the beautiful railway engine running on them.

Briefly, what are the hottest tech trends that you anticipate in 2018?

Briefly, you say?! Look out for the sharing economy to soar higher before flaming out spectacularly. Not completely; there will be lots of useful things it brings with it. Sharing used to mean sharing existing assets — think early airbnb. But now it really means a company producing those assets and then renting them out. So I see it more as one of those ‘as a service’ products, from ‘software as a service’ to ‘cars as a service’. This is basically what Uber and Grab are like, and increasingly airbnb, and now things like bike sharing. We’re sharing a new resource for the most part, so it’s not exactly great for the planet, unless the assets — bikes, say — are actually replacing the overall bike population. At the moment the opposite is true. But you can see where it’s going: why own something if you only use it intermittently? In theory we could cut down a lot of storage space — from cupboards to car parks — as well as resources in the production of such things, if real sharing took off. Perhaps Go-Jek is a good example of this, I haven’t looked carefully at that. But in a perfect world small communities could set up their own sharing mini economies, sharing everything from washing machines or buckets to cars. Leaving assets idle would be seen for what it is: a waste of resources.

But this probably won’t happen this year. This year I see consolidation among the big players in e- and m-commerce. We’ll see Uber and Grab probably consolidate through a merger of sorts, in this region. We’ll see Facebook and Twitter come under greater pressure to curb their negative social influence — hosting abusive content, allowing radical and criminal groups to coordinate on their platforms — but we’ll also see greater sophistication by more authoritarian regimes to limit social freedoms online, through surveillance and censorship. China will increasingly be seen as a model to be followed rather than an outlier.

Oh, and I think co-working will make its presence felt in ways we haven’t really considered yet. It’s already having an impact on the property market, but prices of space will fall far enough for individuals and small companies to find that finding somewhere to work will become less costly. This could have some very positive effects: Starbucks and others will have to reconsider their model if mobile workers stop using their premises

Besides your own fantastic blog, what are your top online resources for keeping up with the latest trends in technology in the region?

Tech in Asia I think is still the best place to look at startups, but I’ve been hard pressed to find places where you can really stay on top of what is happening in the region. And your kind words aside, my own blog has fared particularly poorly in that regard. I’d love to hear from your readers where they look, to be honest. Part of the problem here is the business model: most online publications rely for revenue on conferences, so it’s not in their interest to be too hard-nosed about the business, either in general or specific companies, because they rely on attracting them to speak. I’d like to see a different approach, if possible, because critical coverage of tech is a must.

Can you highlight one tech entrepreneur in Asia & the Pacific that we should keep our eye on in 2018?    

Gosh, a tough one. I’m really looking forwards to seeing what Go-Jek’s Nadiem Makarim does next with his company. They are entering uncharted waters in some ways, and I think may well be just beginning.

POPS Profiles are interviews with leading members of the technology, business and policy communities in Asia and the Pacific.


Photo credit: Steven Goh

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