Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Comparative Computer Culture

All right, then, delivering on a long-overdue promise (threat?), I hereby subject you to my translated essay on Japanese computer culture. I've changed as little as possible, but all parenthetical notes are not part of the original text. Like everything I write, this is backed by little or no scholarship, and all opinions are mine, as are all typos and awkward phrasings. Enjoy!

A comparison of PC culture: differences between Japan and the US in using and thinking about computers

Among present-day households in developed nations, not having a computer is as unusual as not having a telephone. School reports and authors' manuscripts alike are not handwritten but word-processed. With the assistance of the Internet, the Information Age is spreading. And at its forefront are the birthplace of computers, the United States, and the world's electronics manufacturer, Japan. But while computers are essential to daily life in both the US and Japan, their significance and use differ in some respects. I'd like to think a bit about how computers are used and thought about differently in the US and Japan, and about how this difference came about.

From the invention of the digital calculator in the 1940's, computers have become progressively more useful. Year by year the size of new computers decreases, while their computing power continues to grow. The first successful computer for personal use was perhaps the Apple II, released in the 1970's, and from then "PC" (in Japanese, "pasocon") has become a household word. Currently (as of May 2008) the US-based HP is the world's largest computer manufacturer, and Japan's Toshiba is estimated to be the fifth-largest. According to national census data, the fraction of the total population that uses computers is about 74% in both the US and Japan. In 1995, this number was 54% in the US, and 16% in Japan. In summary, PCs spread extremely rapidly, and over the past few decades have become an essential part of daily life.

That computers have become essential to modern life is certain, but what are they generally used to do? Word processing, games, finding information and socializing on the Internet, and various other uses have become commonplace. At work as well, computers are more likely to be used than not. These uses have spread to the US and Japan alike, but there are differences in their use, in particular due to cell phones. Japanese people may read their email, surf the web, and play games on their cells rather than owning PCs. On the other hand, American cell phones can generally not be used as anything other than phones. (Wow, yeah, this is a bit dated. I think the point still holds, though.) Thus, in Japan, some of the functions of PCs are taken over by cell phones.

We can also see differences in the impressions of personal computers in pop culture. The computers that appear in American movies are, to put it simply, "inhuman". The most well-known example of this tendency is perhaps 2001's HAL. Though at first he plays nice and asks to be considered as merely a tool, HAL ultimately betrays his human companions and is destroyed by them. We are left with the impression that were computers to be able to think for themselves, they would not be able to coexist with humanity. In Japanese pop culture, on the other hand, computers are generally depicted not as competing with humanity, but rather as being used by or helping humans. For instance, in the popular Serial Experiments Lain (yeah, you knew that was going to come up, didn't you), whenever the protagonist turns on her computer, she addresses it, saying "hello navi"* and interacting with it as with a friend. As for why this should be the case, one might say that in Japan, a computer's capabilities are considered less important than its effect on one's lifestyle.

It is difficult to summarize the various attitudes towards personal computers, but I believe that, speaking generally, in the US the focus is on the specs and uses of a computer, while in Japan the interface and influence on one's lifestyle are considered more important. To Japanese people, whether computers are simply tools or beings on the level of humans, the heart of the matter is how they can be incorporated into daily life. They seem to spend more time thinking about the circumstances surrounding computers and their relationships with people. Over the course of thirty years, personal computers were invented and have become ubiquitous. If computer technology continues its rapid advance, then perhaps Japan, where so much attention is paid to the interfaces of computers and their effects on everyday life, will be able to adapt more easily to that new technology.

Whew! Finished. A plea for clemency: this was originally written in a language not my first, and has been translated, imperfectly, by me. This is no excuse for the fact that my evidence does not actually justify my conclusion. Nonetheless, let me know what you think!

*Footnote: while it may be obvious in Japanese (where "navi" is now a common term for a GPS), it's not in English, so I'll point out that "navi" here is the name of the computer. And yes, that's where Link's fairy got her name too.