If you woke up tomorrow morning with the desire to, say, overthrow your government, you couldn’t have picked a better day.
Before you left the house, you could tag some inspirational photos of homemade signs on Facebook; Tweet out a few patriotic blasts with locations of the day’s protest spots; email friends, family, and sympathetic bloggers with firsthand reports and mission statements; Skype with a foreign journalist in one of those romantic grainy interviews you see on CNN; and, if you had a few extra minutes, create a Freedom Playlist to rock out to, because every revolution needs a soundtrack.
This is the golden age of grassroots regime change. Unless, of course, you woke up in North Korea.
The reasons seem obvious. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — the DPRK, also known as the hermit kingdom of “North Korea” to anyone except the DPRK itself — outlaws the Internet, along with foreign literature, media and alternative sources of information. The country itself has no Internet backbone outside of Pyongyang, where a select group of government officials on certain floors of certain buildings can access the World Wide Web (and thereby make a mockery of the term) for purposes of monitoring and selective communication with the outside world. (They themselves are almost certainly monitored by other officials on other floors whose job is to monitor the monitorers.) Koryolink, a burgeoning mobile network developed by Orascom, an Egyptian firm, supports over 1 million subscribers in North Korea, but they cannot pick up foreign networks or call outside of the country.
This bizarre technical architecture is reinforced by a terrifying analog infrastructure: the constant surveillance of secret police, the perpetual threat of prison camps, the revocable “privilege” of living in the capital of Pyongyang, and an education system that teaches that all of this, insofar as citizens actually understand it, is fair, right and good. On the whole, North Korea’s policies make Orwell’s 1984 look like a handbook for good governance.
That, of course, is the easy answer to the natural question: Why hasn’t North Korea launched its revolution? Logistically, it’s virtually impossible. And the aforementioned horrors (prison camps, secret police, etc.) snuff out any display of lingering discontent. But we know that unhappiness is rife in the DPRK. The testimony of defectors is the best evidence. Along the northern border with China, North Koreans peer over the Yalu River and see uninterrupted lights in the homes of their neighbors. They watch black-market DVDs and access Chinese mobile networks with illegal phones. They swap stories with citizens who have chased food and money across the border and returned to their families. The unstoppable current of technology competes with the state loudspeakers that bark propaganda from street corners. In many cases, it wins. It’s not crazy to think that tomorrow a number of North Koreans will wake up with the thought — just the thought — that something has to change in their country. That they deserve something better. Structurally, that is the same emotional core that sparked the Arab Spring.
Now imagine the young Egyptian kid who woke up in Cairo last year with that revolutionary impulse. He grabbed his mobile phone or popped into an Internet cafe and saw his friends sounding off on Facebook. He in turn began tweeting at anonymous protestors, Skyping with foreigners and emailing with family in other parts of the country. And as he did, he felt something that you in North Korea could not: That he was part of something. Or, put another way, he didn’t feel something that you in North Korea would: Alone.
But the Egyptian kid on Twitter didn’t simply know to meet up in Tahrir Square at 12 PM with a flag and a sign and a brand spankin’ new playlist to share with his friends. He knew something more primal and far more potent. He knew that he wouldn’t be alone, that they would be there too, that other people felt the way he did and were also willing to risk their lives to express it. That’s not social networking: That’s emotional networking.
Because the technologies we celebrate as the harbingers of democracy do more than just coordinate and communicate. They connect — not just fans and followers, but minds. They place photos next to 140-character cries and video feeds next to instant messages. They turn nameless protestors into citizen journalists. They turn a morning reverie of a better life into the afternoon reality of a demonstration. And by doing so, they diminish the loneliness inherent in discontent.
So back to the thought experiment. If you woke up in North Korea tomorrow possessed by the desire to overthrow Kim Jong Un, your revolution would be over before it began. On a basic practical level, you would find yourself unable to coordinate anything on a scale large enough to effect change. But you
would also find yourself in a paralyzing state of mind. Disconnected from others, unable to communicate, you would begin to wonder whether you were the only unhappy citizen. You would wonder whether you were wrong. Imagine the alienation you’d feel. Imagine the paranoia. Because for all you know, you’re the only one who feels the way you do — and decades of education, propaganda and policy have made contrarianism a source of deep shame and mortal fear. That is a scary, debilitating, ineffectual place to be. And that, more than any logistical hurdle, is the reason that North Korea has not staged its revolution.
We are obsessed with the logistical utility of technology (it is very useful) and the legal importance of free communication (it is a right), but we under-appreciate the psychological and emotional power of the tools we’ve created. North Korean defectors know this best. This week, a defector group in South Korea sent balloons carrying activist leaflets over the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea. That the North threatened to attack the South over the initiative reveals just how vulnerable the DPRK is — not just to competing information, which it can erase in a variety of terrifying ways, but to the emotional message that the North Korean people are not alone. That cannot be so easily erased. And if a tactic as modest as balloon-leafleting can provoke a war, imagine what the advent of technology would stir in a country of 25 million prisoners.
