I moderated an excellent panel last week at Japan Society on "Obama's Internet Initiative & Social Reform in the U.S. & Japan" (listen to the audio here) with Josh Fouts (Dancing Ink Productions), Kazuya Okada (NTT Data Agilenet), Kevin Werbach (Wharton business school), and Toshihiro Yoshihara (CSIS). If I had to sum up the conclusions of the panelists, it would be that "culture matters" in the spread, use, and impact of information and communications technologies in various societies.
Werbach, who has advised the Obama Administration on IT policy, emphasized the "C" in ICT--communication. Echoing senior officials in the administration such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, Werbach said that ICTs must allow people to communicate, connect, and collaborate toward achieving national ends. ICTs should allow people to connect to people, government to connect to its constituents, and the United States to connect to the rest of the world. I recalled the mantra of the administration: convene, connect, and catalyze. This sense of the United States as a credible and trustworthy convener has been a common theme I have seen in the Obama team's thinking.
Fouts similarly argued that constructive use of ICTs must be a sincere dialogue or an exchange. He reminded the audience that in reaching out to new audiences and cultures, cultural norms don't change on social networking websites. He also eased some potential worry about the Internet and social trends: The use of technology cannot replace human contact; online outreach and human contact is not a binary choice, it is a matter of integrating the two. Fouts contributed a future idea for the group--U.S.-Japan cultural exchanges through virtual worlds.
The two Japanese panelists seemed concerned about Japan's use of ICTs. As Okada put it, the reason Japan lacks innovation in ICTs is that there is a gap between its IT infrastructure and its IT literacy or attitudes. Japan is stuck in old traditions, not taking advantage of ITC's potential. For example, few people telecommute to work and few meetings are conducted virtually. In Japan, Okada said, people have a "farming attitude" in contrast to America's "hunting" mentality. The result is that Japanese people avoid disruptive change, work hard rather than work smart, and make only incremental improvements (kaizen). Okada's remarks reminded me of my graduate school thesis on U.S.-Japan negotiations; one theory that described Japanese negotiating style related to its rice farming culture. Perhaps more disturbing for Japanese innovation, Okada noted that in Japan, there is little incentive to take risks but huge disincentives to not fail. In other words, the punishments for failure outweigh the potential gains from success. Many people point to Japan's high-tech robots as areas of innovation. But Okada said Japan is automating, not innovating.
Yoshihara was slightly more optimistic but also criticized Japan's narrow use of ICT in policymaking. He said that while the U.S. approach toward establishing a broadband policy was open and inclusive, public comments through online surveys in Japan were limited. Reflecting a concern I have heard elsewhere, Yoshihara was also concerned about recent Japanese attitudes toward the Internet: In the United States, people feel the Internet is generally a healthy exchange of ideas he said while in Japan, a growing number of people feel that the Internet is a "dangerous" place, citing the vicious attacks on people in Internet forums such as 2channel. It was noted, however, that Japanese cultural "bads" present a low-hanging fruit for positive change.
To me this panel demonstrated that the Japan Society in New York City has a vital role to play in helping push for positive change in Japan--from the outside. I hope Japanese communities in New York City, a hub of innovation, will continue to exchange ideas at this historic institution and foster a stronger U.S.-Japan relationship through creativity and innovation.