Mint Explainer: Why Japan is still stuck on floppy disks

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But there is a problem. Before the Japanese government begins to plan the next stage of its evolutionary journey, it will have to convince many of its citizens who are content to use the technology they acquired 20 years ago – floppy disks, CD drives , fax machines and obsolete bulky computers.

If you listen to Japan’s digital minister, Taro Kono, the government has decided to take its citizens out of the time warp of technology. Kono has declared war on floppy disks, Bloomberg reported a few days ago. Floppy disks and CDs are still needed for some 1,900 government procedures and must go, Kono says.

Inside Japan’s Technological Time Warp

Minister Kono is certainly a generational step up from Yoshitaka Sakurada, a minister in Shizo Abe’s government who was in charge of cybersecurity. He once proudly announced that he never used a computer, because he always told his staff to do so.

In Japan, government offices and a large number of businesses still use technology that is long dead, even in countries that are not considered technologically advanced. “Japan is at least 20 years behind the world in 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 daily while 25.4% said they used them occasionally. This means that half of Japanese workers still use fax machines. The survey report indicates that the fax has deeply permeated daily work and workflows, such as its wide use for planning data in the industrial machinery and real estate sectors, as well as the computer engineers who use it. use for reporting and communication.

A traditional system of using Hanko seals on official documents – another target of digital minister Kono – is still widespread and impedes the digitalization of the administration.

The world’s third largest economy ranks very low on digital competitiveness. An IMD ranking puts Japan at 28th, behind other Asian countries like China, Taiwan, South Korea and Malaysia.

Why Japan is stuck

Why is the country that has given the world countless technological marvels – from high-speed trains to QR code – still sticking to outdated technology?

According to a Mckinsey report, the reasons are: high-context culture with a risk-averse mindset; senior leaders focused on business longevity rather than productivity; the limited exposure of certain industries to global competitors; a standoff effect between a private sector awaiting digital approval by the government and a government awaiting the private sector to move forward; and, most importantly, a deficit of more than half a million software engineers to create the software applications that will drive the country forward.

Small bureaucratic twists and turns can cause big blockages. The software was classified as a non-hardware investment in government accounting, economist Takuya Hoshino told Bloomberg in 2020. That meant it was funded by debt-covering bonds, which required a tougher approval process than construction bonds used to build roads or bridges. .

Perhaps the nation that produced the most efficient machines may not like to switch to digital technology that cannot be seen or touched. Or is an aging society no longer keen on new technologies?

There can’t be many reasons specific to Japan, because even in advanced Western countries, outdated technology manages to survive, feeding on the bureaucratic belief that if it served its purpose for 20 years, why it doesn’t will do more now.

Digital deserts in Western countries

Don’t you expect US nuclear controls to operate with the most efficient and error-free technology? What about floppy disks? It wasn’t until 2019 that the Pentagon stopped using the missile launch system that relied on floppy disks and old IBM Series/1 computers.

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You will no longer be shocked by this fact if you learn that until 2014, three nuclear bases in the United States had only one key needed to put nuclear warheads on missiles. How would the three bases with a fleet of 450 missiles share the same key? They would just use FedEx to ship it to each other. In 2014, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said they would receive two keys for each base. Hopefully, the Pentagon should now have a more advanced system than a wrench for putting nuclear warheads on missiles.

The Japanese would love to work in the German health department where, according to Deutsche Welle, data is often transmitted on paper by fax and then manually entered into the computer. Jen Spahn, who was once Angela Merkel’s health minister, said that in no other area were more faxes used than in the health sector. The agency reported last year that German health authorities were tackling covid with paper, pen and fax.

The fax machine has also proven to be a bottleneck for the US covid response. Data moved slower than disease – “Imagine the picture of hundreds of faxes coming in, and the machine pulling paper,” a health official told the NYT. “From an operational perspective, that makes it incredibly difficult.”

Is old technology better?

If so many people are hesitant to let go of the old technology, is there a possibility that it is serving any better purpose than the new technology?

Privacy is one of the reasons many Germans are hesitant to embrace new digital technologies. Older technology is likely to be less vulnerable to hacks because it does not connect seamlessly with contemporary technology. Health departments in the United States using faxes could be due to regulations that discourage them from putting people’s health data online where it cannot be as secure as on paper.

Some argue that it is easier to digitize in less developed countries because people are not as concerned about privacy as in developed countries.

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