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The Melancholy of Subculture Society (gwern.net)
153 points by gwern on Oct 21, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments



If you quote William Gibson's analysis of Japanese society as authoritative or insightful, you already lose. Gibson's social commentary has always had a strong element of pseudointellectual profundity masquerading as depth.

In terms of tech adoption, Japan may have been ahead of the USA in some respects, but in terms of how their society is structured they're still a few decades behind. Their treatment of women, in particular, would strike an American as archaic and quaintly Mad Men at best, and at worst barbaric and abusive. But the expectation of men -- to attach oneself to the underbelly of some company and be taken care of for life in exchange for labor and undying loyalty -- also comes, in the American perspective, from a long-bygone era.

Younger Japanese (age 40 and below) tend to be more worldly and cognizant of other cultures, and understand that the social structures which served their parents and grandparents are keeping Japan held back and isolated, economically and socially. But because of deeply ingrained Confucian cultural values about submission to elders, there's little they can do about it. The gooey nougat of the hikikomori phenomenon is, it's sort of a quiet rebellion against the complicated and restrictive social protocols that are part and parcel of being Japanese. It is the same with otaku: however trivial their interests may be, they are determined to follow their own interests and choose their own path, rather than simply do what is expected of them.

Is it possible for mainstream Japanese society to evolve to be more flexible and accommodate more individuality, yet still remain distinctly Japanese? We don't know that yet. They haven't tried.


> If you quote William Gibson's analysis of Japanese society as authoritative or insightful, you already lose...In terms of tech adoption, Japan may have been ahead of the USA in some respects, but in terms of how their society is structured they're still a few decades behind. Their treatment of women, in particular, would strike an American as archaic and quaintly Mad Men at best, and at worst barbaric and abusive.

I am reminded of a recent discussion on 4chan of, amusingly enough, this very essay, where a 4channer reading the appendix noticed that I wrote "mediums" instead of "media", and outraged, wondered how anyone could take seriously anything I had ever written since I could not even use the word correctly.

At the risk of outraging you still further, can't it be true that "the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed"? Can't it be possible that in some respects Japanese society is further ahead on a trend than the USA, and in other respect behind?

> Younger Japanese (age 40 and below) tend to be more worldly and cognizant of other cultures, and understand that the social structures which served their parents and grandparents are keeping Japan held back and isolated, economically and socially.

I wonder... Not very long ago, I finished reading my first 'visual novel', one called _Umineko_. The patriarch of the protagonist's family is what one might almost call a Western otaku - English-speaking, European-literature-loving, contemptuous of all things Japanese, and a few spoiler things as well - and the novels themselves are heavily influenced by Western murder mysteries & a bit of philosophy too. I was struck by how old-fashioned this preference seemed in the character. Similarly, I have spent a lot of time on Gainax & Hideaki Anno, and one thing that comes across is how much old Western SF and television Anno & other Gainaxers must have consumed, given the pervasiveness of the references in their work. But younger directors and anime industry figures seem to reference Western materials much less - I would be very surprised to see a _Babylon V_ or _Firefly_ reference in any anime I watched, whereas Anno would freely throw in allusions to Anderson's _Thunderbirds_ TV series and now-obscure Western works like that. I've also seen claims by occasional Japan-related writers that actual English proficiency has declined, which certainly might reduce Western exposure, given how much of it would be in English. All of which makes me wonder what objective metrics there could be for 'more worldly and cognizant of other cultures' and what they would show over the past 3 or 4 decades in Japan?


I would say that the average Japanese is more worldly not because of their own insight but more because of the rigidity of the culture and the import/export of American/European (Western) culture into the country.

Every Japanese essentially grows up in the same exact manner as his/her peers:

* primary school (elementary, middle, high school) * higher education (university/college) * full time work

There is some variation between the sexes but generally that is how it goes for most Japanese. The difference with western culture is that generally each level of school beyond the previous is harder and more worthy than the previous level. In Japan there is an exception: high school is actually harder than college/university.

