Technology culture like you haven't seen before


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Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics district, is the stuff of geek legend. For decades, this area has been a magnet for a clientel obsessed with electronics, comics and adult video stores.

When I first visited in the mid 90’s, it was as if I walked onto the set of some crazy sci-fi movie. The component market under the tracks of the  Chūō-Sōbu Line fascinated me to no end. At the time, it seemed chaotic and underground, an enticing view of the future of some different past.

Nowadays, I am most struck by the ordered and organized character of these markets. Compared to my earlier visit, the main component market appears to contain fewer shops and there are fewer customers roaming the building. No doubt my frame of reference has been expanded by my visits to China with it’s exciting chaotic energy.

Some shops have hardly changed in the 15 years since I first came here. I vividly remember the cable store at one of the entrances to the narrow walkways inside.

When working on Blendid projects, I longed for a shop just like this one. Finding the exact cable you need, with the right color, thickness and flexibility, is so much easier when you can touch the samples and talk to an expert.

Repair isn’t a big part of the electronics scene in Japan. Here, and in other places where wages are relatively high, paying someone to fix a broken device just isn’t economically viable. It should be possible to write out the formula that expresses the relationship between prices of new gadgets and average per capita income to determine the viability of a repair infrastructure. Judging by the displays, this place aims for both professional electro engineers and hobbyists/enthusiasts. One of the attractions a place like this holds for me is the thought of the strange projects some of these customers might be building in their garages.

These days, when everything can be ordered off the internet, expertise would be one of the biggest values of a place like this. I’m sure people visit here just for being able to talk to the guy who knows everything there is to know about power transformers.

There is something in the meticulous care with which these components are being showcased that communicates knowledgeability (that borders on obsession). Rather than the ad hoc character of comparable shops in other places, these presentations look like they have formed over years or decades.

Based on their size, it’s unlikely that these capacitors are heading for repair of ever-tinier gadgets sold in the superstores nearby. A surprisingly large number of the stalls specialize in these ‘old’ big components. It almost seems as if this market choose not to evolve into the digital age, preferring to remain at a time when Japanese electronics ruled the world. One can wonder for how long a place like this can resist progress while catering to a likely decreasing number of vintage equipment enthusiasts.

It’s impressive how vendors manage to fit a large selection into a small space, some barely larger than a closet.

In Japan, I often encounter unexpected beauty in simple things, like these color-coded component cases.

Some shop displays are almost works of art.

Individual components are cared for as if each is a prized piece in a private collection.

Next to the bare components, a number of shops sell high-tech equipment. Presenting a large collection of competing devices, these shops feed into the tendency of geeks to obsessively compare tech specs.

Here one can pick a multimeter with the same care a musician might use to buy a new guitar. I have yet to come across such lavish specialty stores in the West.

Written by dkousemaker

November 30, 2011 at 12:14 am

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