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  • An Anthropology of the Machine: Tokyo's Commuter Train Network by Michael Fisch
  • Noriko Aso (bio)
An Anthropology of the Machine: Tokyo's Commuter Train Network. By Michael Fisch. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018. xi, 302 pages. $82.50, cloth; $27.50, paper; $27.50, E-book.

Michael Fisch employs a science and technology studies (STS) approach in this "technography" (ethnography of technology) of the Tokyo commuter train system, thus contributing to the global literature on trains as iconic machines of modernization. However, Fisch does not consider railway technology in isolation but rather insists that humans and machines must always be considered together, shaped by and shaping the other, in contrast to a technological determinism that would see railroad design as having only a one-way impact on societies. Because human communities are at stake, Fisch embraces rather than shies away from raising ethical considerations through the use of such terms as "technicity," which he defines as a machine's "quality of relations" (p. 16) that "emphasizes a technology's ontological and conceptual affordances, as well as its trustworthiness as a partner of collective life in the present and future" (p. x). The complex and perilous order of Tokyo's commuter train network provides Fisch with a prime opportunity to assess technicity, as he asks what makes for a system that deserves trust. His case study of Tokyo railways provides the answer of yoyū (leeway, margin, or breathing room).

Each of the six chapters highlights a set of human actors and nonhuman factors which together either make it possible for the commuter train system to operate beyond (and later without) capacity or cause it to break down. The titles, from "Finessing the Interval" to "Ninety Seconds," all point to the critical necessity of accounting for time within the system. Fisch begins with the engineers of the Tokyo commuter system and how they responded to overwhelming growth in the number of riders over the course of the twentieth century. Rather than pursuing ironclad scheduling as the solution to having to operate beyond capacity, they came to recognize that skillful drivers who practiced "recovery driving" and riders savvy in how they navigated flows were essential to the everexpanding system. Drivers and commuters [End Page 291] created and "finessed" yoyū (Fisch prefers to use the Japanese term throughout), which in turn was incorporated into planning as manageable gaps between principal and operational schedules. Fisch then focuses on commuters and the train spaces they inhabit. Silence, manners, calculation of best connections, and, now, electronic devices and social media produce a commuter railway spatiality that exceeds any mapmaking while maintaining a coherent collective.

Having laid out the successes, Fisch turns to darker aspects of the Tokyo commuter railway system. Returning to the system engineers, he examines the adoption of ATOS (Autonomous Decentralized Transport Operation Control System) in 1996. The bottom-up organizational principles of ATOS allow it to embrace irregularity as regular, thereby weakening or even doing away with conventional logistical thresholds. Fisch terms this operating without capacity. Despite the organicism and resilience of this mode of organization, he points out that its very success all but ensures human failure to reckon with environmental and other costs tied to this scale of operation: the network's "extreme capitalism . . . generat[es] a novel, frictionless synergy of human and machine toward boundless consumption" (p. 109).

Fisch then goes back to the community of commuters to explore the possibilities and limits of empathy: "can the train teach us to care?" (p. 125). He works through attempts to answer in mass media utopian and dystopian representations, but his most compelling examples highlight how discussion boards, hypertext novels, video games, and other media geared toward consumption during a train ride interact in real time with commuter alienation and/or collectivity. The principal effect has been to maintain the status quo of crowding and other forms of stress by encouraging a mental state balanced between attention and inattention; yet Fisch also catches a glimmer of potential critique in moments when riders take a step or two outside the script. In contrast, commuter train suicides prompt communal disengagement. The railway companies employ euphemisms and cleaner teams to immediately erase...


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pp. 291-294
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