The university system in Japan is pretty much as backwards as you can get. Admissions is the most important aspect of Japanese University. Graduation is pretty much guaranteed and companies hiring new employees fresh out of college base their decision on the name of the university, not based on the individuals accomplishments during university. This means University entrance exams basically become the standard to which all Japanese are judged. As such once a Japanese student reaches his final year in High School, 100% of their effort is devoted to studying for college entrance exams and nothing else.

Oddly, after entering a university, most Japanese will treat college as an "extended vacation". The reason behind this is: companies will only pay attention to your university's name (so your employment has already basically been decided upon admission), graduation is basically guaranteed regardless of performance, and Japanese work place ethic enforces overtime as standard not optional. So most Japanese students will take university time as their "time off" and allow themselves to be consumed with all things fun Japanese and non-Japanese.

One major way of extending the extended vacation is the option of foreign exchange schools. Many Japanese will use this opportunity as a temporary escape from Japanese culture. But while they may learn a thing or two about other cultures, most foreign exchange students have no other intention other than extending their time away from the pressures of Japanese culture and their own leisure.

The other thing I'd like to address is the notion of the Japanese being "ahead". They are only ahead in the following categories:

* land-use and transit efficiency * conforming society norms

In nearly every other metric they've fallen behind or are behind. The main reason for this is again the rigidity of Japanese culture and the refusal to experiment. There are several reasons for this but the biggest on is in a society where being unique is punished while the conforming act is never punished, it is always a safe move to conform. This means all employees will attempt to take the path with least resistance (conforming path) even if it is the least optimal.

The second compounding issue is the notion of "ganbare". Ganbare is a conjugation of the Japanese verb ganbaru which means to "try one's best". In Japanese culture ganbare is valued more than outcomes. That is a person that tries his hardest is more valuable than a person that uses little effort but is still successful. This basically authorizes the use of unpaid overtime in order to overcome shortcomings in business. Workers will "ganbare" by putting in more hours in order to overcome any challenges--and usually in this act, they feel supported by society and management. The problem is that we have data that shows that prolonged overtime causes burn out and thus productivity actually decreases despite more hours worked. But when your entire society is basically burned out you're not going to get any risk takers or even any insightful ideas. You instead have a zombie workforce.

I do think Japan can turn around because there are signs of concern and insight among the top ranks in Japan (both government and business) that the status quo is not sustainable. The real question is whether or not they can change some of their core cultural values to adjust to the changing times quick enough.


I wonder what the relationship is between the seemingly negative results you cite from praising hard work and the popular claim lately (and one backed by some studies, e.g. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130212075109.ht...) that children who are praised for effort rather than skill are , in fact, more likely to be successful.


I agree with @cJ0th.

Praising children for effort rather than skill encourages them to work towards goals rather than attempting to rely on some sort of innate ability that adults have convinced them that they have (i.e. never putting effort towards learning good study habits because you're 'smart').

In the case of 'the Japanese,' putting in long hours at the office is the only metric that they use to measure effort. This also affects sleeping patterns, which affects performance. Children aren't working 80+ hour weeks that could be mostly unproductive and losing valuable sleep.

[ Also, you have to be cognisant of the fact that adults are different than children. If a 4-year-old worked for hours on a project unproductively, you acknowledge that they put in a lot of effort, but you accept that they are still a child. If a 40-year-old is beating their head against a wall unproductively for hours, and continues to do so, you may look on their problem-solving skills poorly. ]


Exactly my reaction. I think what it boils down to is that the effort has to be real effort [whatever that actually means...]. From what teek delineates it seems to me that "the Japanese" see long hours equal to effort and thus do not pay any further attention concerning what they're actually doing.


I did not realize/know that there were so many parallels between the Japanese education system and the Indian one. Thanks for the education (no pun intended)


> If you quote William Gibson's analysis of Japanese society as authoritative or insightful, you already lose. Gibson's social commentary has always had a strong element of pseudointellectual profundity masquerading as depth.

Could you point out some specific flaws in this or other Gibson's essays?


And ruin a perfectly good ad hominem? ;-)


Welp, here we go.


