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Commentary (October 4, 2005)

The PC-Cell Phone Downside

Takamitsu SAWA  (Professor, Kyoto University)

Since the 1990s, personal computers and cell phones have made fast inroads into the modern world. Without them, normal life would be almost impossible. Times were when automobiles and television transformed not just lifestyles but cultures. These days PCs and cell phones are doing likewise.

First, PCs and cell phones have lessened people's propensity for reading. Television, once considered the root cause of this problem, did not make books and newspapers unnecessary. TV dramas based on novels did not reduce demand for the originals; in fact, they often boosted demand.

While television outclassed newspapers -- and it still does -- when it came to reporting breaking news, newspapers were valued for their in-depth reports. Thus television and print media complemented each other.

By contrast, PCs and cell phones have the potential of replacing books and newspapers. To obtain information, one need not read a book: Just enter a keyword on the PC. A college student can use a patchwork of information gleaned from the Net to write a term paper. Newspaper subscriptions have decreased markedly since newspapers came online. With encyclopedias and dictionaries accessible online, there is little use for them in print form.

Finland, which boasts the world's highest scholastic standards for children, rivals Japan in the public acceptance of PCs and cell phones. Yet, unlike their Japanese counterparts, Finnish children are avid readers. I believe that Japan should push educational reform that helps primary and middle school children acquire the habit of reading.

Whether PCs and cell phones replace or supplement print media in daily life depends on one's reading habits.

Second, since a PC can be used without knowledge of math and physics, many people have lost respect for scientists and engineers. In the past only professionals with specialized training were able to operate mainframe computers. PCs have removed the barrier between amateurs and professionals, and contributed to children's loss of interest in natural science.

Many science students are having trouble catching up in mathematics. In an age when PCs perform digital calculations, it is small wonder that students have lost interest in arcane theories about differential and integral calculus for continuous functions.

Third, advanced statistical analysis is possible without detailed knowledge of the procedure. All methods of data analysis are available in one computer software package, with which it is easy to draw bar graphs and pie charts for analysis. Because of the convenience, people no longer try, as they once did, to come up with a hypothesis before analyzing data and thinking hard about the significance of the results.

Fourth, many people waste precious time spending hours on end surfing the Net and exchanging e-mail, which has enabled people to avoid face-to-face discussions. As a result, Japanese, notorious for their poor speaking skills, are becoming even less communicative.

Or, to be more exact, e-mail has become a very convenient tool of communication for Japanese.

There are both merits and demerits to the major cultural changes brought about by PCs and cell phones, but broadly speaking, I believe the demerits -- especially the decline in people's reading habits, loss of interest in science and the ability to think, and tendency to waste time -- outweigh the merits.

Technological progress is irreversible. Once it becomes available, new technology rarely dies, except for chemical substances such as DDT, thalidomide and fluorocarbons, which have proved harmful to human health.

We have to admit that the inroads into our lives by PCs and cell phones are inevitable and tackle the challenge of minimizing their drawbacks.

(This article appeared in the October 3, 2005 issue of The Japan Times)

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