South Korea and the need for speed

As an American living in South Korea, I’m learning the need, the need for speed.

The Koreans’ favorite phrase – bali, bali! – means “faster, faster!” and reflects its culture of high-speed growth. And it is not relegated to technology. The emphasis placed on efficiency can be seen at the dinner table, on the soccer field, and in classrooms.

It is the land of the future for those of us tangled in ethernet cords. Here are a few things I’ve noticed since my move to Korea:

  • At my home in Seoul, it can take only seven minutes to download 16 hours of video.
  • Underground and on the subway, people can stream video live on their iPhones. During South Korea’s first World Cup match, the subway train erupted with cheers when Park Ji-sung scored in the 52nd minute. We were deep underground, but watching the game on our cell phones. (Mobile TV viewing has been available for five years. More than half the population use the service, according to this NY Times article.)
  • On the mountain top of Bukhansan, we can call home to the US…(on Skype).
  • 3G is everywhere. You cannot run or hide from your e-mail. 4G has been available in Seoul since 2006.
  • Every bus and train can be tracked from your mobile phone for precise commute times.
  • Many taxis are equipped with their own wireless hotspots.
  • Citizens receive real-time and location-targeted messages via phone, computer or public touch screens via Ubiquitous Seoul, or U-Seoul. The pilot project launched last year to track pollution, traffic, weather, soccer games, and even your children (U-tag).

In sum, the technological advances in Korea have subtle but dramatic influences on daily life. We will be studying the effects for years to come.

Cell phone tower on mountaintop

Within decades, the country has transitioned from civil war to technological revolution.

Some people call it a miracle.

To me, it looks like the future of efficient communication and access to information.

Since the build-out of the Korean telephone networks in the 1980s, the government has made communications technology a priority. In the 1990s, the Korean government built a high capacity fibre optic transmission network that connected 144 cities.

Today the effects are clear in Akamai’s 2010 State of the Internet report. According to Ars Technica, the average broadband connection in the US is 3.9 Mbps. South Korea’s average is more than three times that speed, with an average of 14.6 Mbps. The runner-up, Japan, has an average broadband speed of  7.9 Mbps.

Such connectivity makes it easier to participate and contribute content. OhmyNews’ success with citizen journalism depends on the ability of people to understand and use the Internet. Bottom line: If the Internet can widen the aperture for civic participation, it is going to need an espresso shot of bali, bali to make it happen in the US.

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06 2010

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