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surface and depth

In which Diego takes a philosophical look at perception and reality in our connected world...

A Japanese Karaoke party can be an unsettling experience for many people (me included--Brrr, shudder!): grown men and women, mostly in business attire, sometimes drunk to the point where speech disintegrates into babble, heartily singing to rehashed versions of popular songs re-recorded for that purpose. Behind the singer, a screen showing strange images supposedly synched to the music, and a crowd, cheering, singing along, each person waiting for their turn at the microphone.

On the surface, to a foreigner, it looks excessive, pointless, embarrassing.

The Japanese, however, know different: they understand that perceptions and surface are just that. The phenomenon of Karaoke or the exuberance of Tokyo are good examples of the Japanese attitude towards surface: something that would be considered corny, embarrassing or shameful in the US or Europe is accepted, even embraced. (In the case of "nights out" where Karaoke happens there are other factors at play, such as enabling communication that might not happen in the rigid environment of the office, but that's beside the point).

The Internet, pervasive media, fast and relatively cheap travel, the thirst of people everywhere to have access to information (regardless of the use to them, or its importance), have fueled the assumption that, since distance seems be fading in importance, culture has, too. This is pushing to new areas the limits of what is considered public, which in turn creates pressure -and fuels resistance-- for social and economic change, both locally and globally. Every weblog read, every vacation taken, every casual 5-second IM conversation, every business trip reinforces this perception both by the speed with which it is done as well as by the ease with which it happens.

Pervasive communications, media and travel make us dismiss geography and allow us to pretend that "there" is almost "here". They make us think that we can always give good solutions for other people's problems. Predictably enough, things are not that simple. To the superficial perceptions of a casual traveler two cities in different parts of the world might sometimes look pretty much the same; in reality they will always be anything but.

We've been gradually erasing the old concept of "borders", the change from a world perceived as a collection of cultures to a world perceived as a set of localized forms of capitalism. That has turned into a shift from a geographically-based state of tension (supported by ideology: two competing political, economic and social worldviews), centered around Berlin and spread throughout Europe and the world; to a purely ideologically-based state of tension: the layer of geography has been removed. Travel and communications seem to have both invalidated distance and reinforced history, creating the perception that only ideas matter. If before ideology expressed itself through geographical conflict at the borders, the fading of those borders is pushing the conflict back into the sphere of ideas, with ethereal battlegrounds like stock markets, exchange rates, corporations and the like--- and very real ones, as evidenced by the threat of terrorism, hunger and disease. Capitalism seems to have won the "war" against communism (notably, with currency and not bullets), but it's becoming clear that capitalism on its own is not the answer, simply because it tries to homogenize everything into a market, every person into a buyer and a seller, every culture into a culture of money, and many cultures are bound to resist that homogenization. Groups and organizations in powerful countries continue to assume that things that worked well in one place can work equally as well in another, which creates new problems every day, from IMF intervention in countries that are facing economic crises, to the intervention of external powers in local conflicts, such as those of Northern Ireland or the Middle East, which in turn is both reinforced and generated by the "export" of those conflicts through terrorism, war, trade, and even politics.

It is the Japanese, with their understanding of the difference between surface and depth, the ones that, in my view, have a culture that aligns better with this world of pure perceptions (and yet their cultural introspectiveness hinders them), a media-based society where careers can be destroyed by unsubstantiated rumors or wars have to be fought on television (or in the field of "public opinion") as much as in the battlefield. Or in other words: in a world where perception is treated as reality.

Language is an excellent reflection of a culture, and Japanese is one of the most context-dependent languages in the world, heavily dependent on situations to establish meaning. At the same time, Kanji is a polar opposite: ideographic, a literal representation of the concept that has to be communicated (the Kanji for "drunk", for example, literally means "9/10 Sake").

Similar trends are observable in other societies, for example the US. Maybe it's no coincidence that English as a language has over time (faster than, say, Spanish) incorporated Japanese-like features: Dependency on context, and thus on perception and appearances, and literal concept representations. Maybe it's no coincidence, if perceptions are being exacerbated in importance by the growing connectedness of the world and the subsequent growing impression that everything is the same.

"Are you flying home for Christmas?" Is an example of a sentence in English that is meaningless without the proper context--that traveling by plane is a common occurrence. In Spanish the same question would be phrased, in its literal translation: "Are you traveling home for Christmas?" Simply referring to the action (flying) would not do in general, since as we all know, humans don't fly. And while English writing has not turned ideographic and it doesn't appear to be doing so (although spoken language usually predates any change in the written language by a long time), it is full of examples where the representation of a concept in the language is literal. For example, the electrochemical device used in cars to produce a spark and ignite the explosion inside a cylinder is called just that, a spark, while Spanish has its own particular word for the device.

The idea of "politically correct" behavior has many parallels with the way Japanese society behaves on the surface. Still, many cultures today, unlike the Japanese, maintain a public pretense of morality every day and in all contexts, even though behind closed doors that is not the case, something (in)famously exposed in its most extreme example in the US with the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Japanese businessmen read pornographic comic books on the subway, in full view. If Bill Gates did that in the US (assuming he could find a subway around Redmond!), it would be front-page news. The Japanese have contexts for things, and for businessmen a subway or a train is different than the office. Americans are always supposed to be businessmen, or pretend they are. While appearing to embrace the concept of surface as the main interface to our world, we are still reluctant to accept that context matters for judging behavior and that public and private life are not necessarily related, and, more importantly, we demand that they be.

I do think, however, that nowadays the Japanese mostly go through the motions, repeating behaviors learned long ago that have for the most part lost their meaning, and yet it is the distinction between surface and depth that underlies their behavior what will be, in my opinion, the key in the future to effectively deal with a world where it's sometimes easier to know what's happening on the West Bank than in a nearby town, or where a trip to another country can be faster than traveling to some parts of a person's own.

As geography slowly has given way to knowledge as the defining element of power and prosperity, allegiances have shifted from countries to ideas. Places have started to feel more and more alike, and many people have become less concerned about what should be done for each case and switched their interest about what should be done in general, in many cases based on the assumption that perception and underlying reality are the same. This has created a situation where there aren't many viable local proposals to achieve evidently worthy global goals.

The world, as connected as it seems on the surface, is actually, on a closer look, as divided as ever, perhaps because that illusion of closeness that is so easy to believe doesn't intrigue people to go further. Maybe if we learn to better understand and accept the difference between surface and depth we will be able to turn into a force for good the tools that technology and social evolution have given us: the key that will either unlock our understanding of each other, or open the doors to a more violent and chaotic world.

Categories: geopolitics, technology
Posted by diego on December 2 2003 at 12:32 PM

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