Picturing a chindogu for you

“Back Scratcher’s T-Shirt. The fast and logical solution to infernal itching. The friend (or partner) who offers to scratch your back is a friend (or partner) indeed. Except it all goes horribly wrong when they just can’t seem to locate the maddening itch. For those who are fed up of saying, ‘Left a bit…up a bit…right a bit…damn!’ comes a very special T-shirt, complete with a battleship-style itch-locater grid. So when the scratcher says, ‘I’m scratching F5,’ the scratchee can say, ‘Try G7.'”

    From the International Chindogu Society

In the beginning, there was snail mail. And the geeks saw it was no good. So after labouring days and nights under the influence of way too much caffeine they begat e-mail and saw it was pretty good.

But other geeks looked at e-mail and thought “We can do better” and thus HTML mail was born…to the disgust of many old-school purists who say that, because some e-mail clients install by default in an unsecure state and they believe that, on the whole, users are far too stupid to even be trusted with a coffee spoon, HTML mail is an abhorrent and egregious sin that should be wiped from the face of the Net.

Be that as it may, other geeks joined by righteous marketing wonks decided that yet more perversion of e-mail was in order and thus created “sha-mail.”

Sha-mail is a Japanglish word formed from a contraction of the Japanese word “shashin” (which means “photography”) and the root of the techglish word “e-mail.” Yep, it is the term for photographs sent by e-mail but specifically from cell phones.

It turns out that in Japan, camera-augmented cell phones are all the rage and have been since November 2000 when Japan-based J-Phone launched the world’s first camera-equipped cell phones were launched by the Japan-based J-Phone. By March this year, J-Phone says that more than 4 million sha-mail-enabled cell phones were in circulation in Japan. And to thoroughly gild the lily, J-Phone recently launched a movie sha-mail service.

Now when I first heard of sha-mail I thought that it was a fine example of a chindogu – a Japanese word that means “useless invention.”

According to the International Chindogu Society, “…dogu is Japanese for ‘tool’ and chin is Japanese for ‘weird’ (not to be confused with the Japanese for ‘penis,’ which is also chin). Thus, a chindogu is a weird tool.”

To be a true example of a chindogu the invention must actually do something while being simultaneously and for all intents and purposes totally useless.

My first response to sha-mail was “So what?” The pictures are of low resolution and the transport service is expensive – all of which sounds very much like a chindogu.

However, on reflection I realize that given the huge popularity, rather than being a chindogu, sha-mail is actually an extremely important indicator of what people want from technology.

What people want from technology is not what they get from PCs. Average computer users approach their PCs with a job in mind – write a report, send a message, find out how fast the Dow is plummeting. But when they start to do any of these things, they are confronted with error messages and warnings. They have to come to grips with maintenance tasks such as back-ups; installing and upgrading software; and error checking and defragging drives. Indeed, for many users, what a PC can do and what they use it for are separated by a Grand Canyon-sized gulf.

In contrast, sending pictures from your sha-mail-enabled phone is brain-dead easy.

Perhaps the computer’s role in consumer communications will come to be less important than the role of devices such as sha-mail-enabled cell phones – which rather makes PCs look like a chindogu. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Gibbs is a contributing editor at Network World (U.S.). He is at nwcolum@gibbs.com.