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The multi-tasking tribe - click opera — LiveJournal
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Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 09:44 am
The multi-tasking tribe

My first Wired column is online. It's a piece called "Reading Green Tea Leaves in Tokyo" and it's about how capitalism shows different faces in different places, how some of its localized versions are less toxic than others, less injurious to human health and human intelligence, and whether these differences are down to consumers or producers.

Scanning the Wired site, I found a really nice article entitled How mobile phones conquered Japan. It's a review of a new English-language book called Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life. The article made me realise how scarred my brain has become by reading (and refuting) the daily doses of crusading cynicism going on over at Neomarxisme. I now half expect every book about Japan to be an exposé of conspiracies, yakuza control, or gripes about a system that's headed for oblivion. So it's tremendously refreshing to read the conclusion of the Wired piece: "By understanding how a once-alien technology became such a natural extension of everyday life in Japan, we may yet understand what is in store for the rest of the world."

Xeni Jardin, who wrote the piece, comes to this delightfully Japanophilic conclusion (its optimism matches my own basic feeling about Japan) not after turgid, cynical analyses of the business structure or marketing history of the keitai, but with a look at Japan's history, and specifically at cultural precedents like "the legend of Sontoku (Kinjiro) Ninomiya, a Johnny Appleseed-like national folk hero often represented in statues outside bookstores and schools... most often remembered reading as he walks, burdened with bundles of firewood gathered in daily chores. The book points to this multitasker ancestor as a precursor of contemporary nagara ("while-doing-something-else") mobility, a concept now embodied in students who wander from home to class and back again, eternally gazing into a palm full of e-mails."

This sense that Japan's technological modernity (and even avant gardism) might be rooted not in incomplete emulations of the West but in something very ancient, folksy and specifically Japanese is exactly what I feel about the country; that it's a place where, as I put it in my Superlegitimacy essay, trains may look like Western trains, but are actually "a set of Japanese etiquettes and assumptions travelling through space".

I asked Hisae about this idea of the "multi-tasking tribe", the Nagara-zoku, and she came up immediately with an even older, more folksy ancestor: Prince Shotoku Taishi, a medieval multi-tasker so intelligent that he could listen to what ten people were saying, all speaking at once. He's the man in the statue to the left, and he would have loved the keitai.

It might seem odd to hold the view that Japanese phenomena are so rooted in local Japanese traditions, and yet applicable (by "Japanization") to the rest of the world, but I don't think it's a contradiction. When I think of the really successful Japanese products—Pokemon, or the films of Miyazaki, for instance—they're successful because they're full of a very specific Japaneseness. Their universality is rooted in their particularism, and their global reach comes from their local resonance.

It's odd that Marxy and I have such different views of Japan—mine culturalist, aestheticist, utopian-evangelical, his structuralist, business-oriented and pessimistic—and odder still to read, in a recent Marxy interview, that my early essays about Japan (he cites Shibuya-kei is Dead) were a big influence on the young Marxy: "He was the only one I could find who really understood what was going on there."

But it wouldn't be the first time theologians (because that's what we are, Japan theologians) have diverged. I was watching a documentary last night called "God's Rottweiler", a biography of Pope Benedict. Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Kung were both modernisers in the 1960s, responsible for bringing the Catholic church into the 20th century (Vatican 2 saw the end of Latin mass, for instance). But they soon diverged, Ratzinger deciding that liberalization was making the church lose its identity, and Kung heading leftwards into Marxist-influenced Liberation Theology. (There's a nice joke about Ratzinger and Kung at the Pearly gates here.) So which of us is Ratzinger and which of us is Kung? I leave that up to you to decide.

61CommentReply

kineticfactory
kineticfactory
this is not your sawtooth wave
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 09:37 am (UTC)

Congratulations on your WIRED column. To commemorate, here is a Momus magazine cover:


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 09:48 am (UTC)

Wah! That photo must have been taken at my ICA performance in 2003! I'm wearing my friend Suzy's jacket! I wish she'd let me keep it, it's very "Emo-Commie"!


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jinty
jinty
jinty
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 09:52 am (UTC)

I really like the idea that the Japanese culture has a tradition of 'doing something else at the same time' -- enshrined in folklore to boot. Think I might adopt one of those ancestors as an elective affinity figure...

::off to read the review::


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 09:55 am (UTC)

By the way, on the Ratzinger-Kung question, I think I'm Ratzinger. Because I tend to want things to keep strong identities, hold onto their otherness. In fact, I'd go further than Ratzinger and put the mass back into Latin if I were pope. I mean, what's the point of promoting the illusion that we can understand something as irrational and opaque as the mass? Better to preserve its otherly charisma, and work on people with the "charm of otherness". But, lest that sound incredibly reactionary, I'd say the same about Kung. He should become a Marxist pur et dur rather than try to make some impossible, silly pact between Marxism and Catholicism, diluting them both and falling between stools in the process.

