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NatureInterface > No.07 > P006-009 [Japanese]

Opening Interview: A New Sense of Value Created by Information Technology -- Toshiharu Aoki + Kiyoshi Itao

A New Sense of Values Created by Information Technology


President of NTT DATA Corporation

Interviewer: KIYOSHI ITAO

General Editor of Nature Interface

ITAO: Dr. Aoki, I heard that you had engaged in research on the coding theory, the PCM-FDM system and the digital switching system at NTT°«s laboratories before you were appointed NTT°«s Senior Executive Vice President and then NTT DATA°«s President in 1999. This means your field has changed from research to business. Do you feel any major difference between them?

AOKI: No, I do not have any unfamiliar feeling about my current field because in the latter half of my career with NTT, I was involved in management and technical strategy development.

ITAO: In which way do you think two fields are alike?

AOKI: In today°«s dynamically changing world, the most important point for management is to °»look ahead.°… This applies to both business and research. Even though processes in the business realm, unlike those in research, do not always follow logical steps, what managers should do to look ahead are establishing business strategies, constantly reviewing them to reflect changes in the world, and building an adequate path to the future for the company.

ITAO: So, do you enjoy running a company?

AOKI: Well, it is not about whether I enjoy it or not. In my office, I always feel frustrated by something while having a stomachache causing by stress.

Three perfect things realized by the widespread use of the Internet

AOKI: What management has to do now would be to grasp how the widespread use of the Internet is changing the world. In Japan, as many as 70 million people are Internet users, including i-mode users. In other words, the majority of adults are connected to the Internet. Although people are worrying about sluggish sales of PCs and cellular phones in the midst of the IT slump, this can also be taken as a positive proof of how pervasive information terminals are among people. Under such situations, I believe what we should do is to predict roles that information technology, or IT plays in a changing society.

ITAO: I indeed agree that the widespread availability of the Internet is changing the world. Recently, those who send out information have launched a variety of services.

AOKI: That is right. I think three perfect things become a reality with the pervasive use of the Internet: namely, (1) perfect market, (2) perfect community and (3) perfect values.

The first item, the perfect market, is a market where sellers and buyers can obtain information based on an equal footing. In other words, buyers are allowed to gather information worldwide through the Internet so that they can find and select the best thing from a large choice of products. In a mass production and consumption age on the basis of the conventional economic principle of capitalism, the cost of haute couture is extremely high. In today°«s Internet-enabled world, where both sellers and buyers are given access to the same information, even haute couture sellers have become unable to keep their one-sided pricing policy. Another example is foreign books. We used to have no choice but to accept prices quoted by booksellers because there were few alternatives. With connectivity to the Internet, anybody can buy foreign books anytime from anywhere in the world at cheaper prices. In short, the widespread availability of the Internet serves to stabilize market prices at appropriate levels.

Perfect community, cited second, refers to the possibility of creating communities free from restrictions on distance and time. Through the Internet, you can always communicate with others regardless of their location or time zone. For example, a person who likes playing the game Go used to visit a nearby Go club°«s meeting place to have a game. However, now he or she can play it everyday over the Internet even with a person living in Denmark. This indicates that people with a common interest become enable to come together online without geographical and temporal restrictions.

It does not have to be a mass interest but just a small interest. For example, we have launched a Web site called °»magnet°… jointly with Sanrio to expand the network of families with small children. The site has a membership of 360,000, forming a large online community beyond time and distance. The membership consists of the people who are acquainted with certain topics. Internet communities are significantly different from traditional communities in that anybody can join the network from anywhere as long as he or she has the same interest. Just like the way the Linux operating system has been developed by volunteers over the Internet, communities have been built in a manner completely different from the one for existing organizations such as companies. This appears to be a very interesting phenomenon.

