Circles and Squares

Insights into Korea's Sudden Rise

“The Mannerism Threat ” (Emanuel Pastreich November 23,2015)

JoongAng Daily

“The Mannerism Threat ”

Nov 23,2015

 

Emanuel Pastreich

 

I am deeply impressed with the level of the scientific research in Korea and by the quality of the products Korea produces. I have witnessed first-hand just how hard Koreans work to design and fabricate increasingly sophisticated products with global appeal.

At the same time, however, I fear that a mannerism is creeping into the thinking of Koreans when it comes to the development of new industries that will seriously undermine all of their hard work in the most profound manner.

When I use the word mannerism, I am not referring to art of the high renaissance, but rather to an obsession with the virtuoso command of style within a set genre, a tendency to value minute details over the grand vision that results in myopia and a profound cultural stasis. Specifically, mannerism refers here to an obsession with the details of a certain product and a turning away from the social and economic significance of the product itself.

The field of smartphones is typical of the new mannerism in industrial design. These days we find engineers working around the clock to add new functions to smartphones that are of minor functional significance and do not represent the development of a new field or concept. 

For example, new smartphones have screens that curve sleekly around the side of the phone, or optical sensors that make it possible for the phone to react to the movement of your hands or even eyes. In the case of automobiles, NVS (noise, vibration, harshness) analysis is used to make the ride smoother, engine efficiency is increased and chassis are made more accident-resistant.

But for all the hard work that goes into developing these features, it is assumed that innovation refers to just minute variations in products will be produced forever.

But let us remember that Korea once had no automobiles and no smartphones at all. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that at a future date Korea will not use automobiles or smartphones any more. Moreover, there may be other new products, or services, that can be produced using the existing technologies of smartphones, or of automobiles, that may be more useful, more ecologically and culturally healthy and more profitable.

After all, Koreans developed the textile industry as a step forward before entering the automotive industry. It was not assumed that textiles would remain the primary industry for Korea. Rather Korea’s success came from its ability to rapidly imagine and then prepare for entry into new industries.

Industrial evolution should assume constant movement forward into uncharted regions in response to new demands. The world is changing quickly and the true genius of Korea is not its ability to refine smartphones but rather to imagine something that does not exist yet and then systematically set out to make that concept a reality.

Perhaps part of the problem is that although Korea’s technological know-how keeps increasing, the essential question of “why” has been lost along the way. Why do we develop new products and how do they contribute to the challenges of our age? Many Koreans are not able to answer this fundamental question regarding the products they produce.

The question is not academic. Korea will face enormous challenges as a result of climate change and a rapidly aging population that will need to be addressed with careful planning and new technologies. We must completely rethink our daily lives and our urban spaces, trying out entirely new systems, not just improvements on existing products.

The Japanese philosopher Ogyu Sorai once wrote: “There are two ways to play go [baduk in Korean]. There are those who master the rules of go so perfectly that they can play it flawlessly because they do so almost instinctively. But there is another level to the game. There is the level of making up the very rules by which go is played.”

Korea has already mastered the application of existing techniques and processes. It must move quickly now to become a leader in creating not just new products, but entirely new systems and philosophies that will change how we will live. If the development of railways transformed the 19th century and highways transformed the 20th, what will be the game-changer of this century? The answer cannot be found in any textbook; the answer can only be found by using one’s imagination.

 

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