Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

So my Brainscan (the 3 minute blurb that we give in front of everyone) was something like the following:

I'm the only Japanese at this conference of over 100 people. I guess it is an acknowledgement to the 2nd largest economy but a sign that everyone is saying, "call us when you figure it out." I'm on the China panel today so maybe that means that everyone thinks Japan is soon going to be part of China. Anyway...

The Japanese economic problem is based on the dysfunctional market and the lack of a working democracy. At this conference everyone has been blaming the US for stuff so I'll do that too. The US left the gangsters and the bureaucrats in power to fend of communism. If Japan had been allowed to become a democracy, we may have become a communist nation so maybe that made sense. Anyway, we need help transforming our Japan into a true democracy.

The Internet is an incredible tool and an incredible risk.

The printing press created public opinion that forces politicians and corporations to be accountable. Blogs, personal publishing, instant messaging and other Internet tools could transform the public into a much more active force.

On the other hand, privacy technology is essential to protect the right of people to transact, communicate and not be profiled. Privacy underpins democracy. Without privacy, there is no public debate, there is no dissent, there are no revolutions. Privacy is about data structures and architectures which are extremely political. The US will work to protect the privacy of its own citizens, but they are not incentivized to protect the privacy of citizens of other nations. All nations must focus on and cause privacy to be protected since privacy will not be driven by purely market forces at this stage and once privacy is lost, it is impossible to un-do disclosure of your personal information.


How do we interpret this in light of Adam Smith's views on capitalism -- The Wealth of Nations tells us, "Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment of whatever capital he can command and is led by an invisible hand to
promote an end which was no part of his intention.

How does privacy integrate with an ideal capitlism -- if there is a capitalist end to eliminating privacy (the creation of wealth through compilation of data on persons, like TRW engages in) then is this not a valid capitalistic pursuit? And similarly, shouldn't privacy protection companies emerge to protect the privacy of those individuals who want to pay for it? Or should we hold to the maxim of Ben Franklin who said, "Those who would sacrifice privacy for liberty deserve neither"?

I think that there is a commercial need for privacy just as there is a commercial reason for protecting the environment. I think it is one of those things that people don't know too much about and it isn't until the Columbian drug lords kill your brother because of phone logs linking him to an informant that people realize that there is a need for privacy. The problem is that it is irreversible. Once they tag your medical records, library records, genetic profile, financial records with your national ID, you can't un-do it. So I think that the risk is that we get too far gone before we realize it is a business with customers.

Having said that, a few bad incidents and I think people will start understanding that it is a risk that they would pay to avoid and maybe it won't be too late.


Of course, your comments are a summary of what you said, so there's always a risk of taking it out of context. Still, here are some thoughts based on a couple of your brainscan comments.

Japanese democracy is a hard one to figure out, it's true. I'm not sure I can easily blame the US government for the fact that Japan's current democracy isn't what we think it should be. Japan's had plenty of time, and plenty of prosperity in that time, to develop a citizenry that thinks for itself. In many respects, it does. But when it comes to that citizenry voicing its concerns and electing politicians that change laws and the way things are done, it's striking how little seems to happen.

As you mention, the question is: how does that change? Does personal publishing alone make it happen? I suspect not. Rather, I think the views of the younger generation of Japanese leaders have to supplant the ones of the fading generation, and LEAD Japan out of its current malaise.

Hi Jim.

Yes. I think in my brainscan I was reacting a bit to all of the American "we've created democracy everywhere we've been" sort of message. I don't blame the US for everything, but they definitely did not leave Japan with a perfect democracy and they funded a bunch of people who were not representative of the people. In Japan, the judiciary is appointed by the bureaucracy and the election system is easily rigged by the bureaucracy.

I agree that the youth must lead, but there are MANY technical details that need to be fixed. For instance, all important government posts are held by career bureaucrats. There is no political appointee system. The election system is broken as can be seen in Nagano, where a popularly election governor was ousted by the prefectural council because he tried to stop corrupt public works systems. There is no way to sue the government. It is almost impossible for the public to affect the law making systems. The accounting of public funds is opaque. The education system is control by the bureaucracy. Etc.

