Reading like a postcard from the future ... and yet, not. J.C. Herz writing about Seoul's high-bandwidth culture, for Wired, almost comes on like a cyberpunk throwback, if she weren't actually describing reality. In South Korea, over 50% of the population has broadband. She describes Seoul as the most wired city on earth. As Simon Hopkins would say, it's a testbed of futurity.
The article is chock-full of fascinating observations - here's an initial selection of just some of them:
- Describing the city itself - the old ballet between the city deploying technology around close physical networks; the technology in-turn reinforcing the city's density and form (Seoul's population density makes broadband easier to implement).
- The emphasis on using PCs with broadband in public spaces; not logging on as a solitary activity, but as part of a varied series of physical group interactions. The old 'third place' really beginning to emerge in digital interaction.
- Online games culture emerging as a national sport, with prime-time TV coverage! 'StarCraft' has 5 million players; 'Lineage' has 3 million, 150k simultaneously on any given night. Pro gamers practice 10 hours a day, like musicians.
- How Korean culture affects the game design itself, enabling complex hierarchical models to emerge (as, generalising, Korean society itself is distinctly structured and hierarchical - cf. the recent World Cup). These models enable a massively collaborative system, neatly avoiding the problem of every player trying to be the lone hero.
- The games are often played in PC Baangs (cybercaffs - there's 26000 of them in Seoul, and it's where most people access from), enabling close physical cooperation and meme-spreading.
- A key point about broadband itself, with salient lessons for 'the West' perhaps. What has worked here isn't streaming linear content at people (aka TV), but providing environments, platforms, spaces which enable true interaction (in this case, games). And as Matt Jones and Danny O'Brien have recently pointed out, that's what 'the media cartel' just doesn't get.
As Herz neatly puts it:
"South Korea's broadband commons challenges North American assumptions about what bandwidth is for and why it's relevant. In the US, cable, telephone, and media companies spin visions of set-top boxes and online jukeboxes, trying to "leverage content" and turn old archives into new media streams. There is a profound fear of empowering consumers to share media in a self-organizing way on a mass scale. Yet this is precisely what makes South Korea the broadband capital of the world. It's not a futuristic fantasy that caters to alienated couch potatoes; it's a present-day reality that meets the needs of a culture of joiners a place where physical and virtual are not mutually exclusive categories ..."
"So what about those of us in channel-surfing American cocoon-land? The vision of streaming media piped into the home, video-on-demand 24/7, and needle-narrow target markets is heralded as the way forward. Yet it is possible that this vision is holding us back. Perhaps the real market opportunities have nothing to do with connecting people to the Universal back catalog and everything to do with connecting people to each other. If Seoul is any kind of signpost, the way forward does not lie in the single servings of media we consume but in the playgrounds we share no matter who's manning the turrets and storming the castles."