Tokyo Brandscaping and the SuiPo system

Brandscaping is a term used in marketing to describe the metaphorical landscape of brands (either for a particular brand, company or sector), however it is also being used by some researchers, including me, to describe the way in which brands are being infiltrated into urban landscapes, with the ultimate aim of being ‘inhabitable’ perhaps even 24/7 (see for example Disney’s move into urban development with Celebration in Florida).

Contemporary brandscaping makes use of new ambient intelligence, pervasive or ubiquitous computing technologies (‘ubicomp’) and ubiquitous wireless communications to create a landscape in which the consumer is targeted with specific messages directing them to certain consumption patterns. Such communication cans of course be two-way and provide corporations with valuable and very personal data on consumption patterns. As I’ve argued in many presentations over the last few years, ubicomp is necessarily also ubiquitous surveillance (what I call ‘ubisurv’ – hence the name of this blog!) because to work it requires locatability and addressability. Japan, and Tokyo in particular, has been the site for a number of cutting edge experiments in this regard, including the ‘Tokyo Ubiquitous Technology Project’ which embedded 1000 RFID tags which can communicate with RFID-enabled keitai (mobile phones) in upscale Ginza as well as several other pilot schemes around Ueno Park and Shinjuku.

TUTP is not all about marketing surveillance however, part of the scheme has involved ‘Universal Design’ (UD) principles, with one experiment to embed chips in the yellow tactile tiles designed to help guide sight- and mobility-impaired people around the city so that useful access information could be passed through specially-enabled walking sticks. I’m very interested in such experiments as they indicate an alternative direction for ubicomp environments which are about genuinely enabling people who are currently disabled by social and architectural norms, and creating a richer sensory landscape. They show that both surveillance and ‘scary’ technology like RFID chips can be humanised.

Unfortunately in our consumer-capitalist world (and Tokyo is the exemplary city of hyper-consumption), marketing and building brandscapes tends to take priority over enabling the excluded and the disadvantaged. But there are different ways of doing this too, which can be more or less intrusive and consensual. The other day I was talking about the growth in functionality of the Suica smart travel card system. Suica-enabled keitai can now, be used buying all sorts of things and since 2006 there have been a growing number of ‘SuiPo’ (short for ‘Suica Poster’) sites, Suica-enabled advertising hoardings that will, on demand send information to your mobile e-mail address with on particular advertising in which you are interested if you pass your Suica card or phone over a scanner placed next to the poster (see photos below)

The difference between SuiPo and the Ginza RFID scheme however is that it with SuiPo is that it is the consumer who makes the choice whether to activate any particular poster’s additional information system. In this sense it is a development of the i-Mode system in which many keitai can read information from special barcodes embdedded in magazine advertisements. It doesn’t automatically call your phone every time you pass an enabled poster, once you have signed up. Not as high-tech but slightly more consensual. However this will, of course, lead to the accumulation of a lot of data on consumption interests. This potentially generates a massive consumer surveillance tool, because it can be linked up travel patterns (your registered Suica card sends information back on where you go – I was wrong about the absolute differences between London’s Oyster and Tokyo’s Suica systems the other day) and information about consumption.

So will this potential become reality? The page on privacy and data protection on the SuiPo website (as usual the link is hidden away at the bottom of the front page!), is pretty standard stuff except for the legitimate purposes for which the data can be used once you sign up. They are, for those who don’t read Japanese, for:

  1. Sending the specific requested information to you;
  2. Improving services;
  3. Data processing and analysis;
  4. JR East’s promotional marketing; and
  5. JR East customer questionnaires.

Purposes 2 and 3 pretty much allow JR to do anything it likes with the data once you have signed up, and there is no statement as to what can or cannot be done with data once it has been ‘mined’ – analysed and transformed into more useful to the company or other organisations (corporate or state) which might want to buy or access such knowledge. ‘Ubisurv’ indeed…

Travel cards: Tokyo vs. London

NB: this post is largely incorrect… at least in the fact that actually the systems are much more similar and becoming even more so. I am not going to change the post (because being wrong is part of research and learning), but will direct you to a more recent post here.

Tokyo and London both have pre-paid smart card systems for travel on public transport. They look superficially similar but also have crucial differences.

JR East's Suica card
JR East's Suica card

In fact, first of all, there are several smart cards from different railway companies in Japan. Each of main privatised regional railway companies has one: the most common in Tokyo are the Suica card operated by JR Higashi (East Japan Railways) and the Pasmo card issued by a collection of smaller private railway companies as well as the TOEI subway, bus and Tokyo Metro systems. JR NIshi (JR West) and JR Toukai (JR Central) also have their own cards, ICOCA and TOICA respectively. They are all now pretty much interchangeable and Suica, which is the oldest system in operation since 2001, in particular can now be used for other kinds of payments in station shops and the ubiquitous Lawson chain of konbini (convenience stores) elsewhere in the city. It also now has a keitai denwa (mobile phone) enabled version in which the card is virtually present as a piece of phone software.

Great! It’s convenient, costs no more than buying tickets separately and if you forgot to bring any cash for your morning paper, you can use Suica for that too.

So, just like London’s Oyster card then?

Well, no.

TfL's Oyster card
TfL's Oyster card

The Oyster card, issued by Transport for London, looks pretty much the same and operates along similar technological lines, but because it also requires the user to register using a verifiable name, address and telephone number, with which the card is then associated, it is effectively also a tracking system, which is gradually producing an enormous database of movement surveillance. And of course this has not gone unnoticed to the UK’s police and security services who have reserved the right to mine this database for reasons of ‘national security’ and detection of crime. If you lose your card or have it stolen, then not only do you lose your £3 deposit, you’d better tell the authorities too or you might end up having some criminal activity associated with your name on the database.

Suica cards, on the other hand, can be bought from any ticket machine, require no deposit and no registration, and it doesn’t matter if you lose them, or leave the country, even for several years.

Tokyo and London’s transport systems have both experienced terrorist attacks so there’s no particular reason why Japan’s authorities shouldn’t have demanded a similar database (if you accept the UK’s reasoning). Tokyo also has a far more extensive, complex and multiply-owned transport infrastructure. Surely this must inevitably lead to an insecure and out-of-control system where disaster is inevitable.

So in which of the two cities does the transport system work far more efficiently? And where is that you are actually less likely to be a victim of crime, and feel safer?

I’ll give you a clue – it isn’t London.