“Korean Technology Beyond Motherboards and Displays” (article in Korea IT Times)


Korean Technology Beyond Motherboards and Displays

Taekwando and Oriental Medicine at the Center of Korea’s Future

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Emanuel Pastreich


The term “technology” demands our special attention because the challenges we face require us to move beyond the rather limited significance assigned to the word. “Technology” generally refers to applied techniques for design and the fabrication of parts for the electronics industry, and to a lesser degree to mechanical engineering, energy generation, and biotechnology. But rapid changes in society such as the environmental crisis and the aging population are putting great pressure on us to expand the definition of technology to allow for new and novel solutions. As Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Technology also must be taken up to another level.

Let us consider the original significance of the term “Technology.” It derives from the Greek term “techne” denoting “skill” or “craft.” So also the Korean term “gisul” (技術) is a compound formed of two terms for ability, both of which are far broader in their original meaning than in the current interpretation.

As Korea plays a more central role globally, we must reconsider exactly what is meant by technology in a Korean context. More specifically, we need to consider the remarkable technological tradition ofKoreaover the last thousand years and what technologies lie there, perhaps sleeping and waiting for application.

My good friend Hyun Gak the Buddhist monk recently wrote an essay worth quoting.

“Koreans had this advanced technology [of meditation and awareness] before there was any Samsung, before there was an Einstein, an Edison, or even an Isaac Newton.”

We tend to emphasize the amazing achievements of Korea since the Korean War, but there was so much here before then. Although foreigners are impressed, and Koreans are justifiably proud, of what Korea has achieved so quickly, the unexpected consequence of playing up rapid growth is that we tend to downplay just how much Korea had achieved in the previous two thousand years.

In the realm of Buddhism, for example,Korea has developed traditions of mediation and spiritual understanding that are in essence advanced “technologies of the mind.” These technologies are exceptional in their profundity, garnering wide attention in academic circles. Those “technologies of the mind” developed by Korean Buddhist masters have very direct relevance today in an age in which we wrestle with consumerism and materialism. The next revolution will be perforce a revolution in consciousness suggesting that those “technologies” of the mind have extremely broad applications. Meditation, for example, can reduce our drive to consume and to travel, thereby allowing us to spend the whole day at home and be completely content. Combined with other technologies, Korean Buddhism technologies of the mind are potentially of great value.

Similarly,Korea’s remarkable tradition of Taekwondo also has potential as a technology. Parts of Taekwondo physical therapy can be combined with medical treatments and diet supplements to help enhance health, or speed recovery. The remarkable ability of Taekwondo to bring spiritual peace and balance to the metabolism has not been seriously explored as a technology that can be combined with other medicines for enhanced impact, especially in an aging society.

And then there is Korea’s greatest hidden treasure, traditional Korean oriental pharmacology (hanyak 한약) and Korean oriental medicine (hanui 한의). Only very recently have these fields been recognized as a potential goldmine for medical technologies.Korea has its own sophisticated medical tradition which includes a complex acupuncture tradition that shares elements with China andJapan, but has followed its own trajectory. Much of Korea’s tradition of homeopathic and herbal treatments for long term diseases has yet to be documented in the West. As the process of scientific analysis continues, there will be certainly many more discoveries.

There are the remarkable technologies of daily life that are to be found in traditional Korean homes and farms. During the Joseon period Korea developed sophisticated systems of irrigation, organic farming, and low water usage, which have all but been forgotten. Traditional cooking was carefully arranged to minimize waste and assure maximum nutrition. And Korean traditional homes, with their highly efficient “ondol” heating systems, are models of sustainable development. Moreover, the structure of traditional Korean villages, eco villages in every sense of the word, have a striking beauty and efficiency to it that cries out to be utilized in modern construction.

Korea possesses a panoply of traditional designs and motifs from fabric, woodwork, fabrics, ceramics and furniture that much deserve to be integrated into contemporary Korea. We have yet to see smart phones that use traditional Korean patterns or offices that employ Korean cabinets and tables. WhenKorea starts to do so, it will become a world-wide trend. The technologies of lacquer-ware and carpentry will become important again inKorea. The amount of lost technologies that have been passed over in the endless quest for the modern is astounding.

Ironically, as Korea moves forward, it must also look backwards to identify the hidden technologies that undergird Korea’s cultural strength. By expanding the definition of “technology” Korea can fully utilize its remarkable tradition and bring a new depth to the range of services that Korea offers to the world.

3 responses to ““Korean Technology Beyond Motherboards and Displays” (article in Korea IT Times)

  1. Craig November 10, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    This is one one the most important issues facing us globally. All cultures, including our own , have hidden treasure stores of knowledge and experience. We blithely ignore them at our immense loss.

    In Korea, I see so much ignorance and contempt for cultural technology steeped in history , it reminds me of a tragicomedy.

    While Koreans may be proud of Korea, thus is an empty sentiment – if not a negative one – without grasping what Korea and it’s cultural history – it’s baggage – has to offer .

    Oddly, I find that foreigners more often appreciate these things than Koreans .

  2. Craig November 10, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Of course, this is equally true in Canada, though as usual itsnot as extreme in it’s expression.

  3. Emanuel Pastreich November 10, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Native peoples can cook, wash dishes, clean up and wash themselves with just a liter of water. I would call that an incredible technology. We need to import that technology back into the wasteful “developed” world, but fast!

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