Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | March 25, 2012

Different stories, same “Putty”

Information and communication technologies have begun to catch us in unexpected places and moments. Earlier this month, I traveled through Japan, and had occasion to go from Kyoto to Nara by local train, a leisurely journey of about 40 minutes, meandering through sleepy towns and small stations. The Japanese woman next to me looked to be in her twenties, had a friendly face and a bright smile, and did not speak English. Whenever possible, I usually talk with fellow travelers – I find it fun and so far I have not landed in any serious sort of trouble because of it. Given that I don’t know Japanese however, that wasn’t going to happen this time.

The words are a bit blurred but one can see the two boxes

As the train started moving, I felt a gentle nudge at my elbow and looked at her, and then to where she was pointing – her cell phone. There on the screen were two boxes, one beneath the other. The top box had a sentence written in Japanese, and the bottom one, presumably its English translation – Are you a tourist? She had pulled up an app that translated between Japanese and English. I looked at her smile that said – Now we can talk! And I typed in the English box – Yes. And she wrote in the Japanese box – Where are you from? My reply – I live in America. And then – You like Japan? I said – Beautiful. She smiled at me, the barrier of language between us now gone. She told me she lived in Kyoto and worked in a small town between Kyoto and Nara and this was her commute to work. She worked for a clothes boutique and that she lived with her parents and older brother. My parents want me to get married soon, but I don’t want to. How many times had I seen that sort of determined and wistful look on the faces of young girls who wanted to see places and do things and didn’t want to get married just yet?  In India, certainly, in the US also. In China, where a 19-year university student told me she wanted to become an “engineer who makes cars, before I get married, I hope my father lets me”. And we talked about these and other sorts of things that were country independent, and were human sentiments, really. She told me she had been to Tokyo once or twice, and wanted to see other cities in Japan, maybe even travel outside. Before the train reached her station she pulled up a train timetable on another phone app and wrote that since I could not read or understand Japanese, it would be useful for me to know that Nara was fifteen minutes away and what the preceding station was – I cannot recollect now the name of the town she mentioned.

Have a nice time in Japan, she told me, before getting off the train and waving herself off with a smile. And I thought – the cell phone (and the tablet and Facebook and all of these sorts of devices and applications) is just like putty. You give it the shape you want and use it to whatever end it is that makes sense to you. To check email or read stuff or connect with people or simply and unexpectedly to talk with the next person in the train who doesn’t speak your language. How you use it tells the story of who you are and what you find worthwhile doing. The Management Information Systems literature has a theory to explain it – adaptive structuration. You structure the functions, properties and uses of the device and applications to match your preferences. In other words, different stories, same putty!



  1. No, you are not a tourist. Rather, a traveller you are. A tourist comes for the famous sights (museums, catherals, palaces and all that), keeping them at some distance (culturally) even when standing next to them (for some photos as a proof of being there). A tourist comes for rest and recreation (often, little of the former and lots of the latter, be that bar hopping, all-night partying or all-day shopping).

    A traveller goes to distant places often to find oneself. By taking time to observe, listen to, interact with, and understand others, one may discover that we have different stories to tell about life but are made out of the same putty. Being born and growing up in different societies, our lives may unfold in different ways but our hopes an dreams may have a lot in common. We begin to feel connected. Suddenly, foreign places do not feel so foreign at all.

    About the iPad, netbook, email, Skype, Facebook and all other digital tools of communition. They keep us well (too well) connected with friends and family at home, and give us a comfort zone that tends to isolate us from the locals we find ourselves with. We may end up spending moe time uploading photos onto Flicker and updating Facebook page. If so, then we may end up being a tourist after all.

  2. Dr. Le – you put it so well. “we have different stories to tell about life but are made out of the same putty”. Indeed!

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