Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Embracing Technological Change: A Cautionary tale form Japan

I apologize up front if this sounds like a gripe. It sort of is. But then again, perhaps it's more of a cautionary tale.

You see, I've lived in Japan for over seven years now, soon to be going on my eighth, and after just a brief couple more years I'll have been here a decade! Wow, time really flies when you get swept up in the hustle and bustle of life's current.

I have constantly had to battle a strange phenomenon here in Japan. It is the divide of technological know-how and actual access to technology.

In my experience, Japanese people are on the low end of technological know-how and understanding, which is sort of paradoxical since we all realize Japan is always on the cutting edge of technology.

And this is true. But only partially true.

Japanese firms, corporations, and technology companies are on the cutting edge, because ever since Japan's post war restructuring they have had the jump-start on being able to produce such new technologies. Thus the private sector of business excels at generating new technologies for the consumers, and--to a large extent--it is what drives the Japanese economy.

Meanwhile, for how much technology they have at their fingertips, your average Japanese citizen is way behind on the learning curve when it comes to new technology.

Although Japan had DVD technology at the same time as the U.S., DVD media did not actually permeate mainstream culture until half a decade after Uncle Sam adopted it as a standard for digital media storage.

The same problem can be seen today when looking as SD card technology, which is, ONLY now (as of 2012), beginning to become affordable because it's breaking into the Japanese commercial market. Even just two years ago a high end 32 Gig SD memory card would set you back $200 in Japan. Today you can get the same for about $80.

But even so, Japan still sells the SD cards at a premium. Why? Because there's not as much demand for them. They aren't part of any kind of standard. A quick search shows me that a Sandisk Extreme Pro. 32gig which loads 95mb/s is still approximately $20 more in Japan than in the U.S.

I find this peculiar, because Japan has more SD cards floating around in digital cameras and mobile phones than any other country on the planet, yet when it comes to simple memory storage, it's not even thought of as a viable option.

Likewise, I sense that Japanese people have a general reluctance to adopt a new technology.

I have my theories.

Much of Japan is a graying nation. Elderly people often have a harder time keeping up with the lighting fast pace of ever changing technologies as we move toward the Singularity. Additionally, there is the generation gap between those who grew up with the technology flow, and those who did not. For whatever reason, it's this general reluctance which makes them slow to the up take.

Sadly, this reluctance to adopt new technologies and adapt along with it increases the more rural you go (geographically speaking). But this is strange to me for a different reason, there really is no such thing as "rural Japan." Even the most remote village is just an hours drive before you find yourself in the middle of a thriving city. At the same time, thriving cities are only a short two hour hop on the bullet-train to a mega-city like Tokyo, Osaka, or Fukuoka.

In other words, there is no real geographical barrier preventing new ideas or new technologies from permeating all of Japan. Except for the attitude, nothing should be preventing Japanese people from trailing the technology curve like the tail of a comet trails its body.

Let me paint you a picture of how bad it really is out here in "rural Japan."

I work in the Japanese education system (privately contracted). My schools, as well as my board of education, are equipped with decade old IMBs or NECs twice refurbished.

Some of them still even have floppy disk drives! I kid you not.

Meanwhile, they have maxed out the machines specs so they will be able to run Windows XP. Not Vista, mind you. Not Windows 7. Not even Windows 8. We're talking a decade old software here. It is matched by the fact that most of these computers are running MS Office 2003. More decade old software.

This is true for nearly ALL of "rural Japan."

Only the city schools, usually vocational high schools and colleges, have updated to the latest generation of software. One of the local universities of technology in Kumamoto, the town I live, bought ALL their educational staff third gen iPads to use in the class. I remember it well, because it made the front page of the city newspaper. But that's here in the "big" ole city. Not out there, you know, in the rest of Japan.

I once asked my BOE why they simply didn't buy a couple new computers for all the schools or obtain refurbished computers which are capable of handling the latest gen software. I was told that is was because they simply didn't have the budget for it.

No money. Okay, I get it. All schools have such financial woes--even in Japan.

That spring, my BOE bought 52 inch. full 1080 capable HD tvs (SHARP Aquos) for the schools. They didn't buy just one television, though. They bought one for every single classroom at every JHS and Elementary school! That's nearly two dozen HD televisions!

Granted, the cost of a single HD television has dropped considerably in the last few years, but to claim they don't have money for some new computers or software, but then turn around and purchase nearly two dozen $600 televisions is, well, kind of suspect.

If they didn't have any money, where did all of it come from when they needed to buy new televisions?

Ah, that's just it though. It's not about the desire to upgrade, but the necessity. This television buying splurge, which has been seen throughout Japan, largely has to do with Japan's sudden conversion to digital television only. Analog ceases to function.

But that was a forced change. If the television companies and the government hadn't enforced the change, well, people would still be using the old tech.

My confusion comes from the fact that they blew their entire budgets on buying TVs. Why not by just a dozen TVs and then spend the other half on a dozen new computers with the latest software?

In today's age, you can get a nifty laptop for $600.

My guess is simply this, this general technological disinterest, which is rooted within much of Japan, is to blame. As far as I can tell, nobody sees a need for updating the computer lab or the teachers computers. My fear is that Japan is only going to make the upgrade when the technology leaps so far ahead that the old tech becomes outmoded, like the whole digital TV thing.

I find this a frightening prospect. Being forced to change, by necessity, can never be easy. Waiting for it to happen is unwise. My hope is that in the future Japan will phase out their old technology gradually, while adopting and adapting to the new technology. Sometimes you have to paddle a little bit to ride the wave, but once you get on top of it, it's smooth surfing.

What Japan seems to be doing, however, is the opposite. They are paddling out to sea and are facing down an ever growing tsunami. Let's hope the worst doesn't happen. Japan, after all, has all the technology. It would be quite ironic if its greatest obstacle to come in decades was due to its lack of interest in keeping up with technology.

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