June 20, 2016
The craze with smartphones in Korea today reminds me of the glory days for Motorola cellphones when I studied in Tokyo in the late 1980s. I took tremendous pride that America was able to produce the thinnest and most powerful cell phones, ones that could not be matched even by the IT powerhouse Japan.
But Americans were drunk at the time on our success. Motorola started putting more money into marketing and sales, and less into long-term technological development. Moreover, American industry became obsessed with profits and ceased to think carefully about what the future of manufacturing would be.
I worry that Korea will lose control in the smartphone market because firms in China, Vietnam and elsewhere develop cheaper and more sophisticated versions, and because Korean smartphone firms grew inebriated with their current positive image and short-term market share and failed to take the steps required to keep on top.
But the problem goes far deeper. The designs of smartphones in Korea are identical with those made elsewhere in the world. There is no distinctive Korean layout employed in Korean smartphones, or designs and patterns in the form of the phone, or the graphics used within the programs that are based on Korea’s artistic past. If anything, Korea’s smartphone has been developed with the assumption that it should not appear Korean in any sense.
Moreover the production of emoticons and applications for smartphones is essentially cut off from the millions of creative young Koreans who use those phones. High school students cannot easily design emoticons and sell them to each other, or to other young people around the world. College students cannot get easy financing to create new social network programs that can go beyond applications like Facebook in terms of flexibility and creativity, thus allowing our youth to build a robust and dynamic cyberspace throughout the region of East Asia. The production of smartphones themselves has less and less to do with Korea (as factories are built around the world) but the culture that flows through those smartphones should be made by the youth of Korea directly.
But most importantly, we must think about how smartphones impact our society when we make them and sell them. These devices offer tremendous new potential, but only if we create a healthy culture for the use of smartphones. If our young people use smartphones as a means of communicating with each other on critical issues, as a tool for building networks that address political, social, environmental and economic issues of our age, then smartphones can be a great asset.
But if youth spend their days playing video games and chatting with each other about meaningless matters, then we would be better off if we limit the use of smartphones by people under the age of 18. We cannot let the misuse of this technology destroy the creative potential of the next generation just so that we can make short-term profits. The primary purpose of smartphones should be to offer meaningful education, ethical principles and a sense of community to young people so that we can inspire them to build a better cyberspace for the future.
It is more important to create a healthy and creative culture for smartphones than to develop new technologies. We need a culture in which their use is defined by some larger project that is a contribution to society, or an artistic expression, that lifts up the youth who use this technology. I have seen no indication of a larger meaning to smartphones other than having fun and consuming.
We need to think about how meditation and breathing exercises can be integrated into the use of the smartphone so that users can use that technology effectively without falling into repetitive patterns that can be damaging to concentration. Research indicates that without a proper alternation between meditation and deep breathing and time online, users become more passive and even obsessive in their behavior. We need to focus on making the use of smartphones a positive part of a citizen’s role in society. And we can only do so if the user sees himself not just as a customer, but as a citizen who has responsibilities and obligations to create a vital online society.
If Korea wishes to stay on top in smartphones, we must think beyond the devices themselves and consider how Korea will create the art, the literature and the common community that will inhabit the cyberspace to which those phones act as portals. If we cannot imagine how Korea will go beyond the device, to create a positive global culture, then I fear that the smartphone craze we see in Korea today will be but another golden opportunity that Koreans will let slip out of their hands.