This is the oldest existing document in the world printed with metal movable type: an anthology of Zen teachings, Goryeo Dynasty, Korea… 1377. It’s a little known fact, at least in the West, that movable type was first developed in Korea circa 1230, over 200 years before that goldsmith from Mainz came on the scene. I saw this today in the National Library of Korea in Seoul (more on that soon). This book is actually a reproduction. The original resides in Paris and is the subject of a bitter dispute between the French and Korean governments.
Reading Christine Boese’s anticipatory critique of the new NY Times Reader, I was reminded of something I saw last winter in Seoul at Chosun Ilbo, which is pretty much the Korean equivalent of The New York Times. Off the main lobby, the newspaper has set up an exhibition space called the “Media Lab,” where the latest prototypes from the paper’s digital technology wing are on public display. A sneak peak at the future of news.
While there, I taped a demo that shows a new reading interface they’ve developed called “T-Paper,” which was supposedly slated for release this year (though I haven’t heard anything about it since). Strolling through the gallery, I found it running across a range of devices, from large flat-screen televisions to laptops, to Sony PSPs, to tiny pocket assistants. Here’s the wall display:
My first reaction was much like Chris’s: “a ‘horseless carriage’ retrenchment” — porting the artifact of the broadsheet newspaper into a digital environment. I have to admit, though, that I was slightly seduced by the zoom interface, which reminded me of this proof of a similar concept by the late interface pioneer Jef Raskin. It’s especially impressive to see it done with video. Though the Times Reader doesn’t sport anything as fancy as this, a commenter named Kevin (who I can only assume works for the Times — or Microsoft) insists that it will have much of the reader-driven functionality we would hope for (including the ability to share comments and annotations with other readers), in spite of the fact that it will be, as Chris puts it, “a walled garden.”
Kevin also refers to usability studies that suggest the Times Reader helps users “retain more information and read for longer periods.” I’ll buy longer periods — I always read more of the paper when I have it in print, and this new device certainly replicates much of the experience of print reading, while incorporating some nice new features. But still, are these proprietary, bound devices really going to replace newspapers? It seems doubtful when news consumption is such a multi-sourced affair these days (though to some extent that’s an illusion). A device that allows readers to design their news menu seems more the ticket. Maybe the Times should be thinking more in terms of branded software than proprietary hardware. Make the best news reader on the web, prominently featuring Times content, but allowing users to customize their reading experience. Keep it open and plugged in. Let the Times be your gateway to more than just the Times.
Chosun Ilbo’s vision seemed similarly constrained. As much as they tried to create a futuristic atmosphere with their Media Lab, much of the technology on display seemed, like the Times Reader, to be stuck in old mindsets — fixated more on the digital apotheosis of their product than on really grappling with the realities of the new media environment. T-Paper also reminded of another museum piece, the British Museum’s “Turning the Pages,” which remounts famous old manuscripts like DaVinci’s journals in a fancy page-turning interface. A while back, Sally Northmore wrote a nice piece for if:book pondering this strange print-digital artifact, and what it means to electronically replicate the turning of a page. All of this recalls Marshall McLuhan’s famous observation in The Medium is the Massage:
“When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future…”
Much of the disoreintation I felt while in Korea came from this feeling of time pulling in different directions. A society saturated in technology, far more wired than ours, Korea rushes headlong into the future, yet at the same time digs its heels obstinately into the past. At the end of the Korean War, Seoul was a bombed-out pit of some half million people. Now it’s a sprawling megalopolis of over 20 million, and though many centuries-old, it feels streamlined and new. There’s no “old city” in any real sense. Shiny glass towers and enormous shopping centers loom over the streets, pedestrian shopping lanes explode into jungles of neon, tiny alleys teem with life like fissures in a coral reef, and a vast network of subways rumbles beneath. And yet this dynamic scene — the swirl of steaming tripe vendors and blinking electronics — is periodically interrupted by a medieval gate or pagoda, a historic remainder sitting tranquilly amid the churn of modern life.
