Welcome to episode 99 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Hey, Jon. Good to be back.
Yeah, it’s great to have you back after, what was it, three weeks on your Asian tour. How long were you in Asia for?
It was just under three weeks, and came back, I guess, Friday, so been back a few days now.
I know you’re feeling the jet lag still. With a roughly 12 hour change in time zones, it must feel like it’s 3 in the morning for you.
On the sleep side, I’ve acclimated pretty well. It’s a little strange in that I’m sleeping from 8pm to 4am, which usually I’m more of a night owl. From that perspective, the schedule’s a little bit backwards, but it’s a workable schedule in terms of I can go to work and participate with the family, just sort of flipped to the opposite extreme of what I usually do. Yeah, the problem is more that I just feel foggy, like my head still isn’t quite right, quite here, and that’s despite this weekend really having a lot of downtime and taking it pretty easy. I think it’s one of those “time heals all” kind of things.
Yeah, for sure. We’re delighted to have you back on the show. For this, our 99th episode, we’re going to dig in a little bit to your trip to Asia and try to get a sense of all the different things you’ve learned.
Sure. I’m happy to share.
Yeah. I have a number of questions for you. I know you traveled to various different Asian countries during your tour, and I was curious what you thought were some of the most significant cultural differences between Asia and the United States, and also how they manifested for you.
Boy, there’s a couple things. Probably the biggest cultural difference I found was really just straightly one between First World and Third World, that there were a number of contexts that I experienced, particularly in China and North Korea, that are unlike anything that I’ve seen in the United States, with the possible exception of very rural West Virginia or very rural places. The condition, the point in their evolution, of parts of these nations are just definitely very different from a technology, from a socioeconomic, perspective, than we’re used to, and that was really notable.
In terms of these experiences, how would you say, as you were acclimating to these cultural differences, how did these make you feel, or how do you think in the East meets West paradigm that we have now with so much commerce going back and forth, what do you think these Asian citizens are thinking of Western visitors and vice versa? What was the vibe there?
Gosh, that’s tricky, because I really visited a lot of different places during this trip. It was sort of a whirlwind. Briefly, because this might be germane to some of your later questions as well, I started in Hong Kong, which is a city that has had a lot of commerce for a long time. It’s also a very cosmopolitan Asian city. It draws a lot of citizens from up and down the Pacific Rim. Then I was in Shenzhen, which is one of the larger, not largest but one of the larger-ish, Asian, or excuse me, Chinese specifically, cities, and one that has had a great deal of development. That was a more modern but newer Chinese city. You know, 30 years ago, there was basically nothing there.
Then I was in Guilin in China, which is rural. It’s way out, sort of in a resort area, and surrounded by extremely rural things. From there, I went to Beijing, which is one of the largest cities in China, and famously the most polluted, the most smoggy, very urban city. Then to Pyongyang in North Korea, which is that country’s biggest city and most modern city, but by Western standards is a little bit different. Then from there, going to Japan, I was in three places, in Tokyo, which is the, again, most modern and cosmopolitan city. Then down to Shizuoka, which is a mid-sized Japanese city. Then I was in Nishina, which is very, very rural. With all of that preamble, Jon, remind me what your question is again.
Yeah. I wanted to get a sense of the flavor of the attitude towards Western economic and really cultural visitors to these places that you were touring, namely … well, more precisely because we know that the relationship between Asia and the United States, even more to the point, between China and the US, is growing, and the economic tendrils going back and forth are strengthening. How are United States citizens, Western people, seen through that lens, and vice versa? What were the impressions that you took away from the interactions you had?
Yeah, so it’s one of those things where it’s a small sample size so I don’t want to make any … I wouldn’t feel like I’m being accurate in making broader statements about it, but in a high percentage of the places that I visited and the things that I did, there was some degree of having a local guide or having local people helping me, so being part of a bigger tourist infrastructure, even though not in traditionally touristy ways. A lot of times, I was dealing with local people whose livelihood was based on my presence, was based on, not necessarily people from the United States, but people from other places. Oftentimes in China, interestingly, the tourists are Chinese, so it’s Chinese people coming from other places in China. Those were very, very positive. They’re working hard for their payment and their tips, so that was all good.
