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Why is hi-tech Japan using cassette tapes and faxes? (2015) (bbc.co.uk)
37 points by alexanderdmitri 9 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments

I have a friend in Japan who used to own a small seafood restaurant. At the end of the day, before closing up shop, she would send a fax to her supplier at the local fish market with a list of things she needed for tomorrow. Take a printed form, circle the necessary ingredients, fax it. Got any additional notes? Just write it at the bottom. Only took a minute.

A modern solution for this use case would be a custom website or a mobile app. Now, even if you disregard for a moment the cost of developing/running/maintaining those things, the UX and reliability of paper and pencil for this use case is far superior to mucking around on your phone or PC.

A modern solution could be as simple as an email or a whatsapp message. You could reuse the same form and send an image with your phone. I agree that it's more of a "side-grade" than an upgrade.

If it’s just a shopping list, what does fax offer that SMS wouldn’t?

Circle items VS awkwardly typing on a tiny screen where you can't see the whole form Ask a 50+ person to choose between large "screen" and manual big circling motion vs phone typing

The equivalent to circling things on paper is selecting check boxes next to items on a touch screen. Which is just as easy, if not even easier (easy to cancel a selection which is not so easy once something is already circled on paper).

easy to cancel

Easy to throw a paper away.

The equivalent to circling things on paper is selecting check boxes next to items on a touch screen

Form and fax he already has. The app, and server infrastructure of the provider, he has not. I would have zero incentive to change a perfectly working and cheap system.

My Dad who has Parkinson's despises small mobile phone touchscreens that require him to awkwardly press tiny areas. A4 Paper rules the day.

So he would presumably struggle with a piece of paper the size of a small mobile phone too.

Why contrast a small phonescreen with a piece of A4 paper when touchscreens also come in A4 size?

A hard copy for your filing cabinet.

Yeah but data aggregation and accounting aren't linked.

Has the typical software application actually gotten better with time? I feel like websites in particular and software in general have gone downhill since the early 2000s. Everything is more complicated, less clear, loads more slowly, and is wrapped in the UI-flavor of the week. Boring ugly websites, like boring ugly technologies, just get the job done.

I'd agree with that, and often say similar things only to be accused of shouting at clouds[0]. I still have a laptop at work running Windows XP on period hardware because it has a serial port that is useful for interfacing with equipment. I don't use it often, but when I do I always find it a bit disconcerting how responsive it is compared to the software I use every day here in the future. We have gigabytes of ram, SSDs, multi-core procs running at several Ghz each, and yet most software seems to respond slower without providing significantly more functionality!

[0] The Cloud being a frequent target of my ranting, this is not entirely incorrect.

A line-of-business application where I work was recently upgraded to be responsive with a number of useful client-side JavaScript features added. Nobody in their right mind would use it on a mobile device but it's nice to be able to resize the browser window instead of dedicating one monitor to it. And the JS library they're using for the dozens of large data tables in the system is so much more pleasant to use than the ad-hoc server side filtering and sorting they had before. I can't think of a thing they did that seems frivolous, except maybe dropping the Internet Explorer requirement, and I'm not complaining about that either. ;-)

The problem is that this is a rarity. Most "modern" web-apps are worse than their traditional desktop app replacements. It is not as if developers are worse today. It is because traditional desktop applications can build upon better frameworks, leverage better tested accessibility, compose and extend native and rich UI controls offered by the OS and all of which leads to better developer productivity and comfortable user experience.

Yes, you can do all that with JSS and CSS also. However you have to fight extreme CSS and JS bloat in order to achieve the same thing.

I really want the browser vendors to offer a large suite of standardised, modern web controls. UX Designers who love to do their own snarky, edgy stuff can keep doing so, but for us developers it would be a god-send for our sanity.

As if this were any different in other countries.[1]

In some European countries fax is still the only official way to transfer documents digitally.

I heard similar rules exist in old companies in the US, in particular financial & health care ones.

Yet, when I lived in Japan I don't think I ever sent a fax or encountered a situation where faxing was necessary myself. Yes our company sometimes needed to send faxes to a bank and we needed to use workarounds (online fax sending service), so I know it's still a thing. However, it's a thing like legacy software and COBOL is a thing. It's just there waiting to be replaced when possible. Most businesses/companies are not setting up processes that require incoming faxes.

I guess there is a niche for it in small businesses that are too old (dying) and don't care to modernize. And why not? I don't think it's so weird to use faxes where it makes sense. They are just one communication tool among many.

These articles and their fascination with Japan. Just like the suicides and the sexless, herbivore men crap that is constantly making the rounds.

