There is a very interesting article in Facta Online about the “Second Digital Divide.” Among 20 year-olds in Japan, there is a serious split between those who access the net via personal computers and those who access (a proprietary and limited version of) the net via mobile phones. And as a result, the number of young people using the internet from computers has seriously fallen in the recent years.
This graph shows the breakdown of demographic usage of the internet. Over the last six years, almost all age groups have seen their share of total home PC access usage increase — except for 20 year-olds who have dropped from making up 23.6% to now only 11.9%. This current rate means that they make up an almost identical proportion of the total as 50 year-olds. Now some of this may be demographic (there are less young people), but the drop in usage share here is much stronger and more sudden than the decrease in demographic share.
There is a socioeconomic element behind this change. PCs in Japan are essentially a “white collar” tool, and freeter/blue collar workers use the keitai as their access to the internet. With many in their 20s failing to get into the extremely narrow door to a white collar career, PC usage experience may be dropping in parallel. (We also don’t know how many white collar workers in their 20s are doing their net surfing at the office and have no interest at looking at a computer screen once they get home.)
Internet browsing capabilities on Japanese cell phones are getting better all the time, but clearly, there is a difference in technological progression on phones and computers. In terms of speed and screen quality, top-of-the-line mobile phones can finally do what a cheap computer has been able to do for years. The keitai will be stuck with a relatively tiny screen for a long time. The larger the screen gets, the more the phone will fail on the functional level of being a small object inserted into the pocket. Limitations on screen size, typing speed, and connection speed have led to a much more passive interaction with information compared to the consumers using a PC.
The author does not want us to blindly praise the “Mobile Wonderland” of Japan as a high-tech paradise. The rise of keitai has come at the expense of PC culture, rather than acted as an augmentation. The “thumb tribe” (親指族) — who primarily input text through the telephone numerical layout — show serious inexperience with using PCs and with typing on a real keyboard. They are “retrogressing” to a point where they have the pathetic PC skills of their out-of-date elders.
Apparently there have been 5700 recorded cases all across Japan of confused cell-phone users thinking that the number “110” included in the error message “We could not send your mail (110)” is a telephone number. The police — located at 110 on the telephone dial — are not amused. The author argues that PC users may not inherently understand error codes, but would not have believed that such a number was there to be called.
For a long time, technological progression was the story of standalone gadgets. Thanks to YouTube, Google, Flickr, Ebay, Mixi, and iTunes, this is no longer the case. Keitai can let you access the internet, but can only rarely let you experience the march of innovation in real time. The mobile phone acted as a nice patch to the gaping hole of weak internet usage in Japan at the turn of the century, but it will be interesting to see how long the device can really do the job and whether or not it caused more long-term problems than it aimed to solve. Beta may have been the future of video, but it quickly became history once the rest of the world jumped on the VHS bandwagon.