Friday, June 13, 2008

The Tattle Tale Killer

Today's story in The Los Angeles Times draws a number of morals about Internet culture from an Akibahara mass murder on a crowded street. Apparently the killer was live blogging events in his day and sent a number of anonymous text messages warning of his murderous intentions. In "Tokyo rampage suspect's warning unheard" the reporter also brings in a number of supposed experts to put forward a number of dystopic generalizations about how Japanese citizens participate in virtual worlds.

The Internet can link people from around the block and around the world, but it can also, as Kato's experience seems to show, be a lonely place, a black hole for data. Kato is reportedly telling police that his repeated Internet threats to kill people were a cry for help. If so, they had about the same effect as a man standing in a closet and screaming with a bucket over his head.

"Despite his appeal, nobody responded to him," said Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara in an interview.

The head of Japan's massive metropolis has been a prominent critic of what he sees as the loss of old social ties and the increasingly self-contained lives of younger generations. No amount of online living could compensate for Kato's loneliness, he argued.

"He was in a virtual world," Ishihara said. "He was not connected to anyone."

Police believe that Kato blogged about his progress as he traveled from his home 60 miles southwest of Tokyo to Akihabara, the capital's sacred turf for digital youth culture.

The location is laden with significance.

Akihabara is Tokyo's subversive neon playground for young males, the place they come for the pleasures of the maid cafes where young women dressed in tunics and lace cater to their nonsexual fetishes, or to browse for animated films and manga comics that drip with themes of sex and sexual violence.

It is also the cradle of Kato's own kind: awkward loners devoted to cartoon worlds populated by animated characters and robots.

Later in the article, the reporter quotes a U.S. critic of cross-cultural Niponophilia:

"Japan is the petri dish for how far you can go replacing your real life with a virtual one," said Roland Kelts, author of "Japanamerica," a study of the global appeal of Japanese pop culture. "But there's also a dark side to that. Is a virtual life really satisfying? Is it an adequate substitute for a wife and kids, or friends? And if you look at Kato's postings, you see the outer limits of virtual life."

If Kato is confirmed as the blogger who dropped a trail of digital bread crumbs leading to his crime, he would be just one of millions of young Japanese who have come to keep detailed diaries of their lives online. Tokyo is awash in young people offering a real-time description of where they are, what they are doing and how they feel.

Now, as a champion of the "slow words movement," which is sort of like the "slow food movement" in its emphasis on better community and communication, I'm certainly not into things like Twitter. In fact, I'd generally agree with Ian Bogost's negative assessment of the service:

For me, Twitter represents the worst trends in the new internet culture. It purports to allow people to "communicate" in new ways, a promise that mostly creates new obligation and infatuation to stay "up to date" and "connected." In the world of Twitter, you (and me, and everyone) pay constant, tiny homage to a new gimmickry. This is a gimmickry that doesn't even rise to the level of the gadget, with its industrialist promise of technological progress. It is a kind of softer soft-pornography determined to make identity-assertion the new masturbation.

Bogost's argument is one that should also be familiar as well to readers of Geert Lovink's Zero Comments, which lambastes the self-absorbed nihilism of Web 2.0. The fact that Twitter has been put to some interesting uses (British diplomats updating activists on climate change negotiations, composition instructors asking students to use it for their thesis statements, and Bogost's own project, Twittering Rocks, which you should check out when Bloomsday comes around again next week) doesn't really do much to change my mind.

But the LA Times seems to also be oversimplifying the ways that computer-mediated communication changes the social landscape. For a much better read on Japanese digital culture, check out the work of Mimi Ito, particularly Personal, Portable, Pedestrian, in which Ito shows the social dynamics at work in the behavior of seemingly isolated and tuned-out urban youths.

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