No, Japan is not like every other place, but it's also not that unique. At least I wished these journalists would properly identify how phenomenon x in Japan is different from the same one happening in let's say ...Finland. But that wouldn't be exotic enough to interest readers. Somehow with Japan it always has to be explained with some exceptional quality/pattern (Japanese people do this and that, culture, shame, homogeneous society...).

[1] http://theconversation.com/why-do-people-still-use-fax-machi...

> These articles and their fascination with Japan. Just like the suicides and the sexless, herbivore men crap that is constantly making the rounds.

The other story that is constantly told is about Japan's ageing society, while very few stories are published about South Korea's situation (ageing more rapidly even if Japan has the lead) or the demographic situation in various eastern & southern European countries.

And the BBC is particularly guilty here. It produces generally very lazy foreign reporting.

Exactly, Japan's fertility rate is higher than Italy, Spain and Greece, at a comparable level to Germany. It is on the low end of things, but it's not really an outlier when compared to many other first world nations.

My company has an incoming fax line solely for bank notifications. This was an upgrade from the old system where I'd call and speak to someone on the payments desk. Setting up some form of secure email, or just making the information available via their extensive web application, was a bridge too far.

Funnily enough we get fax spam (usually chimney sweeping... aka vent cleaning). 2019 and fax spam still exists.

> In some European countries fax is still the only official way to transfer documents digitally.

Citation needed.

I doubt that this is the case in the EU since the EU requires countries to implement digital signatures and they require digital transmission

In Germany, §130 ZPO mandates either a written copy (default) or as an exception a fax: https://dejure.org/gesetze/ZPO/130.html

There are exceptions for lawyers who can also use the new "beA" online service but for the general public communications with courts is either postal or fax.

Isn't a qualified digital signature in an e-mail is also appropriate, since unless explicitly excluded it can always take the place of a paper signature? There's been BGH decisions confirming that a qualified digital signature is required. (but maybe courts don't have to support it, and that only applied to courts that offer email communication?)

Sadly, the entire infrastructure around digital signatures is woefully underdeveloped here, despite the legal basis existing and being fairly sound. Hey, let's give everyone an ID card that's a smart-card capable of digital signatures... and make the certificate an expensive add-on. facepalm

That’s awful.

I think the GDPR is now mostly wiping out fax in Europe for anything important (notably, health services have been purging them for the last couple of years, and I think the financial industry is mostly calling time on them in the context of PSD2), but yeah, they've stuck around an impressively long time.

This is a rant, most of it self-directed, so add salt to taste.

We live in a bubble. A bubble out of which we force ourselves not to look out of. A bubble filled with screens and frequent dopamine hits. We smile, we snicker, we chuckle, and whenever something doesn't agree with us, we instantly reply with our disagreement.

We don't want to look up, outside the window, feel the breeze and see life as it is going on around us. People walking, talking, communicate using many things beside a keyboard and emojis. Mostly using tones of voice, facial expressions, body language. Even more so with things they can touch, feel, read on things which are tangible, not worrying about going out of charge, or talking about formats, or apps.

This is life. Not the bits and bytes. Not the communication protocols, not the APIs, coding methodologies, frameworks, editors, tabs, spaces. Those are for machines to talk to other machines, not to people.

Like @dmit mentioned, analog still rules our world, if only we were to open our eyes. I don't mean analog in the electronic sense, but in the physical sense. There are myriad of colours, not just black and white, let alone greys.

We are still mechanical in our heads, and physical in our hands.

We are not the machines we use. I don't want to write on a screen. I want to write on paper. I want to give it to a machine. Let it do what it's for. Let the person the paper is given to, scribble on it, change it, send it back. I talk to the person and the deal is done. No version control required. If machines are there for both of us to fulfill the tasks we need to do, let them do it properly. That's what they are there for.

Okay, end of rant. I don't know where this is going anyway. But good for Japan to stick to what works. Making machines of people should not be considered development. Making machines for people should be.

> The danger of computers becoming like humans is not as great as the danger of humans becoming like computers.

-- Konrad Zuse

Another man very much worth reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Weizenbaum

> His influential 1976 book Computer Power and Human Reason displays his ambivalence towards computer technology and lays out his case: while Artificial Intelligence may be possible, we should never allow computers to make important decisions because computers will always lack human qualities such as compassion and wisdom. Weizenbaum makes the crucial distinction between deciding and choosing. Deciding is a computational activity, something that can ultimately be programmed. Choice, however, is the product of judgment, not calculation. It is the capacity to choose that ultimately makes us human. Comprehensive human judgment is able to include non-mathematical factors, such as emotions. Judgment can compare apples and oranges, and can do so without quantifying each fruit type and then reductively quantifying each to factors necessary for comparison.

Good rant. I'm very sympathetic to your dis-ease.