Eric Schmidt/Larry Page once said that Google aims to be the third half of your brain. The point being that Google’s technology would, in some sense, augment your consciousness in ways you can’t even imagine. By, for instance, recommending a book title and a coffee shop before you knew you wanted them. Or creating serendipitous connections with friends and strangers based on your location. And so on.
In August 2011, [this strange little story I wrote]. Bus – friendship – Facebook – hmph. The North Korean mind really does work differently, because it hasn’t been shaped and enhanced by the same technologies that ours has.
If you take Schmidt/Page’s prognostication literally — that Google will be the third half of your brain — then either Schmidt’s mathematics are off, or Google is aiming to make our brains 150% larger. And I think that’s the point of the muddled metaphor. Because in some sense, this technology is making our minds different. The effects of tech on our psychology are well documented. In that moment, I knew that our brains were different. Mind was informed, augmented, and defined in a big way by my technology. And hers was analog, self-contained, and shaped by a lifetime of an analog interactions.
It’s tempting to talk about the technology gap in North Korea in terms of what it’s not. We talk about a technology gap. We decry the absence of technology. We complain that the government is depriving its citizens of these tools. [quotes from major newspapers would be awesome.] But all of these judgments are offered from a perspective of total awareness. We know that technology exists, so we can recognize a technology gap. We know how useful these tools are, so we miss their absence. We believe that governments shouldn’t withhold the freedom and means to communicate from their citizens, so we can accuse them of depriving them of their rightful technology.
But what if you didn’t know any of these things? Would you still recognize/appreciate the crime? Most North Koreans are not missing technology they once had or wish they could have; they don’t have technology that they don’t even know exists. This isn’t just tech deprivation, but tech ignorance. A deeply ignominious and cruel sort of ignorance, the kind that keeps people uninformed and narrow-minded and eager for information that is available (propaganda). This is a form of nescience, applied to technology. Call it technescience. And this is one of the many bizarre paradoxes of the DPRK: Its citizens simply aren’t aware of how wide their tech gap really is, which makes the tech gap that much wider and that much more tragic. It is one of the few crimes whose victims’ ignorance makes the crime that much easier and more tragic.
So think back to that kid in Tahrir, who not only knew where his friends would be but that they would be there.
It’s that psychological gap that is preventing a revolution in North Korea. The threat of gulags, a general scarcity and a doctrinal education do the rest of the wo
The Los Angeles International Airport is a lot of things at midnight on a Friday — a hub for connecting flights to and from Australia, a jumping off point to places like San Salvador and San Jose, the shooting location for a lusty goodbye scene in an upcoming romcom — but an obvious starting point for a trek to North Korea it
Sitting, then, in terminal two of LAX (the most terminal of terminals) at midnight on Friday brought
Here’s how it works.
A man on a high-up floor of a building somewhere gets the word from On High (straight from the horse’s — er, leader’s — mouth) to drum up a little dramz on the peninsula. People are getting cozy, they’re getting a little wealthier, they’re meeting a few too many foreigners, they’re seeing a little too much disparity, they’re enjoying a few too many foreign films, and the guys on the higher-up floors know it. So they put in the
call to the guy to make it right, and the solution is usually to have the tail wag the dog. (The metaphorical dog, of course. Not the one they use in the soup.)
So the guy on the high-up floor calls some guys on various other floors. The phone rings –
“Yeah,” says the guy on the upper floor, getting right down to business and skipping the Korean niceties. “We need to stir it up. We’re thinking a war. Sound good?”
And that guy pushes it down to the top brass of the newspapers and television network — that’s singular — to start pumping out stories about the war. It’s real by this
point, so it’s news, and news is, first and foremost, new, so they run with it. At the same time, another phone in another building rings –
“Yo!” answers the guy at the KCNA, because they go way back to Moranbang where they got their Kim Il Sung pins together.
“Better announce the war,” says the guy in the building.
So the KCNA publishes it. 10,000 kilometers away in New York City, Washington D.C., and other places that might or might not be within the reach of missiles that might or might not exist, reporters covering the Asia beat check KCNA obsessively for the latest rumblings on the peninsula. They see that one half has declared war on the other half, and they agree that it is indeed a war. More importantly, they agree that it is a story. So they run with it.
NORTH KOREA DECLARES WAR ON SOUTH
Shouts Fox News, CNN and the other mouthpieces of what the guy in the first building would probably agree is a mouthpiece of the imperialist dogs. They forget to de-capitalize “South” in accordance with KCNA policy, but then again, irony is not top priority when you have about 0.5 seconds to beat Matt Drudge to the punch. Matter of fact, he’s probably the one who published it. He owns those 0.5 seconds. He is those 0.5 seconds.
So then everyone’s refreshing Drudge all over the world (or it’s being refreshed for them, as per yooz) and guess what? North and South Korea are at war.