Having said that, I haven't given up, but just a bunch of young people with an urge won't do it. The systems requires surgery and we need to convert politicians and bureaucrats with special skills to execute this process.

The reason that I believe the Net and personal publishing can change things is because it is the only way to wake people up and organize a sophisiticated attack on the system, which is required. All of the mass media is controlled by the people in power and they quickly stomp out and movements for change with Fear Uncertainty an Doubt. (FUD).

Working on protesting the National ID, I have found more than ever that change is very difficult. We have over 80% popular support, we are technically right, we have about 70% of the politicians on our side, but the momentum of the bureaucracy keeps the program rolling forward and the media are generally under the control of certain individuals. We have a few more plays remaining, but they often require selling pieces of our future as barter for politican favors, which we will avoid...

I think it's unfortunate and misguided for any Americans to have the view that they have figured out democracy and how best to localize it, so I can see how you'd find that really annoying. Heck, if anything, the US got it from the French, and look how different the American version is from the original. One of the truly fortunate aspects of American political culture is that of public discourse about ideas and the way things should be. The fourth estate works pretty well. We read about Enron, and even the President and Vice President are (rightly) questioned about their own involvement in corporate governance.

Put another way: a system based on frequent political judgements and an active press, as opposed to bureacratic management, yields more ultimate power to the people.

As someone who's studied and lived a few years in Japan, I certainly can't claim to have much insight into the political process from any personal experience. But I do have a hope that policies that are generally best for the average Japanese citizen find their way into law and practice, which is of course what the real matter is.

It's certainly an easy gloss (on my part) to say something as simple as "the youth have to lead", and you're right that the systemic changes that have to happen are in the cosy bureaucratic system itself. I read somewhere once that bureaucracies, in their construction, are efficient in but one thing: preservation of the status quo. Therein lies the problem.

I wonder if there is historical precedent that can help to start change. The only things I can recall that involved real public outcry at misdoings were Minamoto poisoning and the Green Cross blood scandals. I'm sure you'd know of more and better examples. Given that those incidents involved death and tremendous physical suffering, the parallel with the current problem is probably pretty strained.

Another idea: investigative journalism? What about trying to get some airtime on Tsukushi Testsuya's nightly show?

There's no doubt that the democritization of publishing with the Internet, whether it's blogs, emails, or websites, is a great unifying force for organizing people and affecting change. It certainly educated me on the current issues - and the problems you've faced in confronting them.

I just wonder if it's enough. Maybe we're approaching the same conclusion from opposite ends: any move for change requires both broad media coverage and groundswell grassroots efforts.

I wish you luck with the national ID campaign, and have already emailed some of my friends in Japan on it in the hopes that discussion is the spark that leads to action.

Finally, thanks for sharing ideas and having a fascinating site - I can't stop reading your articles and postings!

Hi Jim. Actually, I think the US press coverage is very weak and twisted on the National ID issue. All of the investigative journalists are pretty much all over this issue. Yoshiko Sakurai, who is the leader of the movement against the National ID was the investigative journalist who uncovered the HIV Blood problem as well as many other very important issues. The mass media are doing a better job than usually, mostly because we have a good broad team on the issue, but too little too late. I think that considering the fact that we don't have any death, pain and suffering, we're doing a pretty good job. In some areas, they are related. For instance, HIV positive people other other people with medical problems do not like the idea of being databased and disclosed...

Yes. The status quo. The amazing thing is that the LDP and the bureaucrats represent almost every interest and there is no leader. It is a huge blob that can't move forward. It just sits around absorbing anything it can into the "group" and crushing anything that it is allergic to. No one person is in charge or has any huge amount of control. There are no effective tools against this thing. Something like outside pressure, extreme economic conditions, war or earthquake is probably required for any real change. I'm a bit pessimistic on this issue as you can tell. Having said that, I read "The Tipping Point" and believe that change can suddenly come if we don't give up home.

Thanks for posting your comments on what appears to be bit of a lonely site. ;-)