No phone? Life’s hard in Korea

Feb 01,2006

Mobile phones replace student ID cards at Sookmyung Women’s University and are used to enter buildings and check out library books, among other functions. By Wohn Dong-hee

Cell phones have been changing the lifestyle of Koreans. That’s no surprise, when you see the number of people on the streets with the gadget pressed firmly to their ears or sitting in subway cars with their thumbs dancing over the keypad, and on their face what one wag called “the Samsung stare.” But the changes go deeper as well; there is an emotional and social context to cell phone use that delights system operators and some users but perhaps leads others to wonder what the modern generation is coming to.
At SowKorea, it’s a busy time of the year. Employees have been busy the past few days sending greetings to thousands of people by cell phone text messages just before the Lunar New Year holiday. The company is one of several that will, for a fee, send witty messages or graphics-bedecked greetings to every name in a customer’s cell phone memory or on a provided list.
“We’ve been in business only a couple of years, but the number of customers is increasing, especially before holidays. Most of our regular clients are businessmen or salesmen for whom it’s important to maintain interpersonal relationships,” a SowKorea official said. Don’t ponder the implications of that remark too deeply.

Your multifunctional gadget
Christmas and New Year’s cards are not the only greetings that cell phones have replaced. Everyday commodities such as wristwatches, alarm clocks, and name cards have not only been replaced, but their functionality has been improved as well. For instance, alarm clock functions in cell phones can do more than offer the usual morning call. They can be set to alert the user to the arrival of a bus or tell him when it’s time to get off the subway.
Digital name cards stored in the phone include both phone numbers and photos, snapped with the phone’s digital camera. When you get a call from the person, his or her photograph appears on your telephone’s video screen.
Cell phones have also “converged” ― a term that threatens to become as overused as “new and improved” was in its day ― with high-tech gadgets such as digital music players, video cameras and mini-television sets.
“Basically, a cell phone has a speaker and a liquid crystal display monitor, which can be used for many things other than just making phone calls. That’s why so many functions and services are being added to the devices,” said Lee Hyoung-kun, an official at the cell phone maker LG Electronics.
Yeom Cheol-jin of Samsung Electronics, also a major cell phone manufacturer, agreed and stressed the multimedia promise of the phones.
“Cell phones are not just cell phones,” he said. “They’re portable media devices that are increasingly replacing things in completely different industries ― like credit cards for example.”
Indeed. Computer chips embedded in cell phones can act as credit cards, and with that credit confirmation can come the ability of a cell phone to trade stocks or do your banking while you’re on the move. In most major Korean cities, public transportation information is available on cell phones.
Many universities, such as KAIST, Sookmyung Women’s University, and most recently Ulsan University, have taken their campus electronic network systems a step further so that students can use their phones to check out books from the library, “check in” their attendance when entering a classroom or buy a soft drink from an automatic vending machine.
“It’s convenient because you don’t have to carry around a student ID card,” said Park Yeon-ji, a sophomore majoring in English literature at Sookmyung Women’s University. “I almost always use the automatic check-out machine to borrow books. A sensor on the machine reads the barcode of the book and then I place my cell phone on a separate reader.”

In the classroom
As teenagers rush like lemmings to the latest hot thing, cellular phones have changed Korean classrooms in many ways. Pen and paper are being used less and less; instead of taking notes, students take photos of the blackboard with their cell phone camera. They also study English with their cell phones by storing phrases or words instead of carrying around a packet of flash cards. Those who want to practice foreign language comprehension do so by plugging an earphone into their phone and downloading educational content provided by many English language institutes and other schools.
“I feel a big generation gap when I look at my daughter,” confessed Shin Ye-sul, 45. “I used to write down difficult vocabulary words on yellow index cards and carry around a cassette player. It’s funny, though, that 20 years have passed and we’re still doing the same thing, still obsessed with English, although our methods have changed.”
But let’s not go too far and assert that only good has come from the surge of cell phones into education. They have also created new ways of cheating and created a “safer” way for adolescent boys to watch pornographic video clips without being caught.
One high school boy in Seoul, who did not want to be identified for obvious reasons, said that the phones are convenient because an adult video clip, once downloaded, can be passed around to other interested friends. “With comic books or magazines, you can get caught when the teachers conduct raids in the classrooms. But teachers can’t go through everyone’s phones, and even if they do, it’s easy to erase the data while they’re looking the other way,” he said. He added that phones made indulging in his interest in porn easier at home as well. His phone bill only identifies the downloads as “information content,” making it easier to capture one or two a month without alerting his parents.

Cell phones as a personal statement
Popular lore says that your ring tone is a statement of your personality, and that demands that you use some heavy brainpower to find just the right one. If your phone rings with the tune of the latest pop hit, you’re a pop culture maven. If a voice starts reciting the derivation of an algebraic theorem, you’re a nerd.
“People are usually very surprised and rather impressed when my phone rings, because it supports 128 sounds and plays a recent pop song. I guess it’s because I’m a quiet person in general,” said Kim Jong-woo, 25, an office worker.
Lee Ju-hee, 19, says she hardly ever sends e-mail, let alone old-fashioned letters. “It’s mostly text or photo messaging,” she said. “It’s cooler to send a photo of my hand making an ‘OK’ sign instead of typing in ‘OK’ in words.”

Changes in social habits
Cell phones have also changed many accepted ways of doing things. SK Telecom recently released a second volume of what it called a “white paper of modern life” ― a compilation of cell-phone-related anecdotes contributed by users.
One trend that the white paper notes is the difference in ways people make appointments. In the 1980s, it would be, “Meet me at 6:45 at the top of exit No. 4 of the City Hall subway station.” In the 1990s, it became “Sometime around seven, I’ll page you ‘119’ and then we can meet in front of the bookstore. If you can’t find me, leave a voice message on my pager.” (The 119 reference is to Korea’s emergency number, and here means an urgent page.) But that’s all so last millennium now. A modern message is even more vague, something like, “We’re meeting in Gangnam this evening. Call me when you arrive.”
Text messaging is being used more and more, and even elderly people have discovered the meaning of the word “flame.” It’s easier, some say, to send angry messages in a text, or to say something difficult, such as an apology.

by Wohn Dong-hee

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