"I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures."
— Qianlong Emperor, 1793, in a letter to King George III of England
I remember about 10 years ago, I was watching a National Geographic show about a hunter-gatherer tribe in Papua New Guinea. The men were running around in loincloths with spears, hunting animals, making offerings to the gods — you know, typical primitive-tribe stuff. But okay, I don't judge... we're all descended from people like that. But just one thing bothered me. The head of the tribe is being interviewed by the documentary filmmakers. That must mean there's a video camera in his face. What the heck does he think the camera is??? Doesn't he at least wonder? Isn't he curious? Because the fact is, if that hunter-gatherer and his family were to adopt the technology that is represented by that camera, pretty much every facet of their life would improve dramatically. And yet the guy is sitting there talking to the camera about witches and such, showing not the slightest curiosity about what that camera is, why the National Geographic people have it, or what other neat stuff they have. I'm pretty sure if an alien came down from space and started pointing a weird machine (or force field, or whatever) in my face and asking me questions, I'd wonder what the heck it was and how I could get me some of that.
The question of adoption of foreign technology is key to the Big Question of development economics — namely, why some societies grow fabulously rich while others remain desperately poor. To see a stark example of this, just look at the histories of Japan, China, and Korea.
After encountering Western military might in 1858, Japan abandoned its long isolation and embarked on a rapid program of modernization, importing as much foreign technology as possible under the slogan of "Japanese spirit, Western things." As a result, the country experienced a rapid rise to wealth and power. China resisted foreign technology much longer, fearing its disruptive impact, and its eventual modernization came too late to avoid social breakdown, civil war, and foreign incursion. Korea refused utterly to modernize — and it ended up becoming a colony of Japan. Now, of course, Korea and China have both followed Japan's example, with stunning results.
But the country I'm worried about is the United States.
I've lived in Japan for a total of about three years, and in the summer I usually go back. So I've had a lot of contact with Japanese technology. And let me tell you — they have some things we would really like, if we would only bring them to our shores.
The biggest example is the amazing Japanese toilet. These so-called "washlets" are famous for washing your butt with a jet of warm water. But that's not their only important feature. For another thing, the seats are heated. Have you ever sat on a heated toilet seat? It is an experience not to be missed. Imagine a heated car seat on a cold day, and then imagine that without pants. Also, the toilet flushes at the touch of a button, and the button is on a control panel near your hand — no more having to reach behind you to pull a lever!
But Americans do not have Japanese toilets. It's not because we can't get them — I know some Japanese immigrants who've had them installed. So why? I've asked this question of many Americans, and they're always ready with some reason. The toilets are too expensive, they say (but Americans spend ridiculously large amounts on their houses). The toilets use too much water, they say (but Americans waste a huge amount of water). American culture doesn't permit the washing of the butt with a jet of water, they say (then how about just heated seats and push-button flushing action?).
I suspect that the real reason we don't adopt Japanese toilets is the very fact that people are so eager to give reasons not to. We've grown used to the idea that everything good is invented in America. If it wasn't invented here, it must not be worth having, we tell ourselves. It's a toxic combination of "golden age mentality" and national chauvinism — a symptom of "Ming America."
There are other examples, besides just Japanese toilets. Japanese saran wrap, for example, makes American saran wrap look like the bad joke that it is. The Japanese version tears cleanly, doesn't stick to itself unless you want it to (how do they do that?!), and is strong and durable. And yet I cannot purchase it here, in the world's greatest capitalist economy.
When I told a fellow economics blogger about how good Japanese saran wrap is, he immediately started coming up with reasons why that couldn't possibly be true, or why it must be due to differences in consumer tastes between America and Japan. He couldn't even imagine the notion that some other country might just have invented something better than us, and we might just not have chosen to adopt the better technology.
There are other examples. Japanese trains are quiet and fast, and have digital displays on the inside showing the route. Japanese turnstiles allow you to pay by swiping a card across a scanner as you walk through (you can also swipe those cards to pay at a store). America does not have these things. We have failed to absorb these foreign technologies.
Of course, we may simply leapfrog Japan's advances, as we leapfrogged the mini-disc directly to the MP3. Swipe cards will eventually lose out to cellphones as a convenient payment device. Even trains may be made obsolete by self-driving cars. But let me assure you, there is nothing in the pipeline that is better than a heated toilet with a push-button flush.
In the long run, a country's prosperity is determined by its willingness to adopt foreign innovations. Although the examples I've given are small, they could be the beginning of a cultural lethargy that eventually crystallizes into stasis. And even if not... well, dang it, I want my Japanese saran wrap!