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.