As a kid, I read and embraced Postman's Technolopy and Norman's Psychology of Everyday Things, Things That Make Us Smart (for starters). Transmuted me from a technophile into a humanist. It's been downhill for me ever since.

"We are not the machines we use."

Elon Musk repeated something very smart during his Joe Rogan interview: We're already cyborgs. Pen and paper are advanced technologies. No disrespect: we make the tools which in turn make us.

I really wish more geeks active today were better versed in the history of cybernetics, memetics, automation, technology.

"I talk to the person and the deal is done."

I think you're referring to trust.

A major, recurring mistake geeks make is the technophilic future perfect effort of replacing trust, esteem, relationships with protocols, while ignoring culture, social norms, and basic human nature.

Yet another distributed social media content publishing truthiful moderation peer-to-peer payment scheme, now with better crypto.

Something like Robert's Rules of Order only works because the participants temporarily suspend disbelief and buy-in.

To use your phrasing, that's the bubble that worries me, technology without humanism, which keeps us geeks apart from the general populace, and has now manifested as blowback.

Aside from Japan, the thing about cassette tapes that will keep a few of them around for a while is the automobile.

If you have a classic car then the period correct in-car-entertainment could be a cassette player with slots in the dashboard for a selection of cassettes. You would need period correct tapes for your 1980's hot hatch - e.g. 'Born in the USA' or 'Brothers in Arms' that were de-facto during that time for anyone owning a VW Golf Peugeot 205 GTI.

These little accessories are what makes a classic car that bit more interesting. Needless to say the market for refurbished cassettes is a bit thin but I would like to think it exists.

Meanwhile in Germany doctors are still using fax machines and dot matrix printers heavily, as there's no good solution for digital signatures and some paperwork still needs physical carbon copies.

Also, in the few years since this was written I got the feeling that some genres are actually bringing cassette tapes back. Mostly out of nostalgia, of course (so totally different from the vinyl craze).

I think it was just last week that I saw a headline here in Germany that after a ransomware attack on computers the only thing that still worked was fax [0]. As an administrator I would leave that old technology in place if it doesn't cost much, just in case, in addition to any of the other arguments about politics or issues around laws. Just as a backup if - or when - computers/Internet are down or unusable.

Of course, this does not explain why it is being used regularly. From my subjective point of view, having worked in the IT industry and as freelancer in various big customer projects for two decades, IT solutions don't look nearly as great as they appear to be in theory. Riddled with bugs and often brittle, completely different interfaces depending on what software you use (much of it custom-made), bad interoperability, expensive, long-term questions about what will happen 10 years later (usually needs to be solved with even more money for new software and data migration and lots of new issues). I'm a lot more wary of shiny software solutions in practice, because I think the process of creating big and especially custom niche software for special use cases seems way too political to me now and not enough interested in actually finding a good technical solution. I laugh a lot less now about people and businesses using "ancient" tech like paper.

[0] It might have been this court in Berlin: https://www.berlin.de/gerichte/kammergericht/kontakt/artikel... (TL;DR "we are offline, only phone and fax work") -- but it could also have been something else, that's not the only case when something like this happened.

I worked in that environment and you're wrong. The reason why it's done the way it is isn't because there isn't a better solution. Plenty of countries have better solutions.

The reason why it is that way is that there is one company printing out prescription paper and distributing it to doctors based on their estimated usage(the estimate is based on the previous year). Actually the distribution doesn't happen to the doctors directly it is sent to the Kassenaerztliche Vereinigung which then distributes it. For alternatives see Denmark for example.

The reason why they use fax machines is purely political. The Kassenaerztliche Vereigigungs lawyers decided against using PGP and still sends fax and physical CD's for two reasons.

Legally if you send a letter the burden of proof is on the receiving party. It's called "Rechtssicher" in lawspeak. So even if you send a data with corrupt data, it's not technically your problem. The Government basically set in stone / law that the only digital way to transmit information while maintaining the burden of proof in the same fashion is by using De-Mail (a previously failed standard that was riddled with problems).

Institutions however don't want to use De-Mail because it's tied to a few organizations like the Deutsche Telekom, and they feel like they're giving away control of their data if they can only use Telekom infrastructure(not to mention that it's pretty terrible).

As for why doctors still send fax here's a little history.

The KVSH (Schleswig Holstein) had a mail communication solution that they offered royalty free, but other KV's in the other states didn't want to use it because they felt it would make the KVSH too "whatever(i actually don't know)" but they were concerned about something.

As an alternative the KBV(the federal level institution) created KV-Mail(I think it was called). That piece of software is built by a third party which is famous for their horrible code. As it turns out when you decompile it, it's just a really terrible s/MIME implementation based on the demo code.

However, not only is it riddled with problems with messages sometimes disappearing, it's also not royalty free and it implements a decentralized system s/MIME and turns it into a royalty based solution with the KV as the man in the middle.

