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The Future of Media Lies in the Wants of the Consumer

Faced by a dwindling population, will Japan develop its own unique cybermedia culture? Or will the country open up its borders culturally by accepting immigration?

The 20th century was the age of technology, when technology created new frontiers for society. Behind the ascendancy of new forms of media lay the relentless march of technology. What about the 21st century? To put it simply, technology, surely, will yield pride of place to people's wants. With the advent of the Internet, no overwhelmingly dominant future technology looms on the media horizon. Media is a tool that engenders solidarity in the society in which we live. What form of solidarity do we desire? With what kind of people? Within what bounds? We are entering an era, I believe, when the wants of the consumer and the marketing efforts of companies in response will drive technological development and give birth to new media. In other words, media in the 21st century will be rooted in our own aspirations.
The two most influential new media developed in the 20th century, radio and television, are fettered by geography -- the country where the broadcast facilities are situated. Radio, like the newspaper, engendered a sense of common identity within the nation state. Television fostered solidarity among consumers -- people who work and shop. Both are quintessentially modern forms of media in the sense that, like elections, they treat people as anonymous but countable individuals.
The Internet and satellite broadcasting, both inventions of the second half of the 20th century, are global in scope. They extend far beyond national boundaries. These new media have made it possible to form and maintain intermediate organizations where individuals with shared hobbies, concerns, and interests can come together. Good examples are the global networks established by the Chinese diaspora, volunteer environmental organizations, and religious groups.
In addition to belonging to a particular country or being restricted to a specific regional market, we are free to choose from the infinite number of cyber communities across the globe, which may be regarded as so many independent mini-universes. The struggle between global national corporations and digital piracy foreshadowed by the cyberpunk fiction that came into vogue at the end of the 1980s has now become a reality on the Internet.
In the case of Japan, it has only been for the past 120 years or so that integration of the politico-economic system into a single state has grown so strong. The advent of novel forms of cybermedia appears to be causing Japanese society to revert to the past. The age of cyber civil war, when various organizations fight to extend their influence and impose a new kind of unity. The cyber Azuchi-Momoyama period, when foreign ways are held in high esteem. The cyber Edo period, when different professions espouse different value systems. As media become more diversified, the 21st century will, I believe, seem to reecho history.
But that does not mean that "real-world" politics and economics will unilaterally forfeit their function of explicitly binding together society. This is a fundamental difference between Japanese society before its unification into a nation-state over the course of the last 120 years (a process in which analog media has played a key role) and 21st-century Japanese society, which has already undergone that process. Should Japan in the 21st century seek a new kind of unity following a period of cyber chaos? Or should it stake its hopes on revitalizing the traditional politico-economic system founded on the nation-state? This confrontation between conservatism and reform, typified by the clash between modern and cyber forms of media, will, I think, constitute the essential polarity of Japanese politics in the 21st century.
Of the various historical echoes referred to above, the most pertinent one will, I believe, be the Edo period. The most significant social development in Japan in the 21st century will be the shrinking population. According to one calculation, by the end of the 21st century the Japanese population could dwindle to 60-70 million, half its present level. The country has experienced reductions in population four times in the past, all of which coincided with the decline of a production-based culture and the germination of a new paradigm of civilization.
The previous decline in population occurred during the mid Edo period (early - mid 18th century). During this era, which was marked by alternating phases of refinement and retrenchment -- the Genroku bubble, the Kyoho reforms, the age of Tanuma, the Kansei reforms, the Kasei period -- Japan sought to transform itself into a more surfeited, enriched society. People married late or not at all. Individualism predominated. For example, there developed a kind of sensibility to the environment in the form of cultivation of the self, of the spirit, and of family life. Interest grew in the inner world -- pilgrimages, philosophies of life. The concept of "iki" -- being "stylish" or "cool" -- spread, while greater importance came to be attached to everyday culture and the arts. Conditions thus closely resembled those of today.
The same era also witnessed a flowering of what might be described as "media culture." Novels and novelettes about life in the gay quarters, humorous tales of daily life, and illustrated picture books known as red books, black books, and blue books were all the rage. Book-lending flourished. Color woodblock prints produced using elaborate printing technology were popular. Kabuki was in its heyday. Edo was at its height as a media center.
Faced by a dwindling population, will Japan develop its own unique cybermedia culture, albeit perhaps one lacking in industrial sparkle (the further evolution of portable e-mail)? Or will Japan open up its borders culturally by accepting immigrants by the millions, or perhaps adopt English as the decline in population places Japanese at a relative disadvantage (the spread of multiple channels and global broadcasting)? Whichever choice we make within the context of the political polarity referred to above, it will determine the shape of Japanese media in the 21st century.



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