In China, I think I was a little … Oddity’s too strong, but there was definitely the notion, when I’m going with citizens, whether it be on the subway or out on the street, clearly not everyone there is seeing Americans every day, particularly not giants like me. I’m 2 meters tall, so there was a little bit of feeling a little out of place, not in a bad way. I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I didn’t feel animosity per se, although I also didn’t feel warmth particularly either. I would say in North Korea was actually very similar to China in that way. I would even say there was a little bit more discomfort with and around me from the average citizen. Not in a bad way, not in a way that made me feel unsafe, but just a little bit of hesitancy.
Whereas in Japan, I probably saw more Westerners in my total of 4 days in Tokyo than I saw the entire rest of my trip in all of these different places. I think that’s pretty much par for the course to have white faces in Tokyo, even though … Typically if I’m in the subway, I could often look one way and look the other, and all I would see are Japanese faces. Crucially, in all 3 of those countries, I’m for the most part only seeing people who are native to that country, so on the Japanese subway, I’m seeing Japanese people, Chinese subway, I’m seeing Chinese people, North Korean subway, I’m seeing only North Koreans, which is a little bit different than we’re used to here in the US.
I know, a lot of times we just think, “Oh, well, they’re all Asian.” We don’t quite know what they are, but I, having lived in California for 5 years, I became very accustomed to telling the difference between folks from different countries in Asia. I was able to discern that, and it was interesting particularly in contrast to Hong Kong, which just was, from the standpoint of strictly Asian people, the most cosmopolitan of these cities from my perspective.
That’s very interesting. It sounds like there’s a number of different levels of, how shall we say, trade and integration from insofar there being different types of people in the places that you were visiting, ranging from, as you would expect in Hong Kong and Tokyo, it sounds like there were much more, according to what we would think, coming from Boston or New York, what the world would look like, versus a homogeneous cultural view, which sounds like it was the case in some of the other areas that you explored.
Yeah, yeah, although the difference being, in Hong Kong, even though it was cosmopolitan, it was largely cosmopolitan Asian, so not a lot of white faces, not a lot of black faces. It was really Pacific Rimmers in some way, shape, or form. In Tokyo, even though there were a lot of white faces, there weren’t a lot of Asian, non-Japanese faces, so there is some real nuance to what was going on there culturally.
This is obviously relevant to our discussion here on The Digital Life. What sort of observations did you make about the use of technology in the different Asian nations that you visited?
I went on the trip with very few specific questions and things that I was interested in answering, but that was one of them. It was probably the most disappointing. I learned very little. What I observed and learned really had nothing to do with these different cultures and it had everything to do with socioeconomic status. The degree to which technology was used in different ways between these countries really had to do with money, also had to do with age to some degree, and some other things, but more than anything, it really hammered home that it was all about the socioeconomics of the situation. When it was people who were poorer, they either weren’t using technology or they would have, for the most part, old school phones, whereas people who were more affluent, younger, would have smartphones and be using them, similar to how we would in the United States.
I guess the one culturally specific thing I did notice and will mention is in Japan. The Japanese, again particularly the younger Japanese, so I’m thinking when I was going from the airport, from Narita, to my hotel the first night, it was maybe 11pm. There were a lot of people on the subway. They were almost all young and they were all using a device, 100%, and using it in ways that are, I would say, a little more intense, not in a bad way or too intense of a way, but just more engaged, more intense, than I would see on the subway in Boston or New York with similarly young and affluent people. It felt like the technology use was slightly maybe, but a little bit more, and more sophisticated than we would have in the United States, but other than that, it was really more about socioeconomic factors as opposed to cultural ones, from what I could observe.
Yeah, I think that that raises an interesting follow-on, which is the question that we’re facing in the United States about the digital haves and the have nots. There’s often a meme that I see talking about how the First World infrastructure for, say, telephone systems can be completely leapfrogged by the Third World as they adopt mobile usage, but that sort of conflicts with the idea here that, at a certain level, there’s an economic barrier to really gaining access to, whether it’s mobile phone or internet, simply the case that things can be expensive, technology can be expensive to buy, and so you end up with this digital have nots as opposed to necessarily leapfrogging into the 21st century. I think that’s a trend that’s worth keeping an eye on, because that’s critically important to how humanity moves forward into this century is maybe not universal access, but access to information for people, no matter what their economic position.