My information is a bit outdated so anything might not be valid anymore.

By the way, the move to a digital submission format for legal documents has been riddled with issues look at this review of BeA

> This software requires communication with bealocalhost.de (which resolves to a server running on localhost). To enable TLS(https) for this connection the software brought its own Certificate signed by a regular Certificate Authority (TeleSec), but also included the private-key. Therefore TeleSec revoked this certificate in accordance with general CA regulations.


Meanwhile the UK national health service is apparently the largest purchaser of fax machines in the world.


Japan is still using these technologies because most Japanese aren't computer literate. Many are smartphone literate. Most of what I have experienced in my time in Japan so far are clients trying to move from pen/paper to smartphone/cloud.

Faxes make somw sense, but audio cassette tapes remaining seems bizarre. The best explanation I can find is a combination of Sony's negotiation of a free license keeping prices low and older fans who find then easier to sing along to than a skipping CD.

They were great for audiobooks though[1], because they have a physical place marker that doesn't reset when it's removed from the player (unlike CDs), they have fairly high capacity, it's easy to rewind or fast forward, they're easy to jam into the car radio without looking while driving (unlike CDs), and they can kick around a car without getting scratched (unlike CDs).

Audio quality isn't super, but it's fine for spoken word.

Oh, and unrelated to audiobooks, making self-recordings is dead easy. I have a copy of a cassette from the late 1960s of my 10-year old uncle singing a hymn before he died the following year, and I have the same of my brother from the early 2000s before he died this year. I treasure these recordings, which probably wouldn't exist if recording wasn't as simple as popping a blank cassette in and hitting the record button—unlike, say, burning a CD. So while I don't use cassettes anymore (they've all been digitized), I still think it's a great format.


1 - Which might be why they continued to be used for audiobooks until the early- or mid-2000s.

Japanese elementary and high school students spend years learning how to memorize and hand-write 2,136 official Kanji. That’s an expensive skill to learn, and has some advantages ... fax fits well.

There is a conscious "capitalist Socialism" afoot in Japan.

Rather than have a large, explicit, government-run social safety net, the society instead embraces inefficiency in the name of keeping unemployment low.

When I was stationed there in the military in the '90s we marveled at seeing people in company livery out directing traffic in the parking lot at the grocery store.

There were inefficient layers of distribution for prodcuts, and cute little trucks running around making deliveries, so that everyone has a job.

Their "bridge to nowhere" infrastructure projects are legendary.

They also have a gazillion little bars where you buy your own bottle and return to the same place to chill out every night with the colleagues.

Cassette tapes and faxes? Sounds par for their sort of quirky, introverted course. I kinda miss it.

> There is a conscious "capitalist Socialism" afoot in Japan

Maybe, but it may also be good old fashioned nostalgia.

I was fortunate enough to visit the US Sony headquarters around 2012 in NYC a year before it was sold and renovated. When I was there it was already aging, but still beautiful. Everything was built with minimalist white marble, that somehow felt warm. The guy giving us a tour showed us Michael Jacksons personal seat, and original Audubon plates adorned the walls (our tour guide said each one was worth millions).

There was no products or self promotion anywhere, yet the place screamed “Sony Walkman”, as if Sony was still at their peak. There was serious pride in what they did, from our low level tour guide up to the big bosses we were there to meet.

Japan has made great things, yet there is currently a sad sense of an inevitable slide away from global relevance. It’s heartbreaking and deeply human.

Even these days, daily and business life in Japan is something that will make an eco- or time-conscious Westerner cry. Routine documents are printed out with many copies instead of being consumed electronically, many forms and documents are handwritten, cash is still used for most purchase transactions, despite NFC readers/phones/cards being ubiquitous, and regular people take a morning trip to the ATM to get daily cash.

Eco-conscious westerners would do well if they took some lessons from Japanese daily life - the per capita carbon footprint in Japan is about half that of the US, despite all the extra documents they print at work.

The gripe I have against some "government socialism" countries is that even though taxes drive up the cost of doing business, the burden of providing stable jobs is still pushed on the employers. Firing people can range from expensive to nigh-on-impossible, and then there are payroll taxes and maternity/paternity funds which most employees dont even realise drive up the cost of hiring them.

There is a need for public goods and services, but if the deal is to tax economic activity then at least take the burden off those doing the activities.

Along similar lines some of the best services and products I have experience in Japan have been from organizations and companies that declare themselves as communist. One example, the best child daycare in my Japanese city (in my opinion) was a communist one that emphasized nature, community, and healthy child development. Also, the best food delivery service (in terms of food quality and the difference is quite noticeable) in my city is one that called themselves communist as well.

Because why fix it if its not broken?

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