TR: One of the messages of your new book is that the people in different countries use cell phones differently depending partly on the way the technology is rolled out, and partly on the culture of each country. Do you feel that there’s a misperception out there about cell phone culture in Japan that you and your collaborators were trying to correct?
MI: In conversations about technology in Japan, the assumption is that there is something inherent in a particular technology that makes it get taken up in a particular way, and it’s not inherently culturally specific. But at the same time, if there is something that seems different from how other countries have taken up a technology, it gets attributed to the cultural strangeness of the Japanese, i.e., if the Japanese don’t use cell phones like people in the U.S. it must be something cultural. I’m an anthropologist and I like cultural explanations, too. But it’s important to look at historical, economic, and other factors playing into it.
For example, it would be really easy to say that the reason Japanese people like text messaging over voice calling is because the Japanese are inherently more polite, or they don’t want to disrupt the environment. And that’s probably part of the explanation. But there’s also a lot of important historical reasons why that modality of communication has become so dominant.
The early history of pager technology, for example, had a very strong effect on how text messaging rolled out to other services like the mobile phone. [So many people used pagers for text-messaging before the spread of wireless telephony that texting was one of the first features the Japanese demanded in their cell phones. -Ed.] It’s a little bit too simple to say that any one of those factors is totally determining. The thing I was trying to resist is using culture as a residual category for the otherwise unexplainable.
TR: Your book includes many essays by Japanese scholars. What drives sociological research on mobile devices in Japan? Is there a sense that the way teens and adults use mobile phones is a burning social question?
MI: I think the “moral panic” has calmed down a lot since the period in the late ’90s when it was really a new phenomena…That term actually comes from Folk Devils and Moral Panics, a book by Stanley Cohen that was sort of a sociological work tracking how, whenever there’s a new phenomenon in youth culture, there’s this period where the press takes up these issues in a particular way. The usual pattern is that the activities of a relatively extreme minority of the youth population are generalized to the behavior of youth as a whole.
That definitely happened with mobile phones in Japan. Many people would say the mobile phone had an augmenting or maybe even a determining effect on the emergence of teen girl street culture.
Then there was the issue of manners and usage in public space, and I think that issue has really gotten resolved more or less, unlike in the U.S., where people are still working out the issue of when it’s appropriate to make a voice call. That’s totally disappeared as the subject of moral concern, partly because it’s been successfully regulated. The youth culture issues are inherently more complex, because there will always be a ‘youth problem’ that society is grappling with.
TR: Another theme in the volume is that people in Japan seem to use their mobile phones to strengthen their existing social connections within a fairly small group of intimates – whereas in the U.S., for example, people tend to use the Internet to look outward and communicate with many more people than they usually would.
MI: I think the findings are mainly showing that most [Japanese] kids use their phones most of the time to keep in touch with a close and existing social group. There is a relatively significant minority of kids who use the phones to get outside of that network. These tend to be kids who had their social network handed down to them. It’s less than 10 percent, but they’re important.
If you look at the technical layer, mobile phones are definitely optimized for intimate, interpersonal communication, whereas the Internet is broader. The mobile phone is moving in that direction, but it’s obviously still point-to-point communication.
I’m not really sure if this is an historically specific or culturally specific kind of trend. The fact that for most Japanese kids, their first point of access to the Internet is through the mobile phone, not the PC, is probably having a lot of subtle effects on how that networking is happening. But the concept that it’s allowing kids in Japan to break new ground socially? The research on that is probably more conservative. I’m just starting up some research in that area.
TR: Is there any way in which people in the United States should feel that they are “behind” Japan when it comes to cell phone technology?
MI: I think one of the things that we were trying to argue in the book is that there isn’t a single trajectory [for technology development]. If you look at Japan, South Korea, and the U.S., their technology trajectories have been completely different. That’s where you get an interesting opportunity for comparative sociology.
In the U.S., obviously the PC-based Internet has been the dominant information technology. South Korea is interesting because you see the layering of technologies – they are ahead in just about everything. But all three of these countries are outliers, in some sense. I don’t think it’s appropriate to say any of them are defining technology evolution. They represent three quite disparate ways in which information infrastructures have been rolled out.
Japan is interesting in that, unlike South Korea, it hasn’t been the leader in broadband and network technology. The reason it’s ahead in the mobile space is that it’s optimized for usage in that space. It’s still an advanced information ecology and yet it doesn’t have the same widespread broadband access. The government isn’t paying the same attention to certain forms of broadband wireless deployment.
The U.S. is an incubator for advanced PC Internet technology, and Japan is at the other end of the spectrum. The reason the Japanese are doing more diverse and cool things with their mobile phones is because they’re depending on them more as their primary information devices. It will continue to be an incubator for interesting mobile technologies, but is certainly not the site were you should look for everything IT.