I can't speak for his Japan chops or essays, but in Zero History it certainly felt like all his forced and abundant name checking of NY places (I live in NY) felt like he was using vocabulary to indicate knowledge/expertise rather than actual insights. I really liked Pattern Recognition, but I was forced to put down Zero History in frustration about half-way through as the name checking made the novel feel like one poorly constructed long form rap lyric.


Conversely the name checking worked fine for me as I don't know much of New York past what you see in films, so I wouldn't be able to key to it in the same you would.


> Younger Japanese (age 40 and below) [..] understand that the social structures which served their parents and grandparents are keeping Japan held back and isolated

I don't know where you're getting this from. Decline of those old structures is roughly equated in the public mind with the decline of Japanese society as a whole. Holding the country back? From what? From being like America? Neoliberal economic excess is not viewed positively in Japan. Go and watch any finance-related drama (Hagetaka, Hanzawa Naoki) to understand the cultural norms better.

The generation you're talking about who are more worldly (roughly, the shibuya-kei generation) rose on the back of those old structures, and fell with them, too. The current generation is as inward-looking as ever, perhaps more so.

> But because of deeply ingrained Confucian cultural values about submission to elders, there's little they can do about it

So submission to elders prevents them from voting, is that what you're trying to say? Rubbish, if so. If not, I don't know what you're trying to say.

Your depiction of otaku culture as headstrong rebels determined to do their own thing, damn the criticism, is the inverse of reality as I know it. And if the hikikomori phenomenon is a pure reaction to a restrictive social culture, where was it 20 years ago? Nowhere, of course - hikikomori is an internet-enabled phenomenon, and it is everywhere, not just Japan.

For someone who criticised Gibson for his pseudo-intellectual pontifications, you're spouting quite a bit yourself.


>Their treatment of women, in particular, would strike an American as archaic and quaintly Mad Men at best, and at worst barbaric and abusive.

Citation needed. I've been working in Japan for 8 years, and I haven't experienced this kind of treatment from Japanese men at all.


Not sure about barbaric and abusive, but in gender equality terms, Japan was most recently (2012) ranked 101 out of 135 countries by the World Economic Forum [1], compared with 18 and 22 for the UK and US respectively. The index purports to:

benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, political, education- and health-based criteria

[1] PDF http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2012.pdf


> hikikomori phenomenon is, it's sort of a quiet rebellion against the complicated and restrictive social protocols that are part and parcel of being Japanese. It is the same with otaku: however trivial their interests may be, they are determined to follow their own interests and choose their own path, rather than simply do what is expected of them

I think that was his point.


> The gooey nougat of the hikikomori phenomenon is, it's sort of a quiet rebellion against the complicated and restrictive social protocols that are part and parcel of being Japanese. It is the same with otaku: however trivial their interests may be, they are determined to follow their own interests and choose their own path, rather than simply do what is expected of them.

I thought Zen was the quiet rebellion before it got stratified/institutionalized. I feel that the other phenomenon are more emergent, and they emerge from the mainstream not cracking down on them ,or not being able to..


"As ever more opt out, the larger culture is damaged."

What is the larger culture? Those who've opted out of the real world and into primetime TV, rabid sports fans, and social drinkers. Those opt out activities are much more popular than EVEonline or the other examples and would seem like a much better essay topic, certainly more raw material.

Fox news viewers outnumber active EVE players by an order of magnitude, as just one of a zillion examples, and certainly are not any closer connected to reality.

"gamer after gamer was now playing alone"

You can draw almost the same argument from live plays, to movie theaters, to "the" family TV, to watching TV alone.

How about the trend of sports are something you play, then something you watch your neighbors play, then something you watch regional teams play, then something you watch in a bar with an expensive radio, later expensive TV, finally sports are something you watch alone at home on TV.

Meanwhile in both examples, the real world goes on, outside.

You'll have about 100 times more data and over a longer time interval to gather data. Seems a little overly trendy to grab an inferior topic instead.


We're human beings. We're social animals. Popular culture is just as real as nature. Popular culture is a popular way to connect with other people. And for your example of Fox News, while that certainly is toxic to society, the salient element of that toxicity is not the popularity.

