2003年02月01日 土曜日

Digitized Asianess

by Tosh Chiang


You look at your DVD player; it's made by Sony. So is your TV; your stereo is only an Aiwa but Sony owns them too. There's a developed/developing media position associating Asianess with technology; how so is this popular culture infusing/liquidizing Asianess?

There you are standing in front of your TV, popping in a copy of �gRobocop3�h into the DVD player. It's not even a good movie but there you are watching it-- a movie in which a Japanese corporation sends a suited cyborg samurai to defeat a Detroit made-in-the-USA titanium cyborg-cop. This is when you start to notice something: technology is associated with an asianess of sorts. But no, you�fve thought this before. You think of William Gibson's classic techno-future novel �gNeuromancer,�h where all the best underground technology came from Japan. You think of "Snow Crash" by Neil Stephenson with the ninja-like Hiro Protagonist character. You think of "Ghost in the Shell:�h the classic anime with the cybernetic hot-shot robot. You even think of Philip K. Dick's �gBlade Runner�h and its bastard child, Luc Besson's �gthe 5th Element�h and remember that many of the scenes took place in a kind of post-industrial Asian cityscape; who can forget that image in Blade Runner with the jumbotron shot of the Geisha girl? You have this entire backlog in the mind of movies which seem to pair asianess with technology, with the future. That's when it hits you. You look at your DVD player; it's made by Sony. So is your TV; your stereo is only an Aiwa but Sony owns them too. There's a developed/developing media position associating Asianess with technology; how so is this popular culture infusing/liquidizing Asianess?

First off take a look at Sony. Sony is widely regarded as a leader in consumer electronics (pioneers of the walkman, compact disc, memory stick and mini-disc among other things). In fact many of Sony's invented gadgets (invented concepts as well) are now household names; who would have known what a �gmemory stick�h was fifty years ago? But it was indeed fifty years ago, during the post-WWII era, that Totsuka Co. (Tokyo Telecommunications Research Institute) began manufacturing and repairing transistor radios in an attempt to reconnect Japan into global communications. Humorously, rice cookers of questionable rice-cooking success were even produced! Yet by the 80's, Totsuka had changed names to Sony to increase the potential for a global market. Rightly so, Sony established itself as the name brand-- making it widely agreed that Japan, the home of Sony, Toyota and Honda, could produce and introduce gadgets far more efficiently than the U.S.A. 80's movies ranging from �gBack to the Future�h to even �gDie Hard�h contained statements concerning Japan's technological superiority. There's even �gGung Ho�h with Michael Keaton and Gedde Watanabe, where a successful Japanese car manufacturer sets up plant in America only to be disappointed by American worker laziness. And what is the portrayal of a nihongin saruriman?: they are up-tight perfectionist workaholics. How could this Ron Howard movie get made if and only if it was some expression of the American concept of the Japanese?

Yet the premise here is that for some reason, modern technology isn't race free. Sony is a brand name that everyone knows is Japanese; this could be a rough base, an arguable foundation to work with (don�ft forget that a katakana sony is on every gadget). But what of computers and the ensuing digital culture? The evolution of the modern PC was fairly American, was grounded in the Silicon valley area of California. The pioneer of the microprocessor was American: Intel--inventing the 4004 microprocessor in 1971. Motorola offered competition as well but was an Illinois born company. Interestingly though, it would seem that most people would assume Motorola's geographical origins the same as Mitsubishi, Yamaha and Panasonic (originally Matsushita Electric). Yet on account of Intel and ubiquitous figures like Bill Gates, have computers become associated with Americaness? The link seems weak. But one thing which could be associated globally with America is Latham Shole's typwriter-originated QWERTY keyboard. Perhaps the fact that other languages are not exactly suited for this keyboard associates the keyboard with Americaness? Perhaps the keyboard is even a messy metaphor for globalization and the loss of culture: the fitting of several lingual systems into one? Though, several new culture-specific keyboard systems have been emerging to suit the culture of its design.

So, if there is a digital culture which is asian-ated, how so does it manifest itself? As cited heavily before, many movies splice asianess with technology and the future. Take a movie like the Matrix. Besides the Kung-Fu scenes there was something else mobilized: a visual style which was reminiscent of countless anime-- even the serialized green and black Graphical User Interface of the Matrix (ala Ghost in the Shell's opening credits). Delve into the world of anime further and there is a style and imagination suggestive of cutting edge freshness and hipness. The Marvel Comic �gthe X-MEN�h even features the Psychlocke character, a woman who underwent facial reconstruction to look more Asian. Many future movies too (Johnny Mnemonic, Star Wars) seem to utilize the Asian-based alphabets in the visuals. Yet it's hard to tell if there is a statement in that or merely a lack of creativity in the filmmaker's attempt to present an evolved character system. What becomes evident is that Asian culture itself isn't really imbedded in digital culture; it's the imagery that's been borrowed: the ideographic alphabets, the Zen garden �glook,�h a certain way of framing moments. The triumph may just be that Japan has a much more daily and symbiotically integrated concept of technology than most other cultures do;this stylizes the Japanese as techno-savants and therefore infuses technology with asianess. The term asianess is used simply so that the idea can be more broadly wielded as asianess is globally, de facto, more dispersed than japaneseness.

