Monday, November 18, 2013

Two students in somber school uniforms and spiky haircuts board the Yamanote Line at Shibuya with an enormous drum. They just manage to fit it through the door of the last car and they have to keep it next to the door or it would completely block the aisle. (There are signs in the stations which indicate that surfboards must not be taken on the trains, but nobody said anything about drums.)
The drum is as great a presence on the train as would be Lady Godiva, but nobody evidences the slightest interest. Finally, a little boy breaks away from his mother to go up to the drum and flick a finger against the drum head, causing the drum to give off a timid ping. One of the students takes a large drumstick from his back pocket and hands it to the boy, who grins and belts the drumhead as hard as he can. The sound rumbles through the train. Comes an announcement from the conductor at the back of the train: "No-drum-playing time is between seven to nine in the morning and four to six in the evening We request your kind cooperation in this regard. Thank you."
      Tokyo lives easily with its thousands of vending machines. Commuters scurrying through Shinjuku Station know they can pick up a cheap, healthy breakfast from a vending machine dispensing fresh bananas or sliced apples.
On a gloomy day there might be a choice of six kinds of hot soup. If you're caught in an unexpected shower, a vending machine will sell you a cheap umbrella in your choice of color. Or a necktie for an unscheduled meeting. Or a bouquet of flowers to present as a gift.

      But now a whole new kind of vending machines has begun to appear in large Tokyo stations. These new machines are equipped with a camera and are programed to determine whether the person standing before them wondering whether or not to insert a coin is male or female, young or old, and to use this information together with knowledge of the season of the year, the time of day, and the temperature to present the potential customer with a range of choices which it has calculated they are most likely to respond to. A man, for instance, might be offered a cup of black coffee, if it's late perhaps laced with brandy; a woman might be offered a flute of Champagne with four minutes of Chopin as background music.
      The next level in vending machines, it would seem, would be to offer ninety seconds of psychological counseling, depending on how fast the customer has approached the machine, how confidently he or she has grasped the vending machine's proffered hand, and the tenor of their voice when instructed to read one of the phrases they choose from a list the vending machine offers…

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