Spend an afternoon walking through Seoul and you’ll see the full pageant of the local techno-culture. Cell phones are clearly several generations further evolved than anything we have here in the States. People seem to be doing just about everything with their mobile devices: playing games, watching TV, surfing the web. I even saw one woman on a train using her phone’s video camera as a pocket mirror to fix her make-up. Young men spend hours tucked away in smoky, windowless internet cafes known as “PC Bangs,” playing multi-player online games that involve a quarter of the citizenry. At the same time, you are frequently reminded of Korea’s abiding infatuation with printing, paper crafts and calligraphy: stores sumptuously arrayed with handmade paper hung on racks, prodigiously plumed ink brushes hanging like icicles from the ceiling, and delicate little rice paper journals piled neatly on the shelves.
Mountains also serve to anchor swift-moving Seoul in time. 70 percent of the Korean peninsula is mountainous and the Seoul region is no exception. Sitting in the heart of downtown is the petite Namsan peak, surrounded by one of the city’s best-loved parks and sporting at its summit Seoul’s most recognizable landmark, Seoul Tower, a rocket ship awaiting blastoff. Facing Namsan, the snow-streaked Bugaksan peak rises over one of Seoul’s central boulevards, an avenue running through what feels like the Korean equivalent of Rockefeller Plaza, past City Hall, the big newspaper offices, the Ubiquitous Dream Hall and the Ministry of Reunification, leading to the Gyeongbok Palace, and beyond that the Presidential “Blue House,” nestled in Bugaksan’s shade.
Framed by the mountain, presiding over the unending traffic of Hyundais, Kias, Daewoos, and Samsungs, is an imposing statue of Admiral Yi, the famous military leader who in the late 16th century dealt a humiliating blow to the Japanese navy with the most advanced technology of his time: a fleet of armor-plated, smoke-breathing “turtle boats.”
Much of Seoul’s past lies beneath the modern streets, and occasionally something is unearthed and restored (or reinvented). Announced by a waterfall perpendicular to the grand boulevard is the Cheonggyecheon, an ancient stream running through the heart of the city into the countryside beyond, and which until very recently was covered over by an elevated highway. Last year, the city demolished the roadway, uncovered the stream and built a lovely sunken path alongside it cutting quietly through six miles of the city’s bustle. If you’ve ever been to Paris and walked directly along the Seine on the lower walkways, you can sort of picture this, though the Cheonggyecheon is no Seine — a small stream and a fairly narrow trench. But walking there, with the tops of buildings peeking over, an improbable calm steals over you in the heart of town.
And because this reminiscence began with newspapers, take a look at these pictures. A few blocks from the waterfalls that reintroduce the Cheonggyecheon to the city after all these years, the very same newspapers that pride themselves on publishing at the cutting edge of technology still mount their daily editions, page by page, in glass cases on the street for all to read.
Nestled in the Gaya mountain range in southern Korea, the Haeinsa monastery houses the Tripitaka Koreana, the largest, most complete set of Buddhist scriptures in existence — over 80,000 wooden tablets (enough to print all of Buddhism’s sacred texts) kept in open-air storage for the past six centuries. The tablets were carved between 1237 and 1251 in anticipation of the impending Mongol invasion, both as a spiritual effort to ward off the attack, and as an insurance policy. They replaced an earlier set of blocks that had been destroyed in the last Mongol incursion in 1231.
From Korea’s national heritage site description of the tablets:
The printing blocks are some 70cm wide 24cm long and 2.8cm thick on the average. Each block has 23 lines of text, each with 14 characters, on each side. Each block thus has a total of 644 characters on both sides. Some 30 men carved the total 52,382,960 characters in the clean and simple style of Song Chinese master calligrapher Ou-yang Hsun, which was widely favored by the aristocratic elites of Goryeo. The carvers worked with incredible dedication and precision without making a single error. They are said to have knelt down and bowed after carving each character. The script is so uniform from beginning to end that the woodblocks look like the work of one person.
I stayed at the Haeinsa temple last Friday night on a sleeping mat in bare room with a heated floor, alongside a number of noisy Koreans (including the rather sardonic temple webmaster — Haiensa is a Unesco World Heritage site and so keeps a high profile). At three in the morning, at the call to the day’s first service, I tramped around the snowy courtyards under crisp, chill stars and watched as the monks pounded a massive barrel-shaped drum hanging inside a pagoda. This was for the benefit of those praying inside the temple (where it sounds like distant thunder). Shivering to the side, I continued to watch as they rang a bell the size of a Volkswagen with a polished log swung on ropes like a wrecking ball. Next to it, another monk ripped out a loud, clattering drum roll inside the wooden ribs of a dragon-like fish, also suspended from the pagoda’s roof. It was freezing cold with a biting wind — not pleasant to be outside, and at such an hour. But the stars were absolutely vivid. I’m no good at picking out constellations, but Orion was poised unmistakeably above the mountains as though stalking an elk on the other side of the ridge.
