Report of the Colloquium on Happiness, Public Policy and Technology

Can Thailand emerge as a global hub for the design and deployment of new class of technologies that generate happiness? This question was at the heart of a series of colloquia, organized by the Center for Ethics of Science and Technology, Chulalongkorn University, in collaboration with the Human-Computer Interface Laboratory, University of Washington, USA. The first colloquium in the series, which took place on July 23rd, 2007 at Chulalongkorn University, explored this question and a whole host of related questions and issues that serve to integrate a variety of academic disciplines and policy deliberations for the purpose of finding the optimal way in which Thailand could emerge as a hub for innovative and efficacious technology design and research in related areas that incorporate the principle enshrined in the “Gross National Happiness” as well as His Majesty the King’s “Sufficiency Economy” principles. This initial colloquium was supported in part by a grant from the Intel Corporation.

A group of around 25 distinguished scholars and public figures, chaired by Prof. Charas Suwanwela, Chairperson of the Chulalongkorn University Council, gathered at the Sasa International House, Chulalongkorn University to ponder together on these questions. It is well known that new technologies can diminish quality of life—causing “information overload,” addiction, and out-of-control consumerism. Less well known, however, is that the world’s leading technology laboratories—including those at Intel, IBM, Nokia, Microsoft, and some others—are spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually in an effort to reverse these impacts. Researchers and those in leading universities such as MIT, Stanford, and Carnegie Mellon are designing computer games, wellness methods, and learning systems with human well-being and even spiritual development as goals. In a parallel development, neuroscience labs now can now draw upon brain scans of Buddhist monks in meditation to measure the differences between technologies that enlighten users from those that cause harmful stress. These exciting new developments were explored and discussed during the colloquium, with a specific focus on how specific public policies could be formulated for Thailand in such a way as information technology in particular could be integrated seamlessly with ethical principles and imbued with traditional and spiritual values.

It is clear that such infusion of technology with humanistic values is fervently needed in today’s world. Technology, and information technology in particular, is making its presence felt in all aspects of contemporary life. It would not be far fetched at all to claim that information technology has become the medium, the lifeblood, of today’s globalized and intensively interconnected world. Indeed the globalization and the interconnection is made possible by information technology. However, much that has been connected with information technology seems to be rather negative; hence there is a need to find a solution that makes use of the best of both worlds. On the one hand, we in today’s world need the technology, but on the other, we need the technology to function, not in the pure vacuum of non-social and non-cultural space which is clearly impossible, but within the real world where cultural traditions and values are deeply felt. As the principles of Gross National Happiness and Sufficient Economy indicate, the world today needs no excess of unbridled technological materialism, but in fact spiritual, cultural and ethical values, those ‘soft’ aspects of human intellectual endeavor, are having increasingly important roles to play in technology design. The two worlds are collapsing toward each other.

The colloquium on July 23rd focused on these issues in a number of ways. After an opening address by Craig Smith and an introduction by the participants, Soraj Hongladarom, a philosopher and Director of the Center for Ethics of Science and Technology, Chulalongkorn University, presented the first talk on the emergence of what is called ‘Web 2.0’ and its role in reflecting the underlying principles of open society and their implications for technology design and IT policy. What distinguishes web 2.0 for its earlier incarnation is that the former makes possible in a radical way interaction among the users, enabling them to become ‘publishers’ of information in much more facilitated way than was possible before. Web 2.0 sites such as or, have become social space which make it possible for members of get together to know one another and to accomplish common tasks. The potential for this kind of technology for social well being is enormous. Soraj pointed out that the happiness principle could be served by allowing the aging members of society, for example, to interact with one another through such activities as blog writing. The content entirely belongs to the users, and news and information can be shared in order to create and maintain vibrant communities that could foster more happiness among the members.

In the next talk, Charas Suwanwela, who is an emeritus professor of surgery at the Faculty of Medicine, Chulalongkorn University discussed the increasingly commercialized nature of medical practice in Thailand, and he pointed out the important way of how information technology could be harnessed to help solve the problem. Relying on His Majesty the King of Thailand’s principle of Sufficiency Economy, which stresses mindful consumption and the need for moderation supported by ethical values, Charas mentioned the crisis being faced by Thai health care, which stemmed from the pressure of globalization, increasing litigation, explosive progress in science and technology, and most worrying for him increasing commodification and commercialization of health care. Among the questions he asked was whether it was desirable for medical doctors to advertise their services by asking would-be parents if they would like to see the faces of their children before they are actually born. This example shows that medicine is about to change and become more like other types of services instead of the honorable position of doctors being healers. An aspect of the new capitalism is the level of sophistication with which the service providers create an artificial need for the types of services which in the past were not conceived to be possible or necessary, such as the costly early detection of cancer through PET scans. For Charas the Sufficiency Economy Principle goes hand in hand with the ethical values in medicine and health care, and a way needs to be found such as these values and principles are infused with the practice of medicine and the use and design of technology.

In the subsequent talk, John Sherry from Intel, talked about his team’s ongoing research activities in designing new technologies that help to sustain and promote these softer values. Intel Corporation is known for its leadership in microprocessor manufacturing. However, recently the company has begun to focus on developing “platforms,” i.e., constellations of technology ingredients more focused on particular uses. With the formation of the Digital Health group in 2005, Intel has brought together social scientists, designers and engineers to focus on better understanding ordinary people, and designing technologies more directly targeted at human health and happiness. In the talk, Sherry described three projects being pursued by members of this team. The goal was to use these projects to outline a more general process, and key principles, which will help other product development organizations, policy makers, or others both create and engage technologies for human health and well being. These projects, likewise, describe an arc or trajectory from initial ethnographic research through idea creation, conceptual development and ultimately technology design.

