net.wars: Ubiq

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 03 December 2004

"It has dreams!" The face of the 30-ish DoCoMo demonstrator lit up like a little kid at Christmas and he giggled excitedly. He pushed a few buttons on the red "flagship" mobile phone, and it played very loud music. He held the phone in front of my nose. "3D sound!"

Wendy M Grossman

God help us if they ever release that in London.

As you travel forward across all those time zones and get California email from yesterday afternoon, you can understand why the Japanese think they're ahead of the world. In some ways they are.

We are visiting NEC, which each year runs a giant internal show, iExpo, for its customers. Americans get to find out what it's like to be a foreigner who can't read or speak the language in a monoglot environment. The anime-style robot, approached in English, stared back up at me without moving. "Try saying 'herro' instead of 'hello'," advised one of our Japanese hosts. I had been thinking the broadband in the hotel seemed remarkably fast; at the Broadband Center we are told that Japan has the cheapest broadband in the world. $38 and change per month buys you 40mbps. $40 in the US buys you 2mbps. And the UK is more expensive still.

The device that's universally glued to each member of the population, famously, is a mobile phone. And yet, despite our demonstrator's wild enthusiasm: it is a rare occurrence to hear one ring or to be able to hear what anyone is saying into one. The Metro is littered with signs reminding people not to use them while travelling. Mobile phones are far more pervasive - and far less of a social imposition than in the UK or US. Phones are personalised by the gewgaws hanging from their cords - red tassels, small, stuffed animals - not by their noises.

And yet also far ahead. One of the things DoCoMo's phones have is internal wallets - there are currently about 2,000 drinks vending machines scattered around that you can pay with your mobile phone.

The demonstration would have been more impressive if it hadn't been a lot clunkier than sticking a few coins in the slot. You use the phone to generate a QR code inside the phone - a sort of two-dimensional bar code that can carry up to 7,098 characters (it says there) in a tiny square block - enough to encode a business card or the set of details you need for a mobile payment. The machine scans the QR code, thinks for a while, and eventually dispenses your drink. It will be years before we have anything like it in the UK.

This is all part of the big buzz NEC is talking about: ubiquitous computing. The aforementioned incredibly cheap broadband. Wi-Fi enabled mobile phones, so you can make free calls to and from anyone in your company. Fifty-person video conferencing with shared whiteboard and presentations. And everything paperless: lower cost, everything available to everyone electronically.

In a corner of the model broadband office, aka NEC's sales department, a high-speed laser printer mutters to itself and spits out piles of paper. We point at it. "For the clients." Maybe also journalists. We are constantly handed presentations with very detailed, cluttered slides (unlike their Western counterparts that divulge no information about what the speaker might actually have said) printed double-sided on recycled paper.

These people are serious. As opposed to a British friend who has observed that, "The paperless office is about as useful as the paperless toilet." Imagine this spread across an entire country.

The thing is, as far as I can make out after only a few days, all this automation means something different in Japan. In the West, employers don't so much dream of the paperless office as the peopleless office. Bring in ATMs. Get rid of cashiers. Bring in ticket machines. Cut down on the hours the ticket window is open. Bring in security cameras. Lose the beat bobbies and watchful staff. In Japan, they add the machines and keep the people.

iExpo was full of what I started calling "human furniture": staff, usually young women, in uniforms, standing at attention but not there to perform any particular function like, say, directing you to a particular location or ensuring that people had entry tickets. They could have been flags, or potted plants. My native host tells me that in banks it's not uncommon to have two people and two machines, all waiting to serve you. Compared to the deprived West, the staffing levels here are incredible. It has to be worse to be unemployed with nothing to do than employed with nothing to do, and, like Henry Ford said during the Depression, explaining why he'd dramatically raised his workers' wages, these people are all consumers.

There is immense efficiency here that, as a New Yorker, I appreciate. Cashiers make change quickly, there are so many ticket machines in each metro station that it's unusual for a line to use one to be more than a few minutes long, at least outside rush hour. It's easy to understand in this context why the Japanese might be transfixed by the idea of ubiquitous computing, where everything is maximally automated.

And it's equally easy to understand why so many staff-deprived Westerners prefer muddle, mess, and uncertainty. These are cultural choices, and computing may become ubiquitous, but it won't be the same everywhere, even if our phones have the same dreams.

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