The article is about increasing hyper-specialization to the point of extreme isolation.


Yes, we are social animals, but for much of our evolution we were social in much, much smaller groups... even smaller than these 'sub' cultures the article is talking about. Hunter-gatherer societies only had around 10-50 people in each group; we have evolved to be social in groups of this size.

The 'hyper-specialization' that you speak of might be a way to get our group size back to this original size that we have evolved to be comfortable in; the huge, un-natural, size of popular culture might be what we are reacting against.


The hyper-specialization we're talking about is specifically a way to avoid having a social group. While the hikikomori may not have exclusive interests, the whole point is to avoid physical contact with anyone at all. Maaaaybe I just can't see far enough into the future, but personally I think physical contact with other people is still pretty important.

Also partaking in popular culture doesn't mean pulling everyone alive that's interested in that culture into your social group.


Dunbar's number (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number).

The average person can only maintain 150 relationships; how is popular culture (which is composed of thousands or even millions of people) closer to nature than isolationism?


> It is much more satisfactory and social to play MMORPGs on your PC than single-player RPGS, much more satisfactory to kill human players in Halo matches than alien AIs.

I'll grant that it's more social. I won't grant that it's more satisfactory. For me, half the point of video games is an onanistic retreat from the world to a simpler world where I can just play around with some robots for a while. I spend enough time managing my social circles in real life; I don't want to have to do it when I relax, as well.

I don't think I can blame the internet for this. I was born before the rise of the PC, never mind the internet; even then I would much rather have curled up with a good book, or sat around drawing, than go out and make friends. The net is great IMHO because it lets introverts like me connect to other introverts, and disconnect when we need to.

> As ever more opt out, the larger culture is damaged.

I don't think so. I think it's stronger. "Culture" becomes a flourishing ecosystem of subcultures, rather than a monoculture. Some of them grow and become major components of the overall culture. Some of them die out. Some of them never grow to more than a modest size, but stick around.

The author of this speaks of "otaku" with a hint of disdain - but how common is the stereotype of the "absent-minded scientist", who is so focused on their work that everything else in their life kind of falls apart? What's the difference?

I dunno, I just feel like this essay starts from the unspoken thesis that "social connection is good and introverts are bad" and goes from there.

Fuck it; I just spent the whole weekend in a highly social environment, sitting behind a table selling my comic book to people. I'm gonna go play Skyrim in my bathrobe for six hours straight.


Seven hours of Skyrim later. I amused myself by tweeting about my game from the point of view of my character, and had people saying I was making their dreary Monday brighter with these little dispatches from a fantasy world.

Social is where you find it.


Kinda shameless self-promotion here, but I've doing exactly that in long-form (basically a cross between a let's play and a fanfic) at honorablenord.com

Excuse to play lots of Skyrim and creative writing exercise all in one.


> Spending months mastering Super Mario Bros - all alone - is a bad way to grow up normal.

Disagree. Even if you play mario brothers alone, when you're in school, you can talk to other kids about playing mario brothers. It was _normal_ to do this when I was a kid; when i met someone new, the first thing that I always asked what "Do you have a computer? Do you play games on it?" I made many friends this way.


Or you could have played something like sports with other kids, and both spent time with them and had something to talk about.


By "alone", the author may have meant without reaching out to people with a similar interest in video games at all.

If he did, his point would make sense. If he didn't, he missed an obvious point.


Part of the article laments the possibility that two Americans might have less in common than an American and a Japanese, as if nationality actually matters. Why does it? Surely the only cultures that mean anything are rooted in ideas, interests, and activities, not ancestry or aggregation of political power.


That is a very modern take on it. I think the cultures that matter are the ones that will protect you if you protect it. Traditionally they are very much based on ancestry or political power. Still today, when people run into trouble, the ones who pick them up are their oldest friends and relatives, not people from their professional or hobby subculture, even if they are big shots within those circles.


There are plenty of recorded cases of extraordinary acts of kindness between people who knew each other only via some online hobby subculture. It'd be nice to get some objective statistics here.