If you're looking for someone to blame for attitudes like these, blame Denis Donoghue, whose 1982 Reith lectures The Arts Without Mystery were a big influence on me. (Hint: he was attacking the Coles Notes concept that you can de-mystify the arts and that the arts without mystery would be in any way desireable.) Wish the Beeb would hurry up and get those lectures online so I can see whether I still agree with all Donoghue's ideas.


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kineticfactory
kineticfactory
this is not your sawtooth wave
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 11:50 am (UTC)

Though don't incomprehensible, unquestionable rituals such as religious observances in languages not understood by the public (be they the Latin Mass, memorisation of the Koran in Arabic or what have you) lead to a culture of unquestioning blind faith, rigid hierarchy and submission to authority, which can be exploited by those well situated to push their own agendas?


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 10:21 am (UTC)
"the Momus" of the 00s? Thanks goodness NOT!

Well maybe now you are the voice of the Westerner in Japan. What Momus was to you in the 90s may be who you are to curious people in the 00s. Especially since the distribution of Japanese popular culture has saturated the masses.

I don't think I'm "the Momus" of the 00s when it comes to Japan, because he always has been "selling Japan" to a certain extent. I think he got people (including me to some extent) excited about what was going on there in the late 90s. I am not really selling Japan as much as selling the idea of "understanding Japan." And like with anything, the more you understand it, the less you idealize/worship it.

I also feel the responsibility to correct a lot of the common misconceptions about Japanese pop culture that abound in the Western media. They are slow to the story, and what’s nice about blogs and the Internet, is that we can provide real-time coverage.

I get such a reputation for being a grump or jaded or "disillusioned" or "a bitchy Westerner" when it comes to Japan, but if you want to start being disillusioned about Japan, the only thing you have to do is pull back the curtain and look at the way the cultural industries work here.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 10:30 am (UTC)
Re: "the Momus" of the 00s? Thanks goodness NOT!

If you're going to make fun of my interview text, you should blockquote it or something. Or compare it to lyrics by the Grass Roots etc.

Marxy


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 10:26 am (UTC)

Interesting that Ratzinger wants to preserve an identity that was already adrift, and Kung's Marxism is actually closer to folksy Jesus. Some issues (abortion, contraception) are sacrosanct when it comes to change (despite the fact that the bible hardly mentions them), while issues that both the old and new testament are very clear on (over 50 direct and 20 indirect indications that the lending and borrowing of money for profit is wrong) find themselves dismissed through 'having to live in the real world'. I don't suspect either Ratzinger or Kung would take a crusade against banking (the larger church commissioners being some of the world's biggest investors), but that the modernising/preserving filter is a personal and human set of prejudices and has little Christian content is always worth stating.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 10:34 am (UTC)

I guess that's why the joke about Christ being chased out of heaven by Ratzinger saying "I was wrong!" is funny.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 10:53 am (UTC)
From Marxy

I haven't fully read the book mentioned above, so I don't want to criticize it. But I think everyone should be suspicious about finding essentialist Japanese characteristics, dating from time eternal, that somehow facilitate today's keitai culture. The reason that specific generation was/is called the "nagara-zoku" was precisely because they weren't supposed to be so "unfocused" - according to the "typical" rules of Japanese behavior. If that had been a traditional Japanese trait, why would you give it a new name all of a sudden? I think nagara-type behavior actual spans across all cultures and is mainly driven by adapting our behavior to technological innovation.

You can always go back in history and find precursors to some modern event, but you can find an equal number of counterexamples, and it is almost always impossible to prove a those cultural properties' clean descent from the past.

A better avenue to think about keitai is the fact that government over-regulation essentially squashed all computer-based Internet usage until broadband. In the 70s, Japan was supposedly ahead of the US in terms of digitizing contents and making electronic data networks, but the ridiculous restrictions on owning second phone lines and prohibitively high phone rates made cell phones a much easier place for Internet-esque culture to arise.

There is also a (somewhat dubious) linguistic explanation that teachers have never wanted computers in the classroom, because computers do not encourage Japanese students to learn how to write kanji by hand. But whatever the case, there has never been a strong computer culture in Japan and all the functions that sold the Internet to consumers in the West ended up selling keitai to Japanese consumers. Phones are also cheaper to buy than computers, which was crucial for getting kids involved.

odder still to read, in a recent Marxy interview, that my early essays about Japan (he cites Shibuya-kei is Dead) were a big influence on the young Marx

I used to feel almost the same way about Japan as you did. But then I discovered that I have some serious ethical qualms with many of the driving forces behind Japanese pop culture. I *wish* you were right about things, but I would just have to ignore a lot of things I've learned.

Marxy


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 11:33 am (UTC)
Re: From Marxy

Interesting point about computers, and, from my own observation at least, it seems to be true. My brother runs a software company, and when he visited me in Japan he spent some time investigating the kinds of software they were generally using. He said the software was about fifteen years behind the West.


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Re: From Marxy - (Anonymous) Expand

Marxy - (Anonymous) Expand
alisgray
alisgray
spoonful of sugar, pinch of salt
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 11:31 am (UTC)

I do love Wired, and that was an excellent article. Ecclectic.