Finally, it seems as though sci-fi media sources are acting like self-sustained time machines-- making technology more Asian now by portraying it as such in the future. And is it that Japan, the leader of conceptualizing, producing and popularizing creative technology now, can make the now and future more visually Asian? Of course there are several good examples of digital culture/future movies which lack the Asian connection: Hackers, Wargames, Enemy of the State. So nothing is exactly cut and dry with this subject. But nevertheless, there is definitely something to explore...(post some comments!)

Tosh Chiang attends Bard College in New York, where amongst late-night coffee-fueled madness and pancake free-for-alls, he plays in two bands (the ex-jean jackets, The Broken Bottles), edits and writes for the Bard Free Press, thinks about building tiny electronic toys for integrated arts classes and studies a lot of Sociology. He likes to write too, and sometimes enjoys the occasional cup-o-joe to a finely tuned donut.

Posted by Tosh Chiang at 2003年02月01日 15:47


Thanks for starting these thoughts Tosh - I guess as a young kid in Chicago I was intruigued by the world of tech spelled out in Blade Runner and Akira. And when I got to Japan the neon and televisions in the streets sort of clicked - there is a certain overwhelming amount of electronic light in Shinjuku or Shibuya that's present perhaps in Times Square or Las Vegas. So that's not uniquely Japanese. But there are small pockets of rich neon replicated throughout the country - nearly everywhere there's a pachinko parlor, for example.

But certainly simple lines, glowing neon, vaguely pictographic characters - it's technology as something inherited or claimed or adapted from an other, mostly by Western filmmakers/authors/artists. Of course with Japanese animation, it might be something like cannibalism? Or the idea that this aesthetic of technology you describe has been adapted across cultures now. In a way this is some Chanponesque mixing - anime references Disney, car navigation systems echo computers, William Gibson idolizes Shinjuku and DoCoMo idolizes William Gibson. It's a circular feedback loop emphasizing an increasingly rarified set of symbols.

I'm curious - did this essay spring from strong feelings you have about asianness and technology? You describe the issue, but don't speak directly about your opinions.

2- tosh

This essay has been churning in me for quite a while. And though I wish that I could locate its origin, well, I can't. I do feel that asianess is often linked to technology but I wonder if I'm biased in wanting to see that concept. When I walk into the Matrix 2
will I already be pre-disposed to searching out the asianess??--making links that may not really exist? This is the problem that I have and why I kept the essay impersonal. I want to be able to analyze the subject with a scholarly slant but because of that, I must be aware of just what I am: a kid who's identity is less hard-wired into race and culture, and more immersed in my network of friends and interests. Sure I'm asian and one of my interests does happen to be the sociological aspects of technology. And as an asian techno-gadget junky (a nerd if you will), is it that I'm uncnciously finding myself more asian, through the use of gadgets which I see as asian-originated?...similiar to the postive feedback loop which you mentioned with Gibson?

Really I'm not sure. One thing though Justin, I can totally remember the first time I saw Akira, the one scene in the opening with the neo-tokyo neon shots and the driving electroish music shot through me like lightening. [I regret having bought the hong kong import instead of getting the tin collectors edition!]

Anyways, the whole digitized asianess is still "in my system" and maybe I'll be able to foament-out some more convincing thoughts/observations.arguments.

3- Keiko

But don't forget that not everything designed to look "Asian" wasn't designed by an actual Asian person. The art director of Blade Runner wasn't Asian--the art director of The Matrix isn't Asian. So the "Asian" influence is filtered a great many times thru a number of competing and conflicting sensibilites.

And not every electronic gadget (or motorcycle) sold by an Asian conglomerate is desgined or engineered by an Asian.

4- tosh

Thats a good point. But another thought
to spin on might be this:
whether or not something was designed by an asian does not implicitly determine how it will be perceived. If someone learns the language/the code/the symbols well enough, then they can present/manipulate them in a believable fashion. Its like when you go to japanese food eateries in the US. A vast majority of them seem to be run my chinese and koreans--does this make the food less japanese? Does the perception of tasty maguro conqueor the fact that the sushi chef was korean? Does that therefore lead to an argument against marxist type culture associations--degrounding culture somehow from production?

Therefore, can a non-asian designer use the asian aesthetic with credibility?
(really i don't know) I would just be cautious in citing authenticity based on race.
The main difference may be that when a non-asian uses asianess, its a commodification of the culture and not a tradition-based expression. But even so, with the Japanese world being so more luddist (willingly technology oriented) could it be that their designs, often the first of a kind, could be acting as archetypes, as blueprints for followers?
The asian look may originate in an asian designer using a tried and true, culturaly authentic aesthetic for...asian people. What I'm interested in is perhaps why that look is so alluring to westerners.

And to take a step back, its not as though there isn't an americaness associated with cars, guns and motorcycles. What of the instances of the Honda Valkrie harley look alike? What of the japanese cult harley bikers who dress up like Eric Estrada in CHiP's (a long past tv show about california highway patroleman).

Anyways, I really like your comment. For perhaps, the act of a westerner using an asian style is an embodiement chanponess(?).

5- kaki

has anybody here read cybertypes by lisa nakamura? she has some interesting things to say about this.

anyway, i think 'asian' is rather typically used as visual short hand for the "incomprehensible" or "strange." this can be found in all sorts of films from chinatown to bladerunner. with digital technology, 'asian' represents the threat and allure of an automated and computationally driven utopian/dystopian future. beautiful, glittering, impossibe to understand. it's a projected fantasy that fits into "oriental mystic" stereotypes.

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