The first thought that comes to mind when you think of South Korea may be a shaky political past and a not so amicable relationship with her northern neighbor but in the information age, this East Asian democracy is cruising down easy street with bold use of groundbreaking technology and the highest levels of internet connectivity in the world. An enviable situation on the one hand but when both hands are firmly attached to a keyboard, smart phone or joystick all day, real life can virtually come to a standstill.
Too fast too furious
The country is definitely well-placed to make the most of electronic goods with major manufacturers in and around the region. An obsessive attitude towards technology as well as break-neck internet speeds have made the world wide web not only extremely accessible but unavoidable. According to cnet.com, web connection speeds average about 16Mbps, giving them the fastest connection speeds in the world. To put this into perspective, Google-mad USA ranks 27th on this list. The government has been instrumental in the expansion of cheap connections, establishing programs to expedite mass use of the web which has seen Seoul named “the bandwidth capital of the world”. In fact, internet is so cheap that free terminals have been placed around the city, in underground subway terminals and shops. Not that you can’t use your own smartphone underground – commuters can browse and talk on the phone as normal on the fully-wired subways, between stations. Internet cafes or ‘bangs’ are absolutely everywhere even though you would expect just about everyone to have a connection at home anyway, considering the country leads with the highest number of DSL connections per head worldwide.
Life in hyper-drive
Technology has truly infiltrated every part of South Korean life. A far cry from the many nations still suspicious of on-line shopping, consumers can access virtual shops by smartphone, scanning produce bar codes on their way home and specifying when they would like their groceries delivered. This could even be the same evening if you get your order in early enough. The country has a notoriously tough work culture and technology has been a way for people to save time and do as much on the go as they can. To make what little personal life they have as easy as it can be, the shopping experience is enhanced in any way possible. The popular humanoid robot, Furo has replaced static information displays in a Seoul shopping mall and is able to distinguish between people and objects, has a touch screen for information searches, can respond to questions and make phone calls. South Korea is one of the most affluent countries in the East so consumers are constantly bombarded with ads vying for their attention and hard-earned cash. New ways of catching the eye of the potential customer have bypassed bright displays and flashing lights to include the introduction of moving robot mannequins in dress shops.
Too much of a good thing
With a lot of schools ditching books to go digital and many of the games and new methods of shopping and living directed at the younger consumer, young South Koreans can not escape the virtual world. Ninety percent of young people are on-line across the country and gaming addiction is spiraling out of control. Internet usage periods average between seven and fourteen hours at a time and over two million have fallen prey to gaming addiction at all-night ‘bangs’ where their only human contact will be with the player on the other side of the world, if they are participating in an on-line multi-player avatar-style game like ‘World of Warcraft’. This doesn’t leave much time in the day for normal social advancement and depression often ensues. In one of the more sensational cases of gaming addiction, a couple was sentenced to prison time after they allowed their daughter to starve to death while they raised a virtual child.
The South Korean government for all its well-meaning technological expansion is now having to pull their citizens out of the virtual realm with regulations imposed by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sports. Gaming companies often flout the laws and there seems to be little penalty for doing so, probably because the government is also in charge of promoting gaming and use of technology.