(I can't separate JKGalbraith from the Cheaper By the Dozen books, even though they're not quite the same -- Gilbreth/Galbraith.)


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 11:40 am (UTC)
kishi keisuke

This post reminds me for some reason of the work of Kishi Keisuke


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 11:47 am (UTC)
conspiracy theory and cake

hey, didn't momus just change the title of that WIRED article right under our noses?


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33mhz
33mhz
The Queen of Overdub Kisses
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 02:42 pm (UTC)
Re: conspiracy theory and cake

You know the "WiRED" sensibility that made magenta text on acid green paper seem like a good idea in 1997? After the dot-com crash, that sensibility had to go underground, but still operates in the form of making stupid editorial decisions under the noses of their guest writers.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 11:48 am (UTC)

Who the fuck is "Hans Kung"?

Cheers,
Diacritics Matter.


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me_vs_gutenberg
me_vs_gutenberg
throbbing temples of love
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 03:10 pm (UTC)

Reading while walking isn't a very smart thing to do though. It's begging for injuries, especially of the feet, elbows, or head.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 03:51 pm (UTC)
Ouch

Exactly. What's so hilariously wrong-headed about this whole analysis is that many people in Japan have a hard enough time walking down the street without hitting things, even when they aren't nuzzling into their cell phones.


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sparkligbeatnic
sparkligbeatnic
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 03:53 pm (UTC)


This may be the most quaintly strange and fascinating CO post ever, starting as it does with with Wired and ending up at late 20th century Catholic theology, via Marxy and Shotoku Taishi.

Certainly not run-of-the-mill.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 04:25 pm (UTC)

I'm thinking Marxy is going to be annoyed by this article in Wired too. It says that Asian people see differently from Western people—looking at context more, emphasizing harmony—and that the differences are cultural. "The way that we see and explore the world literally depends on where we come from". No big surprises there, but it does rather undermine the project of people from one culture telling people from another how they should run things.

I also think, in the light of this new research, we should ban "Ebony and Ivory" from ever being played again, with its now-false line about "we all know that people are the same
wherever you go".


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand






cutup
cutup
Mr. the Cutup
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 04:47 pm (UTC)

Is there any chance you could put a search feature on your LJ info page? All LJ journals come equipped with one (the magnifying glass icon), but it's pretty limp, and doesn't really find everything. I put a freefind one on mine, but there are plenty of others out there. It'll probably take an hour for it to index.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 04:56 pm (UTC)

It's terribly easy to search Click Opera. Just use Google, and put

imomus + search term

(without the plus sign).


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 05:37 pm (UTC)
Thank you and damn you (in a nice way of course).

"In Japan, even the Coca-Cola corporation was selling bottles and cans of green tea alongside Coke and Fanta. Pure, super-healthy green tea, without additives, without sugar. It seemed like an object lesson in the nature of capitalism -- capitalism didn't have to be inherently toxic. It didn't have to put too much sugar or salt in stuff, or sell you drinks that made you fat."

DAMN IT MOMUS! This has nothing to do with "Capitalism"

Capitalism is a mode of production in which the output of the productive cycle is owned by the providers of Capital, i.e. the Tools and Machines that the Workers use, and/or the money/credit to buy such machines. That is why it is called _Capital_ism.

IT IS NOT A SYNOMYM FOR ANY BUSINESS UNDERTAKING.

_BUSINESS_ is not by nature a bad thing, as you say, but _Capitalism_ *IS* always and everywhere a bad thing, not because it sells sugary drinks, but because it exploits the worker and consentrates wealth in the hands of nonproductive Capital owners.

It is very frustrating that so many creative, intellegent writers such as yourself conflate "Capitalism" with business, this is exactly the framing the right wing propogates, as if allowing a wealthy elite of property owners to appropriate the product of workers is somehow a prerequisite to vending beverages. PLEASE STOP IT.

Ok, sorry, rant over.

By the way, thanks for Eye Patch. It was great, my eye is better now and I would love to return it with my gratitude.

If you are in the neighbourhood, every tuesday (including tonight) is my Stammtisch. 20:30 or so at Cafe Buchhandlung, 32 Tucholskystr. Berlin-Mitte. Please drop by if you like, the DJ, Emma, is generaly quite good. I will be happy to buy you a drink or two ;)

In anycase, some other time if you can't make it.

Cheers,
Dmytri.



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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 05:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Thank you and damn you (in a nice way of course).

Hi Dmytri, I'm in Scotland right now so can't make your Stammtisch. Glad the eye is better.

Your point about capitalism is well taken, although I think the distinction between capitalism and business is a bit too neat. Have there been any instances of capitalism existing without business? Can they really be disentangled?


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
butterflyrobert
RND
Tue, Aug. 23rd, 2005 06:27 pm (UTC)
Re: Confusion

Churches always rely on subterfuge and scare tactics - it is the only way that they would exist at all. Momus proposes to make these absurd institutions more pleasing for the rest of us by maintaining/accentuating their otherness.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand




Re: Confusion - (Anonymous) Expand



Re: Confusion - (Anonymous) Expand