It’s a tale of two Gangnams: The sleek, sexy, preposterous world of PSY’s Gangnam, an affluent neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea, both celebrated and mocked in what is now the number-one video on YouTube; and the drab, beige, silent streets of North Korea’s Kangnam, haphazardly excised from Pyongyang some years back to relieve food shortages in the capital, more closely resembles urban ruins, like the perfect locale for a Breaking Bad deal or the lair of the next 007 villain.
The main barrier separating these two iconic places is the 38th parallel, which slashed the Korean peninsula in half in 1953. Above it, the reclusive regime of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) faces the de-militarized zone and leans forward. Below it, the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) seeks to contain its wayward brother while managing the 15th largest economy in the world. Though South Korea was once more destitute and less stable than the North, the ROK now eclipses the DPRK as a beacon of technological innovation and a principal exporter of cultural memes. Korean technology — like the clever mobile phones and sharp refrigerators developed by giants such as Samsung and LG — had already penetrated American homes and offices, but it was PSY’s infamous horse dance that unwittingly lassoed the U.S. closer to the ROK.
Or, given the global nature of the Internet, perhaps it was the other way around.
Consider South Korea’s impressive technological record. Earlier this year, South Korea hit 100% penetration in wireless broadband, with 100.6 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. Its broadband is the second-fastest in the world (after the Slovak Republic, an unexpected contender), and the first in mobile speed. The U.S. serves up a middling performance. By the end of 2012, reported the New York Times, South Korea aims to connect every home in the country to the Internet at one gigabit per second — more than 200 times as fast as the average household setup in the United States. Imagine how much load time we lost as a nation learning how to horse dance.
Meanwhile, South Korean schools are beginning to resemble Steve Jobs’ pedagogical fantasy. A pilot “smart” high school has replaced textbooks with tablets, roll calling with automated check-ins, and lecturing with interactive screen-sharing. The economics are equally impressive: After the costly set-up, these schools cost no more to maintain per student than the traditional model. This wired education is designed to prepare students for a radically different workplace, which South Korea has already transformed with the help of a new kind of employee. The ROK boasted the highest robot density in 2011, with 347 robots per 10,000 workers in the manufacturing industry, up from just 287 robots per 10,000 workers in 2010. The country is training its students to manage these intelligent robots one day soon (and presumably not the other way around, though South Korea’s superlative engineering gives us pause).
South Korea can attribute its rise to a strong vision for modernizing a country that used to be poorer than North Korea, combined with lower regulation and greater competition. While warring telecoms firms drive prices down and speeds up in South Korea, the U.S. appears to labor under a heavy regulatory framework that stifles broadband innovation and keeps price-competitive entrants out of the market. We might thank the FCC for high broadband prices and all that time lost brushing up on PSY’s moves.
South Korea’s technical leadership extends to almost every field, industry and region. Seoul — bright, happy, prosperous — has become a dazzling Asian capital that influences the Orient’s media landscape. And it’s not only providing infrastructure and delivery. It’s getting into content, too.
It was only a matter of time before South Korea began exporting its “cultural technology,” a term popularized by the mastermind of K-pop in Seoul, Lee Soo-man, and explored in an absorbing New Yorker exposée of the industry. Lee was born when North and South were exchanging artillery in their battle for the peninsula, where he consumed the American folk and Korean rock music that started on U.S. Army bases, which became a kind of distribution channel for content to locals. The North, of course, had no such delivery mechanism. There is no K-pop in North Korea today (at least not much, and certainly not legally), only the sentimental yawns of Korean opera laced with references to Kim Il Sung and the North’s ongoing “revolution,” a term more aptly applied to the South’s technological boom — which, under Lee’s vision, created a new product: the K-pop assembly line.
Like Henry Ford’s innovation, which churned out cars with unprecedented efficiency, the K-pop assembly line manufactures stars using a scientific system of creative development. But the K-pop
machine more closely resembles an intensely regimented incubator. South Korean record labels, which are vertically integrated with production, representation and publishing divisions, invest in new talent by housing, feeding, and training recruits for years as they nurture their talent. But the shelf-life of a K-pop star is disturbingly short — about 5 years on average — and the emphasis seems to be on short-term productivity over long-term stardom. K-pop is also a portfolio play: New groups appear constantly, most wither after a few songs, and only a handful stick around. The model generates significant revenue, which is almost certain to grow as K-pop enters China and other lucrative markets. The BBC reports that K-pop alone contributes 2 billion dollars a year to Korea’s economy.
This cultural technology is innovative, both content- and process-wise, but it’s also remarkably low-tech for a country driven by its technical prowess. Music companies have been known to scout talent in malls and small cities. Some agencies impose strict rules on incubated talent, such as one infamous ban on eating after 7 pm (apparently verboten for a promising K-pop star, along with having a boyfriend). The process of developing a K-pop idol is still inherently analog, still painstakingly slow — some in the tech space might call it unscalable — and, when it comes to breaking into Western markets, still disturbingly unpredictable, as PSY’s unlikely YouTube bonanza reminds us.
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