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Japan wants you to know, in clearest terms, that it is moving toward “Society 5.0". After the hunter-gatherer, agrarian, industrial and information stages, a Japanese government website tells you, the fifth stage will be a new ultra-smart society connected through IoT technology.

But there's a glitch. Before the Japanese government starts packing for the next leg of its evolutionary journey, it will have to convince a large number of its citizens who are content with using the technology they got 20 years ago--floppy disks, CD drives, fax machines and outdated clunky computers.

If you listen to Japan's digital minister Taro Kono, the government has made up its mind to drag its citizens out of the tech time-warp. Kono has declared a war on floppy disks, Bloomberg reported a few days ago. Floppy disks and CDs are still required for some 1,900 government procedures and must go, Kono says.

Inside Japan's tech time-warp

Minister Kono is certainly a generational advance over Yoshitaka Sakurada, a minister in Shizo Abe's government who was incharge of cybersecurity. He once proudly announced he had never used a computer as he always told his staff to do that.

In Japan, government offices and a large number of businesses still use technology that is long dead even in countries that are not considered advanced technologically. “Japan is behind the world by at least 20 years when it comes to administrative technology," Yukio Noguchi, a Japanese economist, told Bloomberg.

In a 2021 survey by a communications industry association of Japan, 24.3% said they used fax machines on a daily basis while 25.4% said they used them occasionally. That makes half of the working Japanese still using fax machines. The survey report said fax had deeply permeated daily work and workflows, such as its wide use for plan data in the industrial machinery and real estate industries, as well as IT engineers using it for reporting and communication.

A traditional system of using Hanko seals on official documents—another target of digital minister Kono—is still widely prevalent and prevents digitisation of administration.

The world's third largest economy ranks way low on digital competitiveness. An IMD ranking puts Japan at No. 28, behind other Asian countries such as China, Taiwan, South Korea and Malaysia.

Why Japan got stuck

Why does the country that gave the world innumerable tech wonders—from bullet trains to QR code—still stuck at outdated technology?

The reasons according to a Mckinsey report are: high-context culture with a risk-averse mindset; senior leaders focused on company longevity rather than productivity; limited exposure of some industries to global competitors; a gridlock effect between a private sector waiting for digital endorsement by government and a government waiting for the private sector to forge ahead; and, most important, a deficit of more than half a million software-related engineers to build the software applications that will take the country forward.

Small bureaucratic twists can cause big blocks. Software was classed as a non-material investment in government accounting, economist Takuya Hoshino told Bloomberg in 2020. That meant it was funded by debt-covering bonds, which required a more arduous approval process than did the construction bonds used to build roads or bridges.

Perhaps the nation that has produced the most efficient machines may not like to switch to digital technology that can't be seen or touched. Or is it that an ageing society has no verve left for new technology?

There can't be many reasons specific to Japan because even in advanced western countries, outdated technology manages to live on—feeding on the bureaucratic belief that if it served its purpose for 20 years, why it won't now.

Digital deserts in western countries

Won't you expect America's nuclear controls to run on the most efficient and error-free technology? How about floppy disks? Only in 2019, Pentagon stopped using the missile-launch system that relied on floppy disks and ancient IBM Series/1 computers.

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You will no longer be shocked by this fact if you come to know that till 2014, three nuclear bases in the US had only one wrench that was needed to put nuclear warheads on missiles. How would the three bases with a fleet of 450 missiles share the one wrench? They would simply use FedEx to ship it to each other. In 2014, then defence secretary Chuck Hagel said they would get two wrenches for each base. Hopefully, by now Pentagon must have got a system more advanced than a wrench to put nuclear warheads on missiles.

Japanese would love to work in Germany's health department where, according to Deutsche Welle, data is often transmitted on paper by fax and then manually typed into the computer. Jen Spahn, who used to be Angela Merkel's health minister, had said that in no other area was as much faxing done as in the health sector. The agency reported last year that German health authorities were tackling covid with paper, pen and fax machine.

The fax machine also proved to be a bottleneck for US covid response. The data was moving slower than the disease—"Picture the image of hundreds of faxes coming through, and the machine just shooting out paper," a health official told NYT. "From an operational standpoint, it makes things incredibly difficult."

Is old tech better?

If so many people are reluctant to let go of old technology, is there a possibility that it does serve some purpose better than the new technology?

A reason why many Germans are reluctant to adopt new digital technology is privacy. Old technology is likely to be less vulnerable to hacks because it does not connect seamlessly with contemporary technology. Health departments in the US using faxes could be due to regulations that discourage them to put people's health data online where it can't be as safe as on paper.

Some argue that it's easier to digitise less developed countries because people there are not as concerned with privacy as in developed countries.

Elsewhere in Mint

In Opinion, Madan Sabnavis lays down four rules to giving out freebies. Sandipan Deb writes on the accidental greatness of Gorbachev. Manu Joseph explains why Western compliments are so confusing for others. Long Story reveals the untold truth about stock market returns.

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