The first project entails large scale ethnographic research on the topic of aging. Population demographics are shifting dramatically in many countries, and the consequences are as yet poorly understood. While policy makers, health care organizations and corporations are paying increasing attention to issues of aging, not many have taken the time to understand how aging is experienced by people themselves. This project set out to learn about aging from elderly people themselves. The second project was focused more on the latter stages of research and development. It builds on a trajectory of research known as “embedded assessment,” in which technology is designed to help people track variability in their health or behavior constantly and unobtrusively. This strategy was employed to help people who are at risk for future health complications as a result of difficulties managing negative emotion associated with stress (often manifest in the United States as anger). By sensing negative emotional arousal, and providing well designed prompts and strategies for avoiding major “blow ups,” the goal of this technology is to help people deal with stress in a more healthy way, to feel better in the present and maintain health for the future.

The third project describes work that has progressed beyond basic research towards pilot implementation. Beginning in 2006, members of Sherry’s team began research in Africa, India and a select few other sites to better understand how technology might enhance the delivery of health care in poorer, rural regions. As many have pointed out, technology holds promise for enhancing skills of local care providers, or increasing access of rural villagers. The goal with this project was to gather both a broader understanding of what worked, and why, and to begin honing a useful, standardized, technological platform by pursuing an actual deployment, in rural Uganda. Working with a number of both local and non-local NGOs, universities, and government agencies, it was hoped that a solution that can scale beyond this single implementation could be developed.

Each of these projects started out not with a technology, nor with a “market,” but rather with a well attested human value, based in careful research. That would be where some of the most interesting innovations of the future come from, namely those that are most aligned with enduring human values.

After the lunch break, Craig Smith talked a little about his project on empowerment and spiritual computing. He mentioned his experience with the theorizing for the well known alternative economic framework developed by E. F. Schumacher, which he saw to be a precursor to both the GNH and the Sufficiency Economy Principles. The idea was that traditional economics appeared to get things wrong. Consumption cannot take place until infinity, and sooner or later one has to face with the inevitable decline in resources. Thus Schumacher called for ‘sustainable development’ where developmental effort was constrained by the need for the planet earth to replenish itself so that human beings were able to continue living on it. Schumacher termed his idea ‘Buddhist economics’ as it stressed the idea of sufficiency modeled upon village-based economies and not today]s globalized one.

Talking about Buddhist economics led Smith to discuss the important role that empowerment plays in Buddhism and also on the use of the term in various advertisements he saw around the world. A computer manufacturer, for example, advertised their products as ‘empowering.’ But what exactly is being empowered, asked Smith. Certainly it is not pure, unadulterated consumer choice, since that is not sustainable and clearly not in line of the sufficiency principle. And according to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, to follow one’s own desire wherever it leads is not empowering at all, but in fact one is being enslaved by one’s own desire. This view of Kant’s echoed what Gautama Buddha taught more than two thousand five hundred years ago. Thus, real and meaningful empowerment can only take place when one takes into one’s hands one’s own destiny; that is to say, one controls the direction of one’s life according to the values and goals that one deliberate and rationally consider to be those worth pursuing for. The Buddhist conception of empowerment, then, becomes relevant in this attempt, as it is the conception that emphasizes the role of transformation. One is empowered in Buddhism when one realizes that things according to what they are and when one becomes the master of one’s own mind such that instead of the world transforming the mind through arousal and creation of worldly desires, one controls one’s mind and thereby transform the world itself. To put this in a less abstract term, empowerment for Smith means that technology users maintain the power to create and manipulate the technology according to their own ethical values and choices.

The colloquium ended with a talk by Deputy Prime Minster Paiboon Wattanasiritham. He reiterated the importance of sustainable development and Buddhist economics by emphasizing that happiness, and not mere consumerist satisfaction, should be the goal of public policy. Whatever public policy that is developed should have as the final goal a happy society. This includes happiness, wellness, and physical and mental health of the population.

Another thing he mentioned was that the Sufficiency Economy philosophy should be adopted as a general guideline. Thus, in terms of public policy we have the final goal of a happy society in a collective sense, which of course included the individual. The guiding principle consists of three components, namely moderation, reasonableness and humility. Then the two preconditions which were the basis for sufficiency economy were knowledge and morality.

Then Deputy Prime Minister Paiboon mentioned three main areas in which public policy based on the Sufficiency Economy Principle should be formulated. The first one focused on what he called “integrated community development plans.” These were plans developed by the villagers themselves according to their local belief systems, and systems of goals and values. Information technology was actually included in one of the goals developed by one village that he visited. The technology functioned prominently in the developmental plans of the village and was inserted as one of the key indicators. The second area concerned human mapping or goodness mapping. This is an attempt to locate and map persons with good qualities in each locality. ‘Good people’ here obviously included those that were skillful in a variety of ways, so these people become invaluable resources for the villagers and communities.

Finally the third area mentioned by the Deputy Prime Minister was spiritual computing, that is, a mixture and integration between computing technology and spirituality. This is an idea first developed by Craig Smith. It is a way to develop and design information technology in such a way that promotes and relies upon insights gained by Buddhist meditators and practitioners. For example, information technology could be harnessed to help train the mind, which has been a goal of Buddhist practice for millennia. For the Deputy Prime Minister this was a way toward formulating a workable public policy on technology design and use that emphasizes, and as Craig Smith is saying, transform both the technology itself and the world at large into a more meaningful entity.

So the colloquium ended with these three recommendations by Deputy Prime Minister Paiboon. It was up to the members of the colloquium to think further on how to elaborate on these recommendations, and the members of the colloquia are looking forward to the second colloquium, which will take place in early February 2008 also at Chulalongkorn University.


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