February 20th, 2006


Structured for the individual

Now here's a thing. I'm off to Kyoto tomorrow for a couple of days. My next Wired column is due on Wednesday for publication next Tuesday, but I've written it today, and recorded the podcast mp3 file too. It's all ready to go... but I'm not entirely happy with it. (The pictures here don't really relate, by the way: I'm just in a Bruno Munari sort of mood.)

The reason I'm not entirely happy is that my article asks a question, but doesn't really answer it. So I want to try some "open source journalism" today. I want to throw this question open to you, and see if you can convince me to rewrite my piece on Wednesday evening when I get back from Kyoto. Perhaps you can focus my mind.

The article is based on a hunch I have that it's easier to be alone in public in Asian countries than it is in the West. Now, if Asian countries are collectivist and the West is individualist, you'd expect the opposite to be the case; you'd expect individuals to be catered to better in the West. You'd expect there to be more things a single person could go out and do, of an evening, in the West than there are in Asia. And certainly, there are things to do if you're a Western monad, a singleton at a loose end in a big city. You can go down to the gym, the skating rink, to church, to a casino, to a brothel. But you can't go to a sento, a maid bar, a manga cafe, a counter bar, a soapland, or various of the other infrastructural facilities Japanese cities have for single people visiting the "floating world".

In the West you always feel like a bit of a loser when you're eating alone in a restaurant, visiting a cinema alone, even just sitting alone in a cafe. I know I do, anyway, and I know I don't feel that way in Japan, partly I think because things are laid out differently here. Sushi and ramen bars, ticket restaurants, sentos, these have layouts and etiquettes which accommodate single people. They slurp noodles facing a wall, these happy monads, they make loud appreciative hippo noises as they wallow in the warm water next to complete strangers. Nobody alone in the West ever feels that much at ease with strangers in public. Do they?

I read online how a lot of people felt pretty wretched this last Valentine's Day. They felt like the third leg. They felt like all their friends were couples, and they couldn't go anywhere without feeling tragically... single. It strikes me that, basically, in the West we plug into society in the unit of the dyad, the couple, whereas in Asia you can plug into the collectivity as a monad, a singleton. I'm not quite sure why that is, but it seems to be the case. Is it because in a group society you're never alone, or because in a group society you really need to be alone?

This is what I want to run by you for open source testing. Anyone who's lived in Asia and in the West, do you share my take? Is it really easier to plug directly into the collectivity as a monad in Japan, for instance? Does America expect you to plug in as a couple? Do you feel like a loser reading a book in a restaurant facing an empty seat? Do you imagine the waiters are looking at you with pity or contempt? Do you feel like the basic social unit in the West is the couple, and if you do, how does that square with the image of the West as a paradise for individuals?

I may be quite wrong about this: it's quite possible that for every sad person in the West on St Valentine's Day there's a sad person in Japan on Christmas Eve (when you're supposed to go out with your lover)... as well as on St Valentine's Day, celebrated here too. And for every "quirkyalone" in the West, maybe, there's a "loser dog" in Japan, a person other people pity for being left behind in the race to couple up. These things operate in all societies. But my idea is that in theory it shouldn't just be as hard for individuals in Japan as in the West to plug into society directly, without coupling up. It should, intuitively, be much harder, if the West really were organized around individuals as it claims to be.