Yeah, sort of riffing off of that, but going in a different direction with it, one of the observations that was really surprising, not that I had an expectation either way, but just thinking back on it. I took trains from Shenzhen to Guilin, and from Guilin to Beijing, so traversing thousands of miles between those 2 train trips, past certainly hundreds, probably thousands, of farms on these trips. I didn’t see a single tractor. I saw a lot of oxen. I saw a lot of people sitting and farming with their hands. I did not see 1 single tractor passing by all of these thousands of farms. I’m sure there is tractors and farm equipment in China, but in traveling this great distance and going into and out of 2 very large cities, I didn’t see any of it. I saw basically subsistence farming, which, again, I didn’t have expectations one way or the other, but not a single tractor, interesting, kind of interesting.
Yeah. I think that leads well into the next question I had for you, which is, from an economic perspective, what did you find most significant or surprising in these countries that you visited?
It was definitely the clash of First and Third World in China. I think I mentioned this on one of my updates but we saw this performance that was on the largest stage in the world, and it literally encompassed 12 mountains and a giant lake and a lot of land as well. It had hundreds, or I think even in the low thousands, of performers, and the show was put on every night up to 3 shows a night to 10,000-ish people. It was really remarkable, and it’s something that only could happen in a country that has the First World money and ambition and scale to stage this and plan it and build the infrastructure for it and have consumers who can afford it, but then has the Third World base of people who are making little to no money who can be hired as low level performers in this human wave of performance.
To me, that performance encapsulated the dynamic of China being a country in such transition and such a … I guess it’s kind of like all going in 1 direction where the Third World is catching up to the First, but it feels like it’s in competition. It feels like it’s crashing together. I have to think that development that took many decades or a century or more here in the United States is happening in just decades in China, and so it’s all very compressed and it felt … I felt like I was seeing the past from a Western perspective, like I was seeing a lot of what the West, whether it be the United States or I’m from Germany, what must have been happening before industrialization, before technology, before moving into the First World, and that was really interesting and then just remarkable in the scale and speed at which it’s all developing.
Yeah, that’s completely fascinating. In regards to China’s efforts to move from … They’ve got a huge manufacturing based economy, and I know that there are efforts to move into what we might call an innovation economy that powers the United States, for instance. Did you see any evidence of that in your travels, and if so, what was that evidence?
No, I didn’t. I didn’t. Now I’m going to be talking about things that I’m not qualified to talk about. This is real speculation, but the people culturally were so different than they are here. This was both in China, it was definitely also in North Korea, but not in Japan. Japan was notably different. Specifically what I’m referring to is the aggression of people. As you went around on the streets, the people are really aggressive. You have cars pulling right out in front of cars. It’s like you’re fighting for space. You’re fighting to get that spot, and if you don’t seize it, if you don’t force your way in there and put yourself at risk basically by putting your vehicle in front of the other, you’re not going to get anywhere. You have to participate in this really aggressive, almost angry battle to advance.
I saw it very clearly in both places and it’s a cultural characteristic that I saw in some other ways as well, all in public sphere ways, not personal ways. When I was dealing with people personally, people were very gracious, very hospitable, all very positive, but in these public spaces, it’s very … It’s almost as though they were taught as children, if you don’t take it and seize it for yourself, you will have nothing. You need to just get out and grab it. There were definitely aspects of that that thinking about it myself in sort of …
I’m not really informed on how the cultural … the way brain operates in relationship to innovation, but I can see how a culture that is, in my opinion at least, is that a culture that is turned that way, where the people are participating in the public sphere in that very aggressive, almost animalistic and selfish way, that that could translate to having a harder time to transition to innovation type of activities, which really are a product of what I’ll call a more developed humanity, of knowing that you can get where you need to get and get what you want to get through consideration for others, through working as part of a harmonious system, as opposed to part of an aggressive one.
That’s again just amateurish pontificating here, but I definitely was thinking about that as I took in this very aggressive cultures, which again notably Japan was different. Japan was like the West. Japan was like here in the United States in terms of how people are driving, how pedestrians are behaving, how people are acting towards each other in public spaces. There’s a real gap and a real difference, and Japan is known as innovative. Japan is known for design and some of those things as well. There may or may not be a correlation between what I’m calling attention to and the ability to become more innovative as an economy, but I just thought it might be worth mentioning.
Yeah. That’s an interesting analysis there. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just 1 L in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. It’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter, @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O, dot com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter, @dknemeyer. That’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, or email me firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s it for episode 99 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.