Thirdly, perfect values represent the end of the mass production and consumption age as well as the possibility of individuals°« having their own sense of values. In the case of popular songs, there was a time when every TV and radio station repeatedly broadcasted the same popular songs of the day. Today, no pops can gain such overwhelming popularity. The emergence of Walkman has enabled individuals to enjoy their favorite music wherever they like. Furthermore, the availability of the Internet-based services to distribute a vast variety of music from around the world has made it impossible for any single tune to universally attract everybody. This has led to changes in people°«s values; they no longer believe what is favored by a large number of people always interests themselves.

The same applies to goods. A friend of mine who creates glassworks received an order from abroad the moment the works were posted on a Web page, while they hardly sold before. When people have diversified values, even a small quantity of goods can offer sales opportunities. It can be put in this way: the spread of the Internet underlines each individual°«s distinction from others and facilitates the establishment of individuality.

Challenges surrounding the Internet as a commodity

ITAO: It is an interesting point of view that the Internet contributes to the establishment of individuality. Unlike the penetration of TV, which is said to have resulted in loss of local culture by delivering the same images throughout Japan, the Internet may become something that cultivates diversity among individuals.

AOKI: You are right. However, on the other hand, the Internet gives you the ability to appeal to a greater number of people than ever. It is also true that a music CD that sells 10 million copies is priced the same as a CD that sells only tens of thousands of copies, because this is generally accepted in today°«s world. Anyway, the Internet has already become an essential commodity to us. As a commodity, the Internet has caused a number of problems. The examples are infringement of privacy and intellectual property rights. As drastic changes are always accompanied by troubles, engineers and other parties concerned with IT should predict possible future problems and be prepared to set up rules through proactive discussions. The Internet has become a commodity, therefore, just like the establishment of social infrastructures such as water, electricity and gas-required regulations to govern them; rules for the Internet must be made now.

ITAO: The biggest problem would be security.

AOKI: When something we have never had before appears into the world, issues like this are unavoidable. The key is how to disseminate IT while maintaining self-control. At my company, we have determined that we should make as much contribution as possible toward solutions from the technical point of view. In addition, if self-control is impossible, formulation of social rules such as legislation will be needed. Lack of such efforts will result in considerable setbacks.

ITAO: An example of the setbacks is the bursting of the IT bubble.

AOKI: Exactly. The dot-com collapse occurred because dot-coms could not change their initial business models in accordance with the times. Adjustments in both quality and quantity are indispensable to keep up with the times, but most of dot-coms failed. Only those who were able to follow the changes in values have survived. In the future, unlike the age of telephone, individual ways of communication will become increasingly diverse, leading to a wider variety of content distributed over such communication networks. In the past, it was valued to create online content by spending a lot of money and show it to as many people as possible. However, even materials such as natural environments and landscapes may be directly utilized as content in the future. For instance, if there were 1,000 people who want to see the view of Mt. Fuji from Numazu at a cost of 100 yen a month, it would create a business opportunity. As part of Nature Network 2001, a project we sponsor, we are conducting an experiment called OrcaLive, in which live images and voices of orcas in the water around Hanson Island, Canada, are transmitted around the world via a satellite network. To our surprise, as many as six million people monthly make access to the OrcaLive site. It must be an exclusive benefit of the Internet that Nature herself can be turned into valuable content. Users have been passively accepting whatever content available on the Web because they have been given a limited choice. However, in the future, a myriad of Web sites each providing information targeting a minor group is expected to appear.

ITAO: Information technology is not an objective but a tool. We have to consider in which way IT is needed in our society. Our future challenge should be how to make effective use of IT as a means to cope with environmental, aging, and other problems.

AOKI: I agree. While IT has so far served as a driving force to improve efficiency, future IT will contribute to the creation of new services and businesses. To develop IT in this direction, the entire society, with the awareness of the roles performed by IT, is required to promote IT with a common intention of making it a commodity.

We are moving into an age where IT is an indispensable element even in medical and nursing care. Additional discussions need to be held on how the national and local governments, industry and individuals should use IT as a social infrastructure.

ITAO: I believe that visualizing what is invisible is what IT is expected to do. Since its possibilities are limitless, we have to give careful consideration to how to foster information technology in our society.

Dr. Aoki, thank you very much for your time.

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