Openness on Usefulness

japanese_invention.jpgThe New York Times has a piece on “quirky camouflage designs” that reportedly reflect new fear over street crime in Japan. Fashion designers are making vending machine costumes for adults and mailbox ones for children. But the article quickly retreats from suggesting that anyone would actually use the devices, instead situating them in a Japanese tradition of “unuseless inventions:”

Japan produces so many unusual inventions that it even has a word for them: chindogu, or “queer tools.” The term was popularized by Kenji Kawakami, whose hundreds of intentionally impractical and humorous inventions have won him international attention as Japan’s answer to Rube Goldberg. His creations, which he calls “unuseless,” include a roll of toilet paper attached to the head for easy reach in hay fever season, and tiny mops for a cat’s feet that polish the floor as the cat prowls.

And let’s not forget the hair blocker at right.

America has its own tradition of “goofy inventions,” some of which made it onto one of the worst TV shows of the past decade–American Inventor. See what you think of the patentability of the “pet petter” in this YouTube clip.

Anyway, the NYT article has a nice take on the “utility” requirement in patent law. For a patent to issue, an invention has to be useful, but this is a pretty weak requirement. For example, even a faux-drink-dispenser will do. How about a vending machine costume to evade a mugging?

Mr. Kawakami said that while some of Japan’s anticrime devices might not seem practical, they were valuable because they might lead to even better ideas. “Even useless things can be useful,” he said. “The weird logic of these inventions helps us see the world in fresh ways.”

Perhaps theorists of Japanese decline should take notice!

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