Sunday, December 02, 2007

Technology and Happiness: Bridging the Digital Divide

The panel on "Technology and Happiness: Bridging the Digital Divide" which was part of the Third International Conference on Gross National Happiness took place on Tuesday, November 27, 2007 and was highly successful. The panelists were Purin Panichphant (in place of Craig Warren Smith), Roger Torrenti and Michel Bauwens. At first there were not too many people attending, but in the end we had a very stimulating and thought provoking discussion that will certainly have a lasting impact on policies.

Purin Panichphant opened the panel with a presentation of the project on "Meaningful User Experience" (MUX) which he had been developing together with Craig Smith. Both Purin and Craig are now affiliated with the Center for Ethics of Science and Technology, with myself also in the team. What we are trying to do is to place Thailand as a 'development hub' for policy research and technology design that embeds religious, moral and spiritual values into technology. The idea is not entirely new, and in fact many companies in the US and Europe, such as Nokia in Finland, are developing ways to incorporate these values into the design. Nokia, for example, is teaming up with Electronic Arts, a software game designer, to produce a new genre of games that builds upon local traditions and myths so that the game does not have the look and feel of the cultures that are foreign to the one the game is going to be promoted. However, the deeper reason is that by embedding local values into the games, it is envisioned that the game will not be merely an 'entertainment', but will be educational in a new way.

Hence, what is 'meaningful' in MUX is precisely that the user will gain an experience that is connected with deeper sense of identity and is in tune with the community and its traditions. We have often heard of tirades against technology, such that technology is going to destroy the world and the moral fabric. On the other hand, we believe that technology itself could be a force for the good. And this 'good' is not merely material, but religious, moral and spiritual.

Roger Torrenti is currently heading the project, which is funded by the EU and aiming at creating and providing opportunities for groups in the region to run projects designed to benefit the local people through novel uses of information technology. He talked about this new project, which could create real changes in South-east Asia and in the cooperation between the EU and the region. Roger also mentioned some other projects initiated by the EU and designed to help develop partnership with other regions such as Asia. One is the PARADISO project (PARADISO stands for "Paradigm and Society"), where the EU is envisioning a partnership with other regions and pushes for an alternative model through shared visions and shared perspectives toward progress and mutual understanding.

Michel Bauwens emphasized the role of peer-to-peer (P2P) networks as a solution to many of the problems facing the world today. What we are seeing the world today is an emergence of the peer, or the ordinary people themselves, as a force for changes, replacing the traditional elites in a growing number of fields. Web 2.0 is a clear example is this peer-to-peer network. What distinguishes web 2.0 from its predecessor is that the earlier web design is a one-to-many communication. The webmaster created the information and then put that up on the web for the many to read. However, new web 2.0 sites, such as YouTube, MySpace, or Facebook, changed this picture in a radical way. It is now possible for the users to post up information and media on the site, thus blurring the distinction between the webmaster and the user. For Bauwens this is a symptom of a profound change that is going on and that should be further encouraged. And his vision is that the world is changing toward this locally active, but globally interacting networks enabled by the new web technologies.

He cited a piece from European history. The Roman Empire, as is well known, is supported by slave labor. Much of its economy was maintained by this free labor extracted from slaves. However, after the Germans defeated the Romans and dissolved the Empire, they freed up all the slaves. Hence the slaves could now own their land and become masters of their own destinies. Slaves became independent farmers. For the traditional elites this was very bad, because they could no longer rely on slave labor, and this spelled the end of the Empire. However, for the slaves turned farmers, this was very good for them. Bauwens sees the trend happening today with the emergence of peer-to-peer networking. Instead of being controlled by one centralized source of power, the trend now is toward decentralization of power and of economy, but with a more intense communications between the localities. This could well be a way for technology to be a part in the actual promotion of happiness.

Naturally there were a lot of questions during the panel. One asked how technology could promote happiness at all. Suppose somebody chooses to live without any new technology, they can well be happy. The answer from the panelists was that, of course one can certainly choose how much technology one decides to allow into one's life, but that does not mean that technology has no role at all in development and in promotion of happiness according to the GNH principles. We have to make a distinction between those who can afford to choose how much technology one wants, and those who cannot choose at all because they are too poor or their homes are too remote from the technological connection. If people have no choice, then the question becomes moot.

Another question is a more philosophical one. The idea behind the internet has seemed to be one that promotes individualism, freedom of choice, and autonomy -- in short those ideas behind traditional liberalism. But if the world is moving away from that model, and more toward an alternative which is based more on the idea that individual persons are more relational and their beings are more dependent toward others and their communities, then how would the internet be situated? This is a difficult question and one I am sure will be pondered on for some time from now. Nonetheless an answer seems to be that technology is not as determined as some technological determinists appear to think. If technological determinism is true, then in this situation the internet would seem to be doomed. However, one might find an answer in how the technology is designed. And in fact it is possible to design the internet, or another version of it, that promotes the idea of individuals being relational and depending on the whole, so to speak, rather than the old model of atomic individuals. After all the internet is nothing if not a communication tool, and as relations critically depends on communication, then there is a way for the internet itself to be adapted. The bottom line is that it does not have to be tied up with the philosophical idea of atomic individualism at all.

So the panel became deeply philosophical and theoretically in the end, which is very good indeed. Those who participated would like the conversation to continue, and certainly we will find a way to let that happen in the near future.