The problem is that traditional tribalism and nationalism lead to untold suffering through war, conquest, assimilation, extermination of other groups of people, etc. Pretend fighting in multiplayer games is probably the lesser evil.


The multiple overlapping hierarchies stuff is new to me and pretty fascinating. You could probably make a case that whatever benefits Alcoholics Anonymous impart come from providing a community to feel useful and valuable for its members.


I would go one step further and say that the desire to find one's place inside a hierarchy is itself a (very large) subculture. It's certainly possible to operate happily outside systems of social evaluation. Hermit monks have been happily meditating for centuries, and the American West was once idealized for its pioneer culture and the opportunity to live apart from civilization. While some people retreat to subcultures to find peer approval, others certainly just want to be alone with their environment.


"The country I live in now is the best country in the world for people like me; I would be terribly unhappy if I was exiled." If your mental reply goes something like, "Why, what’s so special about the USA?.."

Now this is one of the funniest things I've read for a while. Of course you're never happy about your home country neither you think it's the best country in the world - unless you're monumentaly stupid and forgiving.

National feeling isn't about lying to oneself, rather it's about being ready to invest yourself in your country, spend efforts on fixing problems and feel bound to it. We'll call it "Daughter Homeland" because it actually behaves like a teenager, and not an easy kind.


Another delivery:

"everyone admires a person who became a billionaire in a depression more than a good-times billionaire"

There is a strong scenario of making a fortune out of depression: that is, vulturing and monetizing decay.

A factory struggles? Buy it out for nothing, lay out everybody, scrap equipment for metals! People can't make ends meet? Micro-lend them at 200% interest! Local police grinds to a halt due to lack of funds? Murder @ Steal, you'll legalize your capitals later! Use chaos and pain to forcibly take every low hanging fruit, and there would be totalitarian dictators and serial murderers less hated than you.

This all actually happened in ex-USSR in the 90-s.


Not directly on topic, but i thought the ideas were somewhat related:

http://xkcd.com/915/

http://xkcd.com/1095/


You and your xkcd subculture


I enjoy the ideas that are thrown around in the article, and it seems to oscillate between pro and anti subculture. I definitely agree with the advantages of sticking to a subculture, but am also stuck with a horrible feeling of dispassion when I see people who are limited by their own subculture, and unable to interact outside their chosen subculture.

I agree that the larger culture suffers as people retreat from it, and no more is that more evident that the city. A large city like Los Angeles feels much more healthy culturally than a small city like San Francisco, and I think it's because people don't feel the need to retreat into their own subcultures, and not give anything back to the larger community. What makes Los Angeles great is the ability for many of the people to communicate between subcultures, and that would be my argument for what gives a place a "healthy" culture.

However, the American culture as a whole has always been fragmented, and perhaps it isn't possible to reconcile the separate parts. I certainly tried to cross between Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, and San Francisco cultures, and found that it is almost impossible to understand the deep cultural assumptions of people who identify with one city, given experience with another.


> I enjoy the ideas that are thrown around in the article, and it seems to oscillate between pro and anti subculture.

I started this essay back in 2009; 4 years later, I still have no idea whether I am pro or anti.


Really, it's just a rephrasing of the meaning-of-life question, which itself is, as far as I understand it, incoherent; "what is the proper utility function" is a value judgement, and thus can only be answered by someone who already has a utility function by some means or another. (Even questions like "do you want your posthuman descendants to have this utility function or that" depend on the parts of our utility functions that finds comfort in familiarity, or interest in novelty, etc.)

Assuming that the less universally-agreed-upon aspects of our utility functions are mostly built during childhood through social interaction, whether you're better off in "culture" or a subculture depends entirely on which one you end up adapting yourself to. It's sort of like asking whether a refrigerator is better off plugged into 120V/60Hz or 240V/50Hz power: it depends entirely on which power system the refrigerator was designed for. Except, in a way, we design ourselves. I think the most important takeaway is that children should be made aware of the grand choice they are making, in hewing themselves to the mold of one reward system or the other; and of what sort of efforts they'll have to make, and games they'll have to play, to achieve happiness within one or the other system.


I don't see how anyone could actually read this entire page and grok it. It's like a giant puzzle made by stream of consciousness.


