Interview with Mimi Ito, by danah boyd, February 2006

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 a 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 and Japan. What motivates this? What do you think can be learned from cross-cultural work?

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 phone 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 anthropology being relevant to design?

MIMI: I think there is a role for anthropology along all of the steps of 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 who want to study socio-technical practice and get involved in designing new technologies?

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 Okabe and Misa Matsuda and is published by MIT Press.

Copyright 2005 Ambidextrous Magazine, Inc.

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