I was born when the digital space began to permeate the physical. Over my short life thus far, there have been multiple waves of nostalgia harking back to an elusive kampung spirit. From what I have gathered, the kampung spirit is characterised by diverse narratives, values, and viewpoints coexisting within the same physical space, and a strong sense of community built on proximity. Neighbours played a strong role in supporting the community — looking out for one another, or sharing resources and advice.

I have experienced the kampung spirit myself. I spent my childhood visiting the market with my grandma, tuning in to gossip that aunties and uncles graciously shared. In university, when the printer was not working late at night, I knocked on my neighbours’ doors to ask for help. It was not until after graduation, when I spent considerable time scrolling through my social media feed to find out what my friends were up to, that I felt something was missing. My friends were posting opinions that I agreed with. Even sponsored posts were about topics that I was interested in. But instead of being excited, I was scared. Within the digital space, I felt the kampung spirit was lost. The rise of social media has distanced us from actual interactions with people. The tech-enabled sharing economy has made us more dependent on institutions as providers, instead of maximising the skills and networks in our communities. (Recall the last time you needed dinner while alone at home. Did you jio your neighbours to cook a meal together, ask your neighbours to dabao food for you, or reach for a food delivery app on your phone?)

The Digital Kampung Leads to Fragmentation

But this is not to say that we should simplistically rebuild the kampungs of the past. In fact, I would reframe the discussion to suggest that we are already living in a kampung that we do not recognise – a digital kampung, defined by a digital kampung spirit.

In the digital kampung, narratives and viewpoints co-exist in the digital space, primarily comprising articles, interactive media, forums, and social media posts (not to forget the comment threads). The idea of proximity has expanded from how close we live to each other, to how many clicks it takes to start a conversation.

Social media and the sharing economy act as the foundations upon which our sense of community is built. On these platforms, our assets are connected to each other. Neighbours in my digital kampung are able to engage me in discussions on topics I care about (possibly through the aforementioned comment threads), share the cost and usage of transport services, and buy my second-hand goods at a lower price.

And there we have it: the digital kampung spirit; a sense of digital community.

However, I have one more observation to add: the digital kampung spirit is fragmenting, instead of uniting society like the kampung spirit. The digital space abounds with insensitive, hateful remarks that draw people to focus on our differences, instead of seeking mutual understanding. There is an urgent need to heal the digital kampung, before these norms trickle into the physical space.

Managing this problem involves recognising a key difference between the two kampungs: the definition of ‘diversity’. In the physical kampung, people have less choice over their neighbours, as well as the narratives and viewpoints they hear on a day-to-day basis. It is uncommon for a group of neighbours to come from similar backgrounds and have similar life narratives. To a large extent, truly diverse viewpoints and narratives co-exist in the community.

In the digital kampung, users have far more choice over their neighbours. We can curate our list of ‘friends’; choose the types of ideas and narratives we want to see; or limit ourselves to only be alerted to assets to which we want to be connected.

Under this illusion of choice, members of the digital kampung tend to forget that the content on our social media feed or search results is not truly diverse, and might be biased. Our choices often only serve as the input to an algorithm. These algorithms, broadly known as ‘recommender systems’, output content that is similar to viewpoints we agree with, or products that we buy.

Herein lie the cracks in the foundations of the digital kampung. Our ability to choose our neighbours, combined with recommender systems powered by algorithms, have caused us to only be exposed to a small subset of narratives and viewpoints that exist. The digital kampung has led us to reinforce our beliefs within a comfortable community; it has created echo chambers. We lose our abilities to engage with viewpoints that we disagree with, since we do not regularly engage with them.

Critical readers might point out that ‘recommender systems’ also exist in the physical space. Kampungs have rules that allow some members’ views to be heard more than others. These rules come in a few forms: legislation; housing policies; closed-door management meetings. The key difference here is that computer algorithms are personalised. There is no central source in the digital space that writes the rules; the final set of rules is co-created by the user and the algorithm. We will only see what we like to see.

Healing the Cracks

So what can we do about this? I suggest a few measures to heal the divide in the digital kampung spirit.

1. Seek to discover narratives beyond what is usually recommended to us on the digital kampung. Reflect on what we tend to see, and intentionally expose ourselves to new sections of the digital kampung that were not recommended to us. And instead of only consuming digital content, try to meet people who are as different from us as possible.

2. Do not forget that the randomness of the physical kampung still exists, and that we are not tapping into its assets. We still have neighbours. We can chat with them in lifts, find out how they spend their days, and even join an activity that they attend or celebrate.

3. For those of us who have a greater part to play in creating the digital kampung (e.g. building recommender systems), be wary of the cracks that we might be creating in society. Write algorithms that will suitably expose users to narratives and viewpoints that are less aligned with their interests.

If we are on the Internet, we already belong to the digital kampung. It is now time for us to be responsible members of that community, and work together to ensure its spirit is healthy and thriving.

Tham is a member of the Learning Futures Group at the Civil Service College, identifying future learning trends and experimenting with new methods to enhance adult learning experiences. Game design is a large part of his work; he believes in the power of games for learners to experience complex situations in public policy. He is also the co-founder of FriendzoneSG, an initiative adopting an asset-based approach to create community amongst young adults in their neighbourhoods, through fun and meaningful conversations.

Image by Erwin SooCC BY 2.0