A Tale of Four Cities - Digitalization and Diversity

Senior Fellow, RIETI

After traveling to Kyoto, Paris, Geneva and Berlin, I arrived in Boston. By jetting around the world and seeing both the old and new, I was reminded of the relationship between digitalization and the world we live in.

Digitally Transmitting the Culture of the Ancient City - Kyoto

In Kyoto, I visited the Kyoto Nishijin Machiya Studio. This studio is based on a project led predominantly by the Kyoto Prefectural Government and the Kyoto University of Art and Design to remodel houses in the Nishijin area so as to create a broadband base. The project is an experiment to digitalize the culture of the ancient city of Kyoto, which has undergone more than a thousand years of cultivation, and transmit it to the world.

At a traditional Japanese clothing store near the studio, I had the opportunity to talk with a group of shop owners, whose families have for many generations been in business in this ancient city. They told me that even the businesses of the historic Nishijin area of Kyoto are being influenced by the digital wave, with traditional patterns and colors now being digitally stored and reproduced in the production of products such as ties. However, it is still the case that basically products are made by manual and analog methods, and it appears that digital equipment is only brought into the working process when it cannot really be held off any longer, and if there is some practical use for digital equipment.

The shop owners of Nishijin, who are split into purveyors of thread, drapers, tailors, obi , Japanese sandals or geta, and cord, complain that times are hard for business but they do not yet feel a sense of true crisis. In the bad times, these merchants can use their accumulated wealth to make ends meet. When times are better, though, they do not expand the scope or size of their businesses, but rather squirrel away money industriously. Local businesses have from time immemorial repeated this model, so that it has come to be used by all, and sustained them for over a thousand years. It is knowledge inherent to the community.

Sustaining Diversity through Self-expression in Individual Sectors - Paris

While in Paris I attended an event at the French Senate. In this august body I gave a speech in a grand manner, saying "While digital equipment is a modern weapon born in the United States, do you not think you can overcome American functionalism and modernism?" and "Can a system like that in France of nation-initiated infrastructure, such as Minitel, the TGV and the rocket industry, be maintained in broadband?"

Despite my enthusiasm and keenness, my speech however was scoffed at by the elderly French, who said, "The important thing is not to have such high and mighty talk, but to put words into practice. How should we transmit information about special products of certain towns and information from village offices? That would mean utilizing digital methods for each job and item of work that has for many years worked perfectly well under manual, analog methods. Using existing technology is more important than developing new infrastructure." They added that it would be necessary for each individual sector to express itself and thereby support diversity.

World Summit on the Information Society - Most Important Project Now - Geneva

I visited the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva. Although Geneva is home to many United Nations organizations' head offices, Switzerland is a country that has only just decided through a national referendum to participate in the United Nations. This feeling of independence and distance from the international community could be due to the fact that Switzerland is surrounded by the three large powers of Germany, France and Italy? When you look and see that on the European continent the introduction of the single euro currency is proceeding smoothly, the way of life being pursued by Switzerland, which is to not simply become assimilated, is all the more noticeable.

I had the opportunity to meet with the Secretary General of the ITU Yoshio Utsumi. The most important project now for the ITU is the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). This will be held in 2003 in Geneva and 2005 in Tunis, and the main theme will be the digital divide. Discussions will focus on methods to ensure that all people in the world can enjoy the benefit of digital knowledge.

Even in this forum, interest is turning away from the development of infrastructure to diversity in information. While sharing digital technologies, what should we do to preserve inherent culture and the concept of values? With discussions now being widened from just the developed world to the entire globe, ensuring diversity will become much more important than standardization.

What is the Aim of the Toy Symphony Concept? - Berlin

In Berlin, I participated in an experimental concert called the "Toy Symphony," which was performed by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and 50 local children. This project is organized by the MIT Media Laboratory and in it the children performed using musical instruments made of cloth balls, which they squeezed, and exchanged rhythms through hitting devices that were designed to look like snails. Also, the musical piece that was performed was created by drawing pictures on a computer screen.

We would like to see the world of music brought back from the exclusive use of specialists. By creating musical instruments that can be easily played by anyone, and developing a system that enables musical pieces to be created by participating on the Internet, the children of the world can express, exchange and share their indigenous rhythms and sounds, and music itself is then liable to evolve and change. That is the aim of the Toy Symphony concept.

A little while ago in Berlin, which is a city that symbolizes the Cold War and subsequent reconciliation, the film "Spirited Away" by Hayao Miyazaki won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. In 1997 at the Cannes Film Festival, "Unagi" by Shohei Imamura was awarded a prize, as was "Suzaku" by Naomi Kawase, and in 1998 at the Venice International Film Festival, "Hana-Bi" directed by Takeshi Kitano was a prize winner. These examples characterize Japan's indigenous culture as having acquired an international stature.

The Vision for a "Digital Millennium" as I Journeyed Around these Four Cities

Digitalization is making the world an ever-smaller place. We are becoming an assimilated whole through linkage, or so it is said. There are forces of opposition, however, that feel their own regions and areas should not become tinged with a global flavor that is essentially along the model of the United States. One aspect of the current anti-globalization movement is the reaction to the rapid dissemination of the Internet. Since the bursting of the Internet bubble in 2000, business models that the digital industry boasted would occupy the international market are also looking increasingly passe.

In addition, since 11 September 2001, the United States has had its eyes reopened to the diversity that exists in the world. If local expressions from around the world can be transmitted through the Internet, then it is possible that diversity will be strengthened. This is a stage on which Japan could, perhaps surprisingly so, be able to make a contribution. The analog millennium is over and the digital millennium has begun. Knowledge and models that will color this phenomenon are all around us. This is what I felt as I journeyed around these four cities.

April 22, 2002
  1. The Nishijin area of Kyoto is famed for its concentration of traditional industries, in particular the "Nishijin-ori" a method of weaving and textile production unique to the area.
  2. An obi is the wide piece of material used to wrap around a kimono, forming a large, wide "belt."

April 22, 2002

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