Exoticising the other: the technology edition

19 Feb

The New York Times recently published an article about Japan’s stubborn insistence on using fax machines, titled “In High-Tech Japan, the Fax Machines roll on.” While exploring an interesting phenomenon that certainly presents a rich topic of study, this article caught my attention with its layer of cheap-shot exoticising of the Japanese “other” overlayed on the otherwise interesting article. The revealing quote is below:

Japan’s reluctance to give up its fax machines offers a revealing glimpse into an aging nation that can often seem quietly determined to stick to its tried-and-true ways, even if the rest of the world seems to be passing it rapidly by. The fax addiction helps explain why Japan, which once revolutionized consumer electronics with its hand-held calculators, Walkmans and, yes, fax machines, has become a latecomer in the digital age, and has allowed itself to fall behind nimbler competitors like South Korea and China.

“Japan has this Galápagos effect of holding on to some things they’re comfortable with,” said Jonathan Coopersmith, a technology historian who is writing a book on the machine’s rise and fall. “Elsewhere, the fax has gone the way of the dodo.”

In Japan, with the exception of the savviest Internet start-ups or internationally minded manufacturers, the fax remains an essential tool for doing business.

It takes for granted the assumption that the reluctance to give up faxes is caused by “quiet determination to stick to its tried-and-true ways,” exploiting a vague stereotype about Japan that some readers might hold. This despite the fact that the article actually briefly hints at more fulfilling explanations of the fax trend, such as a cultural practices around paperwork in government bureaucracy:

Experts say government offices prefer faxes because they generate paperwork onto which bureaucrats can affix their stamps of approval, called hanko.

or the latin alphabet-centric design of personal computers:

“Handwritten messages have long been a necessity in Japan, where the written language is so complex, with two sets of symbols and 2,000 characters borrowed from Chinese, that keyboards remained impractical until the advent of word processors in the 1980s. Faxes continue to appeal to older Japanese, who often feel uncomfortable with keyboards, experts say.”

<Sidenote: who are these “experts say” and why not honor us with at least a fleeting attribution? I’m pretty sure this used to be a journalistic no-no back when I learned about it.>

I don’t know much about fax usage in Japan or what explains it, but I do know that simplified cultural stereotypes are unlikely to illuminate it. This framing also prevents us from appreciating invention that doesn’t look like what we are used to. This gem of an idea is buried at the very end of the article:

NTT, the giant domestic telephone company that originally helped develop affordable fax machines, has tried to bridge that gap. It is offering services that allow older Japanese to use their fax machines to send messages to their children’s and grandchildren’s smartphones, where they appear as attachments to e-mails.

And anyways, what’s so wrong with faxes?

I leave you with an imaginary paragraph inspired by this article:

United States’ reluctance to give up its personal checks offers a revealing glimpse into an aging nation that can often seem quietly determined to stick to its tried-and-true ways, even if the rest of the world seems to be passing it rapidly by. The personal check addiction helps explain why the US, which once revolutionized consumer internet with its search engines, social networks, mp3 players and smartphones, has become a latecomer in the digital payments age, and has allowed itself to fall behind nimbler competitors like South Africa, or Kenya.

“The Americans have this Galápagos effect of holding on to some things they’re comfortable with,” said Blahblah Blahdyblah, a technology historian who is writing a book on the checks’s rise and fall. “Elsewhere, the personal check has gone the way of the dodo.”

In most of the US, with the exception of the savviest Internet start-ups or younger internet users, the personal check remains an essential tool for doing business or paying bills.

 

 

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