Department of Philosophy and Center for Ethics of Science and Technology
Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University
Introduction: What is Web 2.0?
Web 2.0 is a new development in the World Wide Web. According to the Wikipedia, the term ‘web 2.0’ refers to “a perceived second generation of web-based communities and hosted services — such as social-networking sites, wikis and folksonomies — which aim to facilitate collaboration and sharing between users.” Its use first became widespread in 2004, after the first O’Reilly Media Web 2.0 conference. Actually, ‘web 2.0’ does not refer to any advancement in technological details, but it shows more how the internet and the technologies of the World Wide Web is used so as to reflect social interaction and the ability for users to share information which was not actually feasible with the way the Web was used before. According to Tim O’Reilly, “Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_2).
Many websites that we are familiar with today employ the web 2.0 concepts. A clear example is www.youtube.com, which could well be regarded as the very embodiment of the idea. Youtube does not contain any information on its own. The millions of video clips on its website do not originate from the people who designed the site and put URL on the internet, but from the millions of users worldwide who share the clip with one another. We might look at youtube.com as a huge free market where people come in from all corners to share their information. In the previous incarnation of the Web, what we might conveniently call ‘web 1.0,’ the idea is that information is created and disseminated to the users by the content providers and the webmasters, and the users are in most cases little more than passive consumers who can only choose which chunk of information they would like to get and which one not, but they do not have the power to share their own information with the outside world without themselves becoming webmasters. Web 1.0 creates a wall between the webmasters and the users. Webmasters create, maintain and disseminate information, and the public consume it. With the web 2.0 concept, on the other hand, the line between webmasters and the users has become significantly blurred. The function of the webmasters in youtube.com function, not as ones to choose which video clips should be shown on the first page, which ones on the second and other inner pages, and so on, but the role of the webmasters has almost become invisible, making sure that things run smoothly and that the overall look of the website is pleasing and functional, etc. In short, the role of the webmasters changed from that of ‘masters’ to being more like ‘servants’ who stay out of the limelight and are always there and ready to help.
In this brief paper, I would like to discuss how the web 2.0 concept could be conducive to happiness. As happiness is notoriously a difficult concept to pin down exactly, what I am focusing is rather empowerment of the local communities. As a technology that supports social networking and sharing of all kinds of information, web 2.0 will be instrumental in promoting happiness that is a result of such social empowerment. However, before that vision can be reality, many obstacles need to be overcome. These obstacles will be identified in the course of this paper and I will provide some attempt at showing how they can be eliminated.
Open Source, Open Society and Web 2.0
Another well known website illustrates this viewpoint very well. Wikipedia.org is a very widely used online encyclopedia in the world today, and its startling feature has always been that anybody has the right to share their knowledge and expertise with the world by uploading their own contribution to it, thus adding what they know to the global community, adding a share of knowledge for the benefit of everyone. The basic idea of the open society is that every individual is equal, and that idea is also reflected in the wikipedia conception. Knowledge is shared among everybody in the world, and definitely it is not the prerogative of some privileged few.
The open source system is much aligned with open society. According to Karl Popper, an open society is one where there is a system of tolerance, accountability and most of all transparency in information management. A government is open when anybody can monitor its functioning and when it can provide justifications and reasons for its action. This is opposed to governments in closed, totalitarian societies where governments are not accountable to the people, nor are they any transparent in its dealings. In this sense, there are a lot of affinities between open source software system and open society. In the open source concept, there is a system of trust and willingness to share the good with everybody in the community. The authority functions more as one who facilitate things so that the good is brought about in the most efficient manner possible so as to ensure that everybody does have a chance to enjoy the good, rather than hoarding the good to a privileged few as is very often the case in closed societies.
What is crucial here is that open source critically depends on open society. This is a point that seems to be much overlooked by software developers. But in a society where there is no freedom to innovate and no freedom to share information without any restrictions, it is very difficult to image how open source software system can even get started. On the other hand, promoting open access and openly sharing systems such as web 2.0 websites could well lead to more open societies, because, as history has shown many times, maintaining a healthy, democratic society requires that information be fully accessible and fully shared. This is precisely the objective of web 2.0
Web 2.0 and Happiness
So we have now come to the central part of the paper. I would like to show that there is a link between web 2.0 and happiness. Let us note, however, that the term ‘happiness’ here is used here not in the usual psychological or economic sense of ‘subjective well being,’ but in a more ancient and more spiritual sense of cosmic order and harmony. Rationale behind this is rather complex, and at least requires a full paper of its own. However, the idea, basically, is that by equating happiness with subjective well being, the moral dimension and the spiritual side of the matter is left out. One can be ‘happy’ when one is only satisfied with the material consumption. But as all religious traditions point out, this is not adequate at all, and there is obviously more to happiness than mere consumption. What web 2.0 can offer in promoting happiness is that, by allowing people to network together and by allowing them to express themselves to their communities, the technology allows for a level of happiness that has hitherto been rather difficult to achieve. Happiness can be achieved here only it is understood as something that arises when one fulfils one’s goal and one’s sense of ‘belonging’ to something that is greater than oneself, something more akin to Aristotle’s ‘good life’ (eudaimonia) rather than mere consumption of material goods. At any rate it is hard to see how material consumption would have anything to do with social networking, so if happiness is equated with the former, then one would indeed by hard pressed to see how web 2.0 can lead to happiness at all.
