Marketing Lessons From My Visit To Japan: Part 5
A Parable For An AI Future
A man walked towards a small restaurant tucked away in a side-pocket neighborhood of Shinjuku. The thin door dragged crookedly in the grooved door frame so he only opened it wide enough to squeeze his belly through. He turned immediately left behind the row of patrons seated at the horseshoe bar. The room was only just large enough to accommodate a narrow space which he snaked through to nearly the end of the bar and grabbed an empty stool.
Next to him a woman was finishing her meal with a taste of Takuan, a ubiquitous side dish with roots in the 16th century. On his other side a man was just receiving his order of miso soup, an even more ancient dish that tells a story of first century China-Japanese relations. He poured himself water into one of the restaurant’s tiny mugs, all decorated with ancient proverbs taken from emperors spanning the thousand year Heian Period in Japan.
He felt comfortable here. The dark wooden walls that surrounded him seemed both old and sturdy. No one spoke above a whisper, and mostly sat quietly eating, or reading the news on their phones. He peered first at the menu written on narrow wooden signs that were strung along a rope at the far end of the bar. Then he looked over the counter to the huge pots of steaming miso and rice. He watched the server making small bowls of nato, daikon, and seaweed for his patrons. The smells reminded him of growing up. He was instantly transported to the table and floor mats where he and his siblings would sit quietly and wait for their mother to bring breakfast.
As he took in the atmosphere, his belly began to rumble quietly. Then he turned to the computer tablet fixed at the back of his place at the counter and scrolled through the menu selecting grilled mackerel, a side of tamagoyaki (Japanese omelet) and a bowl of miso. He knew of course that sides of daikon, braised burdock and rice would come automatically with every order. Several minutes after selecting the large green “place order” button on his personal tablet, the waiter appeared at his seat with a tray carrying everything he had ordered. Smelling the foods up close made him thirsty, so he went to the tablet again and ordered a beer. This too arrived shortly after without anyone speaking a word.
The man ate quietly and efficiently. The tastes soothed his tired muscles and warmed his lonely heart with momentary companionship. Secretly, his insides were digesting easily, this food of the ancients. Sending nutrients to parts of his body that had been degraded by daily exposure to environmental toxins and stress.
What daily life took from him, by way of digital zombie-ism, carcinogens, legal poisons and the constant pressures from work, this food and this tiny restaurant, restored. Even if only for the moment.
What We Can Learn From Everyday Life In Japan
I’m not sure if I’ve effectively described in the quiet story above, how beautifully (in my humble opinion) modern technology and ancient tradition is melded in everyday life in Japan. I have numerous examples of surprising juxtapositions of this nature from my two week tour of the country. But what touched me most about this story was not the opposing qualities of ancient artifacts and the omni-presence of screens, but rather how these things worked so well together.
America is well known for its lack of thousand year old buildings. With the exception of New Mexico’s few treasures, no standing structures are older than a few hundred years. Maybe that is partly why, when we in America try to preserve “history,” we generally strive to leave out any trace of modern day technologies. In fact, we usually string a rope around historical sites, physically separating the spectacle of history from us, the admirers. But in Japan, almost nothing old is destroyed, except by natural disaster, so the melding of ancient history, more recent history, and futuristic tech can be found almost everywhere you look.
I walked through a thousand year old cemetery in Koyosan. Here I saw a metal spaceship replica and glossy clean headstones with the names of modern Japanese companies built amongst hundred and thousand year old moss covered statues, gates and shrines. There was no division between them except the one created in my mind.
Alternatively in the United States, and many other Westernized societies, modern additions to both rural and urban environments are made to stand apart. Technological advancements, from geothermal energy sources to smart homes to tennis courts in the sky, are designed to go along with sleek white or mirrored, space aged, sharp edged architectures. If something is new and advanced in the west… it is usually built to look like it.
Not only is a truer story of history’s unfolding lost when we create a divide between the old and new, but we sacrifice the ancestral taste for aesthetic. Today, in a corporate dominated society, environmental planning and design decisions are fueled by money concerns, a ruling of ledger costs and profitability. But there was a time when other needs like for instance food production, lovemaking or political discourse, dictated the way structures were built. I think if we can find a way to seamlessly incorporate technology into our historical ways of living and building things, then we will be more deeply equipped to deal with a rapidly changing virtual and machine powered future.
A Human Centered View Of AI
With the widespread accessibility of rapidly adapting AI technologies, we have surely entered a brave new world where science fiction is fast becoming fact. But rather than build a future to house these advancements, I suggest we house these advancements in the most ancient places (and nothing is more ancient and readily available than our own bodies and minds) and seek to find the crossover between these worlds.
The supplemental discussion to AI has always, and will continue to be, about the takeover of the machines. This existential fear is fantastical, but also very real. No one wants to lose either our autonomy or our humanity. Which is why I draw inspiration from Japanese culture and their simple way of incorporating technologies that serve us without necessarily changing the environments where they live. Wherever you stand on the adoption of AI, I submit it should never be all or nothing. We need not separate technology from our history because they aren’t mutually exclusive. Melding AI and humanity, ancient ways and modern ways, takes thought and perseverance. It may not be cost effective in the short term to make these two things work together. But we can not afford to think short term. We must plan for a future where technology is capable of dominating every facet of daily life. So let’s begin building a future where humanity, history ,and aesthetics are given priority when adopting these new technologies. I know we can integrate each advancement without sacrificing that which we find comforting, beautiful and most essentially human. It could even be said that our lives depend on it.
Hi! I’m Annie Aaroe, a b2b marketing strategist. To find out more about story-driven, conversion copy and strategy that’s tailored for tech and SaaS brands, visit my website, aaroewriting.com, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.