People who actually read a lot. The ability to absorb information-dense content like this is a skill that comes with practice, just like math, programming, music, or anything else. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

Learning some speed-reading a few years ago really helped me personally too, the drills they provide help improve concentration and focus. I'm not an expert, but Evelyn Wood's books are a good start imho.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speed_reading


Any thoughts on the actual content of the article rather than the presentation style? Or is it the lack of a neatly packaged conclusion that throws you off? It seems like a perfectly readable exposition to me, even if I don't necessarily agree with author's points.


It's hard to have thoughts on the content, as it's basically a novela of random things tangentially relating to self-imposed isolation. I would be here all day.


Fair enough, I guess people pick some specific points the author makes and respond to them, but if that's not your cup of tea, no questions :)


The main article, though nice formally doesn't say anything new about subcultures and the alleged end of big C Culture - my main gripe with it being it generalizes from cultural microcosms. The Appendix (which takes the lion's share of the whole article), about Japan and Internet/FLOSS is where the interesting stuff lies.


Commenting only on the Appendix:

Web design is subjective. What looks "ugly" to one person or one culture, works in another. Is it just happenstance that East Asian web design (Chinese and Japanese web design have a lot of parallels) looks quite different from Western web design? Could it be that it has something to do with the information density of East Asian languages?

WRT the gwern's comments regarding Japan and software, I do think that this is largely correct (with the exception of the gaming industry where Nintendo, Sony, Sega, etc. have made globally popular software.) I should note that Asia overall (not just Japan) does not have a track record of developing globally popular consumer-facing software aside from game software. Korea is largely reliant on Windows on the desktop and Android on mobile. Same is true for Mainland China. So wrt software I think the critique is Asia-wide, not just Japan.

As an aside, I'd ask anyone to list European-developed globally popular software. My list: Skype, Rovio, Spotify...

A bunch of the links in the appendix are many years old and not that accurate any more. Japan has many billion-dollar Internet/IT companies today. It is a market that both is large enough for domestic Japanese firms as well as foreign firms.


I'm surprised you rate "The Spirit Level". I think it's a pack of lies, partly because of Chris Snowden's book but mainly Tino Sanandaji's many posts about it on his blog. The most devastating criticisms are

1. They use data from a UN report from a particular year. Except for one reference, they use a report from a different year. It turns out that this report contains data which supports their argument, but all the other years disprove it.

2. They use a mysterious sample of countries. When a larger sample is used, the effect goes away or reverses.

More generally, the whole argument is nutty. If you spot an apparent correlation, you have to come up with some causal mechanism. Inequality is supposed to somehow make people unhealthy, through envy or something... nuts.


I think there no longer is any Culture.

Enough smart people disengaged to subcultures so that Culture died inside. It can't do anything, its place poorly covered by a conjunction of a few bigger subcultures. Most commercially viable writers are from subcultures, most successful movies are from subcultures.

What is left from Culture preys on people who don't know better - teenagers (not even majority) and undereducated people of age. Who are forced to consume sub-par product (take modern "mainstream" music) or be left out. Some mainstream stars of previous times are still active but every new offering is either subculture or crap.


I think the thing the author is missing is that there has never been one big culture. For a long time, the culture was segmented primarily by location: people in a region played the same sports and games, talked similarly, made the same music, and so on. Now, the culture is starting to split based on interests rather than geography.

It may be problematic that culture is now being sliced on this new axis, but don't just compare it to some imaginary wonderful past that never actually existed.


I'm not convinced about Japan being a forerunner for 5-years-in-the-future culture. Their culture is very different from ours.

Here's a random article from today that shows that: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/20/young-people-ja...


Fascinating essay and references. I wonder about the ramifications of how the Internet makes it possible for people to associate with others of similar interests around the world, rather than just similar interests in a local geography, or of varied interested in a local geography. This is a good discussion of at least one answer to that.


Subcultures are genes mixing and matching and exploring corners. Sentience burdens us with the ability to understand connotations of 'status', 'outcast' etc, but otherwise nature is on track with her research & development




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