24 June 2008

Mito Akiyoshi: the digital divide does not vanish with the mobile

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Mito Akiyoshi
The great people at the splendid French blog InternetActu have conducted an interview with the Japanese sociologist, Mito Akiyoshi. Since InternetActu is published in French, and I have been pushing them time and again to make the rich contents of their blog also available in English, they have offered us to co-publish this interview in English — the language it was conducted in. It was not difficult to accept the offer and I thank Hubert Guillaud in particular for this opportunity. If you read French, go read it here.
 

Mito Akiyoshi (blog) is a Japanese sociologist at Senshu University. She also collaborates with sociologist Izumi Aizu on a NTT research programme on privacy and identity. The interview provides us with an opportunity to take a unique look at what is happening in Japan: it allows us to not focus on the technology, as is so often the case, but on how this technology is used, which is often more varied and complex than one might think.
 

DIGITAL DIVIDE IN JAPAN?

InternetActu.net: You have worked on the digital divide in Japan. We in the West often have the impression that the digital divide does not exist in your country where the mobile phone is so pervasive. But is that really so? Do all people really have equal access?

Mito Akiyoshi: There is a growing consensus among researchers in Japan as well as abroad that the digital divide is not just about having Internet access or not. It is also about the type of use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT’s) and the goals of that use. In order to understand the implications of the mobile phone on the digital divide, we have to start with a broader definition of the digital divide itself, which needs to encompass all activities mediated by technologies. Due to the mobile phone we are now facing a mixed reality: it is a glass that is both half-full and half-empty.

Japan is indeed a global leader in mobile telephony: the mobile phone has brought ICT to those who would otherwise not have used technology. Yet the mobile phone has not eliminated the digital divide at all. My research shows that existing patterns of inequality strongly influence the type of technology and technology use certain kinds of people exhibit. Generally speaking, there are three types of ICT users in terms of access to hardware: “Literati” are those people who use both computers and mobile phones. A second group consists of a fairly large number of people who use mobile phones but rarely use PC’s. The third group are those who use neither. The last group is obviously decreasing now because of the pervasiveness of the internet, but even the second group could be considered on the wrong side of the digital divide — unable to make the most of ICT.
 

UNIVORES AND OMNIVORES

All of that would be OK if the choice was just that: a matter of choice. But often it isn’t. Web contents accessed on a computer are quite different from those accessed on a mobile device. For example, my research shows that respondents use a PC for professional reasons and to access government services. The use of a mobile phone however is mainly limited to entertainment related activities. Those who use mobile phones and not the PC tend to be less educated, less wealthy, and/or female. So, their reliance on their mobile phone and their non-use of the PC could also be interpreted as perpetuating a less privileged status.

I am still looking for good labels to identify these different types of users, and in particular those who use the mobile but not the PC. The distinction between “univore” and “omnivore” as used in cultural sociology could be useful. The “univores” refer to people with limited cultural resources who consume just one type of genre, e.g. hip-hop. The “omnivores” on the other hand are endowed with rich resources: they enjoy multiple genres. According to this view, the distinction between middle class and working class is not based on their preference for particular genres, but rather on their ability to consume a wide range of cultural products. So based on this logic, I could probably use the term “mobile univore”.

InternetActu.net: What does the mobile phone prevent that the combination of internet and mobile enables?

Mito Akiyoshi: Studies have shown that PC Internet users acquire new ICT skills as they become more familiar with the web. It is a virtuous circle. Initially you go online to address a particular need, but then you discover other services and applications and you do a lot of “learning by doing”. The PC Internet encourages people to explore. The mobile Internet on the other hand provides only basic internet related services, which are often limited to entertainment and leisure activities. The mobile internet is rarely a channel for serious, productive activities. Even the content and service quality differs. Although you can read news on both the computer and the mobile phone, news items on the mobile tend to be brief and sketchy, because of space limitations. If you read news and opinion stories in the newspaper or on a PC, you can learn a lot. But if you read news summaries on the mobile phone, you miss out on this learning opportunity.
 