It’s a magical, somewhat harsh place, Haiensa. The Changgyeonggak, the two storage halls that house the Tripitaka, were built ingeniously to preserve the tablets by blocking wind, facilitating ventilation and distributing moisture. You see the monks busying themselves with devotions and chores, practicing an ancient way of life founded upon those tablets. The whole monastery a kind of computer, the monks running routines to and from the database. The mountains, Orion, the drum all part of the program. It seemed almost more hi-tech than cutting edge Seoul.
More on that later.
Over the next couple of weeks I will be traveling in South Korea, the land that invented moveable type (1234), and which to this day is cooking up the future of the book on a high flame: from massivly multiplayer online games, to Samsung’s Ubiquitous Dream Hall, to the massively multiplayer citizen journalism site OhmyNews. It will take me about 20 hours to get there but I feel I’ll be stepping a few years into the future. I expect… well, I have no idea what to expect. And all this futurama is only the tip of the iceberg. I have a camera and it shouldn’t be too hard to find an internet connection, so expect a few postcards.
Or so is the case in Korea, where the custodians of intellectual property law ranked first (apparently for the sixth straight year) in a recent personal income survey. An interesting nugget blown down the pipeline from Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, in an article barely longer than its headline. Though I am only able to explore the English-language edition, it seems to be a newspaper with no end of information, but little in the way of analysis. One has the feeling of reading oil, a lubricant for the economic wheels that have delivered a war-torn and psychologically divided nation into material prosperity. Korea is now a major regional power of the so-called global information economy.
The Chosun trifle nicely animates the highly abstract, but fascinating “A Hacker Manifesto” by McKenzie Wark, which I recently began reading. The manifesto is a Marxist tract for the information age, redefining the eternal class struggle in terms of intellectual property – the post-capital form of property – which is controlled by a new ruling class, the “vectoralists.” The vectoralists – Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, or the big pharmaceutical companies would be the most obvious examples – control the vectors, or channels, of communication, and seek to subjugate the “hackers,” who Wark defines as a newly coherent class of idea makers – programmers, inventors, artists and philosophers. It’s an important book, and convincingly argues why the intellectual property debate is central in the struggle for liberty.
That the vectoralist class has replaced capital as the dominant exploiting class can be seen in the form that the leading corporations take. These firms divest themselves of their productive capacity, as this is no longer a source of power. They rely on a competing mass of capitalist contractors for the manufacture of their products. Their power lies in monopolizing intellectual property — patents, copyrights and trademarks — and the means of reproducing their value — the vectors of communication. The privatization of information becomes the dominant, rather than a subsidiary, aspect of commodified life.
He goes on to quote from Naomi Klein:
“There is a certain logic to this progression: first, a select group of manufacturers transcend their connection to earthbound products, then, with marketing elevated as the pinnacle of their business, they attempt to alter marketing’s social status as a commercial interruption and replace it with seamless integration.”
Heads are spinning in response to Samsung’s planned release of a 16 gigabyte flash drive – a string of eight 2GB flash memory cards. Flash memory is solid state data storage, as opposed to the conventional hard drive, which contains spinning mechanical parts. The implication is that the price of memory for computers will soon drop dramatically, as will the amount of energy used to power them. Moreover, you will be able to carry millions upon millions of pages on something the size of a keychain (people will probably start using smaller ones as business cards before too long). There’s definitely something reassuring about the solidity – to rely entirely on a single, rickety hard drive, or a network, to store documents is incredibly risky and unreliable. Plus, these cards are far more tolerant of shocks, bad weather and all around abuse.
Chosun Ilbo describes the remarks of Hwang Chang-gyu, Samsung’s chief executive, who said:
…the development signaled the opening of the “digital paper age.” “In the same way that civilization rapidly progressed after paper was invented 2,000 years ago, flash memory will serve as the ‘digital paper’ to store all kind of information from documents to photos and videos in the future. Mobile storage devices like CDs and hard disks will gradually disappear over the next two or three years, and flash memory will dominate the information age.”