May 11, 2008

Akihabara: Fail

Filed under: analog,awesome,beauty,digital,flickr,future,hate,life,losers,travel,vendetta — mhoye @ 4:41 pm

Context, because it is all about context.

First, a bit of short reading: The Grim Meathook Future, a phrase coined by Joshua Ellis.

The upshot of all of this is that the Future gets divided; the cute, insulated future that Joi Ito and Cory Doctorow and you and I inhabit, and the grim meathook future that most of the world is facing, in which they watch their squats and under-developed fields get turned into a giant game of Counterstrike between crazy faith-ridden jihadist motherfuckers and crazy faith-ridden American redneck motherfuckers, each doing their best to turn the entire world into one type of fascist nightmare or another.

Of course, nobody really wants to talk about that future, because it’s depressing and not fun and doesn’t have Fischerspooner doing the soundtrack. So everybody pretends they don’t know what the future holds, when the unfortunate fact is that — unless we start paying very serious attention — it holds what the past holds: a great deal of extreme boredom punctuated by occasional horror and the odd moment of grace.

Like they say, read the whole thing.

Second, a well-worn observation, that a common failing of science fiction is to assume that the future looks pretty much like the present, only more so; the first time I remember noticing that was in Larry Niven’s mid-seventies Gil Hamilton series, set centuries in the future, where a planet of thirty billion people is described as largely peaceful and well-regulated, but computers still output their information on paper tape and a few hours of “time on the computer”, singular, is described as an absurdly exorbitant expense.

Those stories don’t age well, as you might imagine; nothing is as hard on science fiction as the future,

Bear with me, here.

Akihabara, or “Akihabara Electric Town”, is Tokyo’s discount-tech district and something of a nerd Mecca. It’s home to a ridiculous number of computer and anime stores, and many shiny technologies are found there; the widgets of the future are reportedly sold there long before finding their way to the Americas, I made my pilgrimage, hoping to get a glimpse what the future would look like.

And I was deeply disappointed. Whatever you might think about what’s coming, it’s crystal clear that the future we go with had better not look like the one I found at Akihabara.

Yesterday's Technology Today

The Japanese do not, I think, have a long cultural tradition of making new stuff. They do have a long tradition of taking ideas and items from elsewhere and making or doing them about as well as they can be made or done, and in Akihabara that particular cultural bent has been focused on nominally inexpensive technology. And everything you could ask for in that was there – racked-up rows of tiny devices, bigger stores holding smaller, more luminous widgets than I’d seen anywhere, lightweight laptops, tiny media players, wildly functional cellphones, you name it. Collector’s boutiques for all things anime, comprehensively stocked to obsessive completion, second-hand electronics stores stocked to the ceiling with retro cool.

Tiny LCDs reflecting off brushed aluminum casings and grim portent as far as the eye can see.

If I were a younger man I might have seen it differently but what I saw, all I could see, was the science fiction of the-present-only-more-so, a huge amount of obsessive effort put to the service of a future destined to age very poorly. Mountains of plastic crap, robot figurines, big-eyed-cartoon-schoolgirl porn and thousands of people expending enormous amounts of time, money, talent and effort in a thousand desperate bids to be not bored. And I don’t think it’s going to age well at all. I sure hope it doesn’t.

Akihabara: Fail

And to nobody’s surprise but mine I’m sure, when presented with the nonrational customer, the rational merchant’s prices don’t toddle downward, no sir. For an ostensibly-discount tech district Akihabara is goddamned expensive, and only got more expensive the more gimmicky stuff became. I’m sorry, you want a hundred and thirty bucks for a one-gig flash drive shaped like a piece of sushi? I’m thinking no. Specifically, I’m thinking no and fuck off. Which brings us to the compare-and-contrast part of today’s entry: Tsukiji

We didn’t get to Tsukiji in time for the morning tuna auctions, so when we got there it the day’s catch was being piled into trucks and sent wherever it goes. The public accessway to watch this process looked terrifyingly-enough like an industrial service entrance that we mistakenly thought it couldn’t possibly be the regular public entrance, so instead we went around the corner to what turned out to be the actual service entrance to try our “luck” there.

I don’t know if that was a mistake per se, but since we were walking around with a four-year-old girl and a nine-month old boy, it certainly was exciting. I wouldn’t really describe the place as child safe, even though they made it out OK, and their mother earned my respect one more time for not flipping out even a little when she clearly (and entirely justifiably, I might add) felt that flipping out was exactly what the situation called for.

Because Tsukiji is, by an order of magnitude or three, the largest fish market and distribution facility in the world. In addition to the several hundred tons of boring old produce that moves around Tsukiji every day, they shift more than two thousand tons of fish in and out of a single building every day in a convulsive spasm of unhinged expiry-date carno-mercantilism, with all the slippery floors, sharp edges and fast-moving machinery it implies.

It Turns Out Tuna Are Huge

And it’s beautiful. The seafood is all vivid colours and shimmering rich texture, alien shapes and odd appendages packed in ice next to huge marbled slabs of tuna. The machinery is corroded and worn, heavy chains greased thick, the air is full of the thump and clank of shifting metal, two stroke engines, the smooth whine of bandsaws and aging brakes.

Tsukiji's Delivery Entrance

Try and imagine that the people from Finding Nemo and Blade Runner decided one sunny morning to collaborate on an elaborate, big-budget snuff film. God, it was beautiful. Oh voice-in-my-head, I love you so; don’t ever change, you embittered, psychotic junkie fuck.

Unlike what I saw at Akihabara, everything I saw at Tsukiji was motion-to-purpose, the blade put to meat meant to feed somebody, not some shiny thing meant to distract. If you only saw pictures of the place you might think the opposite, could easily believe that that Akihabara is the way to go. But you need to see them in person to really feel it, I think; you need to feel the fishmarket rattle and froth around you, to soak in Akihabara’s curious sterility. Nobody at Tsukiji had that terrified otaku inability to look you in the eye or time to wander around slowly deciding what model to buy. The three-foot gaff and four-foot gutting blade in the fishmonger’s stall will never sit idly in a display case, and I saw way more glassy eyes in the store aisles in Electric City than I did packed in ice in the fish market.

While there’s no jihadis or redneck motherfuckers there to throw that occasional horror into the works, at least there’s also not the profound sense that you’re looking at an evolutionary dead end, some cut off island where the animals grow more and more elaborate plumage in response to the lack of real competition. And whatever the future looks like, if all we can muster in response to prospect of the grim meathook future is an exaggerated version of the present, with all that effort put to novelty and trivia, then that will be an enormous failure.

There might be some way to beat that, if we can figure out how to put all that effort towards something meaningful, whatever that turns out to be. But in the meantime, I guess I’d better go learn how to gut a fish.

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