A POLICY ISSUE

InternetActu.net: How to promote passing from mobile tools to internet tools, when uses are not really the same?

Mito Akiyoshi: First of all, I think we should acknowledge both quality and quantity of contents and services are of the utmost significance. Access to them are legitimate global, national and local policy issues, but are hardly recognised as such. For example if you know that mobile users do not get information of equivalent quality to those on PC internet, you could modify the way you present the information. If you would like to mobile phone use for productive activities, you can improve the design, the interface, and the services. Mobile Internet has been entertainment-driven because mobile internet service providers saw entertainment related services as the most lucrative business. But policy makers can intervene and encourage technology development that contributes to wider social inclusion and participation.
 

THE JAPANESE FASCINATION WITH THE MOBILE

InternetActu.net: The West has a certain image of the use of technology in Japan: omnipresent, very focused on the mobile, with a population fond of everything innovative. Does this picture correspond to reality?

Mito Akiyoshi: Well, the Japanese are fond of certain innovations. But one should also note that Japan lagged behind other industrialised countries with respect to basic Internet connectivity during the 1990s. So my short answer to this question is yes and no. The explosion of mobile telephony must be put into perspective, rather than being taken as a sign of general enthusiasm for all innovations. Some innovations take root at a phenomenal speed while others are sadly abandoned.

But Japan’s fascination with mobility may be peculiar to them. The obsession with mobility, cuteness, and miniaturisation are repeatedly brought up in popular discourse as part of the essence of Japanese culture. But as a social scientist, I want to explain them. The fascination with mobility is a consequence of our lifestyle. Tokyoites spend long hours commuting by train with plenty of time to play around with their mobile phones. Unlike people in Europe and the U.S., the majority of Japanese have not experienced a smooth transition from the typewriter to the computer. Some users actually prefer the mobile phone simply because they are not comfortable working with a keyboard. Those people use their mobile phones for reasons that have little to do with their portability. The popularity of the mobile phone in Japan is actually quite a complex phenomenon.

That said, their quirky tastes might help discover and popularise certain innovations in an unexpected manner. The camera/video mobile phone is one example that comes to my mind. At first, the idea appeared strange. But the Japanese loved camera phones for whatever reasons and have made them popular in other parts of the world.
 

THE FUTURE OF MOBILE

InternetActu.net: Japan seems ahead because consumers already use the mobile to access online contents, and this will become the future everywhere. But you seem more sceptical.

Mito Akiyoshi: Japan is indeed one of the leaders in mobile Internet services. Although I raised some issues about the causes and current use of mobile Internet, there are lots of reasons to believe that a wider use of mobile and ubiquitous technology will create better communicative environments in Japan and elsewhere. But it is simplistic to assume that the mobile phone in and of itself can solve the deep-rooted problem of digital inequality. But it does help people to get online and to maintain their social networks. The Japanese have enthusiastically taken up the mobile Internet when it first became available in the late 1990s, because they thought it would fulfill their needs.

Now we have to redefine those “needs” or “demands” in the light of the future society we intend to create. Up until now there has been little discussion about the basic values ICT should focus on. Mobile technology holds a key to the realisation of fundamental social values, such as human captial development, equality, sustainable development, democracy, etc., but it does not automatically make it happen.

I am not sceptical, but rather cautiously optimistic because we need a better understanding of the existing problems and a better vision for the future to fully realise the communicative possibilities offered by mobile technology.
 

OUR UBIQUITOUS BUT LOCALLY EMBEDDED LIVES

InternetActu.net: There is a lot of talk these days about geolocation as the future of the mobile, allowing a synthesis of social networks and mobility. Did geolocation use explode in Japan and why?

