Saturday, January 23, 2010

History of the VCR

Thomas Kasulis from the Ohio State University (they insist on the the) is the man. No one can write the way he does. He has a way of communicating what on the surface seems too complicated to be explained or to be interesting and makes it very accessible. His books on Japanese philosophy are game changers: after reading his Intimacy or Integrity: the Philosophy of Cultural Difference, like Rilke said after viewing that bust of Apollo, “you must change.”

Kasulis has a great story about VCRs that illustrates something really important for understanding what is possible in forming an identity. He says that he's married to someone related to a big wig at RCA, or something, and one day at a get-together he got to talking about the VCR. “Why did the Japanese beat the Americans at developing this?” Kasulis asked.

The VCR was professionally available, they were large and expensive and so only television studios could justify the purchase. But they were just too large and complicated for the average American home. The quest became to reduce the size of the cartridges and thus make a smaller machine. The U.S. Strategy involved teams of engineers crunching numbers and based on these developing mock-ups.

The chief problem for the engineers was getting that strip of tape to run across the head. They did the numbers, considered the velocity, the structural needs of the cartridge in relation to the head...the engineers concluded that the tape would hit the head and bounce off in another direction; the tape just would travel in the direction they needed. For their calculations to work, they said, there would have to a drastic redesign.

Then, Sony did it. They made it work. What's interesting is how.

According to Kasulis' story: The Japanese engineers also did the numbers and saw there was a problem. But they also set up a team to explore ways of making it work.

This team would watch the tape go from one side to the other, as the tape moved it would hit the head and bounce off. They continued to do this. And watched it. Played with it.

Then one day it occurred to the team that the tape wanted to travel in a certain path, there needed to be a little something that would just slightly bump the tape and, voila! All it took was a little paperclip from off the desk.

It's an interesting illustration of a principle central to Kasulis's work, that there are basic cultural questions that reiterate like fractals and cause people to behave in different ways across cultures. In the West tradition the first question asked when encountering the unknown is "what is that?" But in China (according to Roger Ames) the question would be, "how do you cook it?" as in, how do I work with this?

In the U.S. the problem was addressed abstractly and with a mathematical kind of reasoning. In Japan the problem was addressed more as a personal relationship with a different kind of reasoning.


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