Interview with Mimi Ito, by danah boyd, February
While designers often consider the different developments that emerge in
both the east and the west, few scholars consider how technological design
is connected to cultural practice. One exception is Mizuko (Mimi) Ito, an
anthropologist who investigates new media use, particularly amongst young
people in Japan and the United States. Her work ranges from mobile phone
(keitai) practices to fandom, online game play to remix culture. Her
edited volume "Personal, Portable and Pedestrian" was just recently
published, giving English-speaking scholars an opportunity to access
Japanese media research. Because her cross-cultural work is of great
value to designers, Ambidextrous decided to interview her to learn more.
DANAH: To begin, tell me a little more about yourself. Where were you
born? Where did you go to school? What did you study?
MIMI: I was born in Kyoto, but first moved to the US when I was still a
baby. I spent my childhood moving back and forth between Japan and the US.
I did elementary school in suburban Michigan, and then junior high school
and high school in international schools in Tokyo. As an undergraduate at
Harvard I majored in East Asian Studies and did a thesis on Zen Buddhist
food rituals. After that I moved to Stanford, and did doctoral programs in
Education and Anthropology. That work was based on ethnographic studies of
how kids used educational software in afterschool progams and how the
educational software industry rose and fell in the eighties through 2000.
DANAH: Anthropologists aren't typically known for studying technology.
How did you become interested in technology?
MIMI: I was doing my graduate work at Stanford in the early nineties
during an early golden era in cybercultural studies. Academics were
energized by Donna Haraway's cyborg manifesto, Timothy Leary was
evangelizing for virtual reality, and the Internet was starting to become
a thing that regular people used. I spent a lot of time at Apple's
Advanced Technology Group, the Institute for Research on Learning and
Xerox PARC at a moment when technologists were starting to incorporate
ethnographic approaches into the technology design process. I was able to
ride on the coat tails of this movement which had been started by people
like Lucy Suchman and Shelley Goldman who I was lucky to have as my
mentors in the technology/ethnography interface. And I was also lucky to
have academic advisors at Stanford who tolerated my experimentation in
technology worlds, and a family who has been involved in the development
of new technology and continue to be key native informants to my research.
DANAH: How did you end up following Japanese mobile culture?
MIMI: The mobile culture interest happened when I returned to Japan on
postdoctoral research grant in the late nineties. I went to Japan with a
proposal to study gaming cultures. I did end up doing that, but I was also
drawn immediately to the fact that the street college of teenage girls,
particularly their mobile phone use, was at the center of public attention
(for better and worse). I jumped on this opportunity to study a new
technology practice that was driven forward by girls.
DANAH: In what ways does technology practice in Japan differ from or
resemble that in the United States?
MIMI: I feel like Japan and the US are both outliers in terms of their
technology adoption trajectories, but in different ways. The US, as home
to the PC-based Internet, has led on research and innovation in this
space. Japan, by contrast, has tended to be an incubator of portable and
miniature consumer technologies, and is a hothouse for bottom-up and
consumer driven forms of innovation. If you walk into an electronics store
in Japan you'll notice an incredible variety of gadgets that are out only
on the Japanese market. Developers put things out there and see what gets
taken up and how before they do their next design iterations. This is the
kind of environment that gave birth to what Kenichi Fujimoto called the
"Girls' Pager's Revolution" where high school girls hijacked pagers from
business users and made them part of their social communication. That's a
different process from incubating technologies within an elite community
of developer/users like what happened with the Internet in the US.
DANAH: Your work and your life have always bridged the United States
Japan. What motivates this? What do you think can be learned from
MIMI: As a kid I didn't have a choice in being a cultural hybrid. Now I
find that it has opened up a lot of opportunities for me to do work on
issues on transnationalism, and to do translation work between Japan and
US academic worlds. "Personal, Portable and Pedestrian" is an example of
this. There has been a lot of international interest in Japanese mobile
phone use, but most of what was making it out to the English-speaking
world was written by Euro-Americans and not by Japanese. For our mobile
phone book, we translated works of Japanese scholarship into English so
that people could hear directly from native scholars.
DANAH: Tell me more about the book. What's it about? How might it be
relevant to designers?
MIMI: The new book is an anthology of scholarly essays about mobile
use in Japan. Most of the work was originally written in Japanese by
Japanese scholars. It is an interdisciplinary volume that includes the
history of adoption and use, surveys of usage patterns and statistics, and
ethnographic case studies of situations of use. I think it can be a
resource for designers working in the mobile and handheld space by
providing a case of a new set of technology-supported practices that
evolved as an iterative process between user innovation and design
innovation. The stories and descriptions of use settings could also
provide some inspiration for new kinds of designs optimized for the
dlow-profile, always-on space of mobile communications.
DANAH: Fabulous! Can you tell me more about what how you see
being relevant to design?
MIMI: I think there is a role for anthropology along all of the steps
the design process. But of course I would say that. Anthropology can help
inspire new designs by providing profiles of users and stories about
contexts of use. Anthropologists can play on design teams as designs get
developed to sensitive designers to culturally and context specific
issues. And finally, anthropologists can evaluate the effectiveness of
designs through studies of actual use in context, either prototype, pilot,
or after product roll-out.
DANAH: So what advice would you have to young aspiring anthropologists
want to study socio-technical practice and get involved in designing new
MIMI: Advice? This one is tough. Be prepared for some blank looks from
people in your discipline - but a lively audience of practitioners and
technology designers who are eager to hear stories from the field. The
challenge is to be multilingual and interdisciplinary while also
maintaining commitment to ethnographic perspectives and methods.
DANAH: Mimi, thank you so much for your time!
For more information on Mimi Ito's research, check out her website at:
"Personal, Portable and Pedestrian" is edited by Mizuko Ito, Daisuke
and Misa Matsuda and is published by MIT Press.
Copyright 2005 Ambidextrous