American Otaku

Posted in Anthropology, Technology by Arasmus on March 10, 2006

I remember seeing a television science reporter, many years ago, describing the Japanese gadget freaks (now known as gadget otaku) that hung around Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo. With the same hushed tones used by David Attenborough when approaching a herd of water-buffalo, the reporter described a unique urban sub-culture characterized by an intense pre-occupation with gadgets. These teenagers were keenly pursued by the Japanese electronics companies, as ideal high-maintenance consumers who would point the way to the next big thing.

I was reminded of this report from the late 1980s in the last two weeks as I witnessed demanding American consumers make two major electronics companies look rather sheepish for failing to satisfy their aspirations. The first was Apple. A number of weeks ago Apple sent out a coy low-key invitation to the launch of some “cool new products” in mid-February. The rumor mill began. The most popular desire was for a full screen video i-pod that would play feature length movies in landscape format. This vision encompassed a touch-sensitive screen with a scroll wheel that appeared and disappeared to the touch. Apple actually announced some leather i-pod carrying cases and a boom-box. The reaction of the faithful was not good. After Apple it was the turn of Microsoft. The company set up a minimalist futuristic website avec Asian-futuristic-fetish verbiage like “the Origami Project.” It promised an announcement on March 9. Everyone waited. The rumor mill hoped for a laptop with an i-pod form factor. It would be cool, it would be awesome it would be your new best friend. The promotional video, showed shiny happy people (okay so maybe they were not actually shiny) zipping around town casually designing products, starting t-shirt companies and conducting market research all while listening to music and emailing their buddies – life was going to be just so easy. Then the actual product was released. It was a disappointing shiny (“shiny plastic” not “shiny silver”) black box with almost a 3 hour battery life. The otaku tribe groaned, gathered up their tents and moved on.

Are we seeing the emergence of an American Otaku culture – where prosumers and not producers determine whether a product launch is a success? Have blogs moved the power from the marketing departments at Apple, Microsoft and Sony to the t-shirt bedecked scribes at Engadget, Gizmodo and TUAW? I think the answer, rather boringly, is yes and no. The tech blogs offer a platform for the type of consumer adulation for which GM would give its right initial. For example, one blogger returned from the Apple announcement in February apologizing for his adolescent gushing upon seeing Steve Jobs in the flesh. So in this respect the technology blogs support the mission of Madison Avenue. On the other hand, the Apple boom-box was not Apple’s finest hour and it will no doubt get that message from its fans. In this respect the blogs stamp out Fifth Avenue’s fifth column. Though it may seem tough in the short-run to face such relentless customer demands, in the long-run, these crazed prosumers will save even successful companies from the lethal comfort of their own hard-won success. Cadillac and Buick were not so lucky. In closing – konichiwa otaku.


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