Mito Akiyoshi: There are some interesting uses of mobile geolocation technology in Japan, such as the otetsudai network which is basically a job search service accessed via a mobile phone, allows people to find a job or an employee “on the spot”. Geolocation services enable micromanagement of time, space, a job slot, and even a worker. Even in the age of globalization, our day-to-day life is locally embedded and mobile technology serves locally embedded needs quite well.

InternetActu.net: In terms of government action, the focus seems to have evolved from e-Japan (a fairly classic approach to Internet access and use) to u-Japan, seen as a more futuristic plan focussed on ubiquitous information availability. What is the reality of this programme now?

Mito Akiyoshi: To answer such a question, the first thing one might want to do is to go to a government website to do some research on the u-Japan project. But if you do that, you realise that the search functionality on government websites is a real mess. Search information on any specific issue on a Japanese government website and you will share my frustration. One cannot get the information one is looking for. This very fact affects my evaluation of the u-Japan project.

U-Japan was successful in providing the nation fast Internet connection and improving government services. In areas such as tax preparation and business filings, great progress was made and the u-Japan project should be given due credit.

But there are some goals still to be accomplished as illustrated by the mediocre search functionality.

Let me give you another example: When I consult government statistics, I often get a lot of Excel tables. I rather need a decent query system so that I can combine variables and create the tabled results I need.

Ubiquity is all fine, but ubiquitous solutions must be user-friendly solutions as well.
 

THE DIFFICULTY OF COMPREHENDING THE PRIVACY AND IDENTITY CHALLENGES

InternetActu.net: You work with Izumi Aizu on a NTT research programme on privacy and identity. Can you tell us more about the objectives of this programme and its first results?

Mito Akiyoshi: NTT is a very interesting organisation. They do not ask us to do research to maximize their profit on a short-term basis. They came to us with no specific agenda and asked us tell them “something interesting about privacy and identity.” So we devised our research objectives on the fly.

We investigated national identity projects as well as business identity management projects. I like to think that the fact that we didn’t find strong trends is one of our major findings. Not that we came back empty-handed: there is a huge information asymmetry between the various parties involved. For example, I contacted a recruiting company for my research, but they could not come up with good interviewees because the issue is too technical. Only one interviewee I talked with said he was interested in the issue of identity management.

The issue of privacy and identity is very relevant to everyone but it is difficult to bring home to everyone its relevance when it involves so many technical details. Unfortunately many decisions that have real social implications are removed from the public discourse and are reduced to technical matters. How do you explain the notion of search engine privacy to your grandma or even to your boss for that matter? Or the possible privacy breach with the introduction of IPv6 due to its addressing mechanism? They may not comprehend the issues, although they are relevant to them. We found that there is no common language to start a productive discussion about the way those issues are handled by governments, businesses, researchers, and community leaders.

InternetActu.net: You point the finger at strong concerns about privacy issues, even though we in France tend to believe that these issues do not have the same impact in Japan, because of cultural differences. So are privacy concerns similar in Japan and in the West?

Mito Akiyoshi: This is an interesting question. Of course France and Japan are culturally quite different, but France is also quite different from the UK, the US, Germany, and other countries that supposedly constitute “the West.” I do not want to ignore differences between countries, but I would like to balance “between-country” differences with “within-country” differences. I do not know if it is appropriate to bring privacy concerns back to “cultural differences,” but the issue of privacy does manifest itself differently in different societies. For example, racial profiling is a big issue in societies with diverse minority populations. I do not say that it does not exist in Japan. But it is less central there than in the US, for example.

One way to address cultural differences is to look for social problems that affect a society in particular. If the Japanese have reservations about a national identity card system, it may be because their trust in the government’s handling of personal information is low. The national pension system is mismanaged and its failure is a huge scandal here right now. Those who are entitled to pension money were not given their money because the agency in charge did not handle the records properly.

What kind of attitudes prevail in France regarding the issue of privacy and what kind of factors — cultural, social, political, or economic — may explain those attitudes? I think I have more questions than answers to this question.

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