To put things in more concrete terms, web 2.0 creates a level of happiness by ensuring that information is shared in an open and transparent manner. As happiness is better understood as a harmonious working relationship between the inside (individual preferences, etc.) and the outside (social and physical order of things), web 2.0 does promote it through becoming a lynchpin of open society. Hence there are strong logical connections between open source software (such as web 2.0), open society and happiness.
Web 2.0 in Thailand
There are a number of websites in Thailand employing the web 2.0 concepts. The most successful one seems to be www.pantip.com. This very popular website functions as a forum where members come in and engage with their fellow members of every imaginable topic, ranging from politics (a very heated section) to art and entertainment, to religion (another heated place), and pet care and so on.
Another interesting website is http://gotoknow.org/, a site that collects a large number of ‘weblogs’ or ‘blogs’ contributed by the members. Both pantip.com and gotoknow.org are ranked among the most popular websites in Thailand.
What these two websites share in common is that, firstly they are operated mostly by their members. All the content is provided by the members, and the so-called ‘webmasters’ are in fact facilitators who make things running but impose no heavy hands on the directions where the content is heading. However, there may be some restrictions, especially in the case of pantip.com, as when the exchanges (mostly about politics) tend to get out of hand and when the directions of the discussions might risk offending someone or breaking the law. Otherwise the idea is that any content whatsoever is fair game.
These two websites clearly show that Thailand appears to be heading in the right direction as far as the use of web 2.0 concepts is concerned, but now the problem is how many people in Thailand are actually using it. Considering the statistics prepared by the National Electronics and Computer Engineering Center (NECTEC) showing that the total number of internet users in Thailand hover around 12 percent in the year 2004,1 this is not quite satisfactory. It is indeed true that happiness does not necessarily depend on how many people are getting connected, but without any level of appreciable internet access, it is hard to imagine how happiness is going to be achieved, at least when we consider the kind of happiness that has been the subject of our discussion so far in this paper.
So to conclude. The major question that will concern policy makers in the country for a foreseeable future is: How could Thailand foster the design principles for web 2.0 technologies that actually promote happiness and human development? This question is important because design is indeed crucial if any policy attempt to broaden the people’s participation in the internet world is to bear fruit. I think a first priority for the design should be that the users should be kept in mind from the beginning. Technologies are meant to answer the people’s wants and needs, and anti-technology rhetoric notwithstanding, we in the twentieth century simply cannot leave without it. And I am firmly convinced that the path toward happiness would not be feasible without some kind of ingenious technological design that is accessible to everybody and that allows for the full flowering of everyone’s potential. Web 2.0 seems to be doing its job in this regard, as we have seen. However, many obstacles still remain, as in Thailand only less than fifteen percept of the population are connected to the Internet. And even if we carefully consider the prime examples of Thai web 2.0
Another thing that deserves no less serious attention is the potential clash between local values and the global web 2.0 websites such as youtube. The recent incident between the Thai government and the website concerning the portrayal of the Thai king illustrated that the clash could get downright serious, resulting in the whole youtube.com website being shut down and inaccessible throughout the country for a consideration period of time. This clash in value needs to be fully addressed and deliberated. What global websites such as youtube need to consider is that they cannot take their own system of values for granted. However, this is a very delicate and complicated matter. We have to be well aware of the possibility that local values might trump over global ones, resulting in parochialism and the syndrome that occurs when one country is always arguing against ‘interference’ by outsides (which in many cases are only justifications of brutality inside the country). On the other hand, we also need to be careful that the so-called global system does not fully dominate everything and every local corners, which could result in the same thing.
1 Thailand ICT Indicators 2005: Thailand in the Information Age (Pathumthani: NECTEC, 2005), p. 27.