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February 5, 2007

How will Japan Face Challenges Posed by Web 2.0 World?

Optimists say online revolution will create better global community, but concerns exists regarding consequences of this new society

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor for the Foreign Press Center Japan)

In his 1911 book "The Doctor's Dilemma," George Bernard Shaw wrote, "All professions are conspiracies against the laity." Nearly a century later, we are seeing a distinct rise in skepticism of the authority of experts, the intellectual elite and for that matter professionals.

The trend is being dubbed the Web 2.0 revolution, and it is spreading like wildfire across the Internet community.

Amateurs and laymen are now equipped with the tools to express their views to the world. They also have access to knowledge that, in the past, was limited to experts and the intellectual upper crust. Time magazine's year-end special issue to name its 2006 Person of the Year featured the Web 2.0 phenomenon in a salute to the new world that is opening up before our eyes.

In "The Wisdom of Crowds," a book that identifies the ethos of the unfolding Web 2.0 society, author James Surowiecki wrote: "Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them. Groups do not need to be dominated by exceptionally intelligent people in order to be smart. Even if most of the people within a group are not especially well-informed or rational, it can still reach a collectively wise decision."

This view is poles apart from the thinking of Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle who said, "The history of the world is but the biography of great men."

Such opposing perspectives have a long history, but what is new is that the prevailing wisdom - summarized by Carlyle's view - has never faced the kind of serious challenge from the masses that we are witnessing today.

Of course, opposition to elitism is often touted as a platform by politicians who claim to be allies of the people. And on the other hand, populism is usually a target of derision, even if its meaning is not precisely clear. Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset's "La Rebelion de las Masas" ("The Revolt of the Masses") is a prime example of condemnation of the folly of the public.

In this online world - or to put a finger point on it, Web 2.0 world - the masses are no longer a faceless, ignorant crowd.

Seeking answers together

Each individual suddenly has the means to instantly make himself or herself known and heard, and even seen, throughout the world. According to the gospel of Web 2.0, when these individual's opinions are shared on an scale truly unprecedented in mankind's history, they collectively develop a wiser outlook compared to that of a smaller group of intellectuals.

"Web Shinka-ron" ("Theory of Web Evolution") - a bestseller in Japan written by Mochio Umeda, an information-technology business consultant based in Silicon Valley - emphasized the optimism commonly seen in the U.S. regarding the possibility that Web 2.0 will usher in a better, fairer world.

Umeda wrote that search engines like Google are aimed at restructuring "the orders of the intellectual world" from "God's viewpoint," meaning that the search engines are figuratively watching over everything.

Google, according to Umeda, was launched with the idea to "sort out every single bit of the vast amount of information that keeps swelling in the world."

It is presumed that from within this restructured order, in which there are countless individual viewpoints that were once hidden, the right answers to the world's problems will eventually emerge. Those answers are supposed to be better than the ones put forth by experts, professionals, or authorities.

The concept of "God's viewpoint" in the Google world has echoes of Adam Smith's "God's invisible hand" - a reference to the extraordinary way the markets work, resisting human intervention however smart our minds may be.

Indeed, the adage "leave it to the market" has a contemporary version in today's Web 2.0 world: "Leave it to the masses."

Power to the people

In his 1979 book, "Free to Choose," American economist Milton Friedman, who died last year, launched scathing attacks on government agencies, bureaucrats, experts, and professionals who claimed to know what is good for the people better than people do themselves. Society's elite, which often works chiefly for its own interests or mistakenly believes its actions are good for the public, certainly felt the wrath of Friedman's pen.

For that matter, when she was the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher detested the bureaucrats in Whitehall who were arrogant enough to believe that they understood the needs of the people than themselves.

Although there is little knowledge of the Friedman and Thatcher philosophies in the Web 2.0 community, the online revolution clearly contains elements of their style of conservatism, if conservatism can be construed in such a context.

The blossoming Web 2.0 world may be seen as the ultimate democracy, wherein every citizen has a voice that can be truly heard.

But since democracy is not synonymous with a perfect society, there are inherent concerns as to the consequences of this new global order.

Reliance on authority

If we cannot stop or contain this trend - a reality we must accept - then we are obliged to prepare ourselves for it. This raises questions about the status of Japan, a nation with a strong inclination to rely on the authority of government, academia, or media, and where individual self-assertion is neither the norm nor highly respected.

A telling example is the messy debate about education reform now under way; the focus being squarely on what the government and educational administrators should do, rather than on wresting the education system back from the authorities and into the hands of parents, teachers and communities.

And so despite Mr. Umeda's emphasis on the positive elements of Web 2.0, there is much need for open discussion on the subject. In addition, negative aspects of online society such as invasion of privacy and abuses are of grave concern, and the mainstream media appear still skeptical and worried.

Whether politicians are aware of the impact that an Internet society will have on politics, and by extension Japan's democracy, is not clear. Another interesting question is how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who identifies himself as a conservative, views the conservative nature that lurks within the fabric of Web 2.0.

(Originally appeared in the January 29, 2007 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications