Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Unwelcome interruptions?

Andrew Walmsley
Andrew Walmsley

When it comes to remembering our technological manners, we could learn a lot from the Japanese

Inkjet printers for decorating your fingernails, ear-wax cleaners with a digital camera built in (see how clean your ears can be), and the MP3 toilet (yes, really) are just a sample of the gizmos that keep the Japanese at the forefront of the gadget world.

Inkjet printers for decorating your fingernails, ear-wax cleaners with a digital camera built in (see how clean your ears can be), the MP3 toilet (yes, really) are just a sample of the gizmos that keep the Japanese at the forefront of the gadget world.

However, Japan is not indiscriminate in its adoption of such devices. There are strong cultural characteristics that both encourage, and occasionally stymie, the take-off of technologies, even those that have proved amazingly popular in the West.

Microsoft's instant messaging system took the world by storm. At one point, 90% of UK teens used it, and across most of the world it had become the de facto standard, but its launch in Japan was effortful.

It seemed the system had fallen foul of Japanese culture's regard for politeness and consideration, which is so ingrained that it uses three levels of polite language.

Email was immensely popular, and the fax still widely used in Japan. The appeal of these two forms lay in their asynchronous nature; the receiver does not have to be at the point of receipt when the communication is sent in order to receive it. For a Japanese person, communicating without creating an 'impolite' intrusion is ideal.

The UK may eschew such exacting standards of politeness, but we are still sensitive to the same considerations.

The asynchronous nature of email and text makes them useful. I tend to work at all sorts of random times, emailing people in the middle of the night, at weekends and while on holiday. However, when I send an email to someone at the weekend, I don't normally expect a response until the working week starts - after all, I don't expect people to be working at whatever odd time I have chosen to.

Yet I am receiving more and more responses straight away, as the use of mobile email devices becomes widespread. It is kind of my contacts, but I feel I've disrupted their personal time. I don't expect immediate replies, but that beep triggers autonomic responses.

The BlackBerry and the iPhone, for all their convenience, are contributing to the destruction of our personal/work boundaries, and people seem to like it. A study by Sheraton Hotels of 6500 executives showed 35% would choose their BlackBerry over their spouse. I suppose, not having met their other halves, it's hard to comment on how reasonable a position this is, but the same survey found 85% took their BlackBerry into the bedroom.

It isn't just a matter of personal choice. An MIT study in 2006 looked at employees of one hedge fund. It found that while the company didn't mandate out-of-hours email checking, it became expected among peers. One employee said: 'It brings responsiveness on nights and weekends to the levels possible during work time.'

This is a matter of concern for employers. BlackBerry use was used as evidence in a class action lawsuit for overtime compensation brought by employees of a US brokerage.

However, it is at work itself that mobile email is at its most disruptive. People who email during meetings aren't listening. It is not just rude but inefficient, as everyone has to backtrack to ensure they have been included. Of course, it's usually one of those 'setting your seat higher' powerplays - it doesn't work, and serves only to annoy others and make the offender look petty.

The Japanese are right to value cultural norms over technology, and if they are capable of deprioritising technological change in favour of courtesy, so can we.

As ever, Stephen Fry put it better than all of us. 'Don't forget,' he said, in his opening speech at the BAFTAs, 'to turn your mobiles back on at the end.'

Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 seconds on...   The BlackBerry


  • The first BlackBerry, a two-way pager, was launched in 1999 by Canadian firm RIM. The mobile web device now associated with the brand did not emerge until 2002.
  • Features include push email, wireless internet and a Qwerty keyboard designed for 'thumbing', as well as voice calling and text messaging.
  • At the end of September 2008, 19m people were using BlackBerry devices.
  • Recent innovations include remote control of TiVo PVR systems, and a touch-screen on the Storm model.
  • The addictive device has been popularly dubbed the 'CrackBerry' - a term that became Webster's New World College Dictionary's New Word of the Year in 2006.
  • Occupational hazards of over-use include 'berry thumb' and 'berry blister'.
  • In Smart Mobs: the Next Social Revolution, US academic Howard Rheingold credits the device with giving rise to 'flashmobbings' by enabling groups of mobile users to band together spontaneously in acts promoting social change.


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