[VIEWPOINT]Mixed blessings and a zombieFortune, the U.S. economic magazine, recently predicted that our country would become a leading power in the world’s digital industry. Fortune said that Korea had the world’s highest per capita penetration rate for broadband Internet service and detailed the changes Koreans were experiencing as high-speed Internet penetrated every corner of their lives. About the same time, there was an incident in Canada that reminded us of the effects of the Internet and computers on our lives.
Jim Sulkus, 53, was an ordinary man, retired from a public service job in Winnipeg, the capital city of Manitoba. One night in November 2002, he went to bed in his apartment, only to later be found dead. His death, seemingly an accident, became the topic of conversation because his body was found mummified on August 25, almost two years after his death. The autopsy revealed that he was mummified because a great amount of medicine he had taken for ill health accumulated in the body and prevented its decomposition.
His mummification was a topic, but what made people wonder more was the background of his death, which had gone unnoticed for two years in a big city. He reportedly had a personality that shunned people, and he seldom contacted his estranged family.
But the culprit in making his death unnoticed was his computer and the Internet. Judged to be a disabled person, he had received a disability pension from the government. But the pension was automatically deposited in his account through the Internet, while his utility bills were automatically withdrawn from his account. Because of the Internet, he remained alive in virtual space, paying utility bills without fail even after his death. That is, computers and the Internet prolonged his “virtual” life for almost for two years.
Side effects always accompany the blessings of science and technology. We have underestimated or perhaps not even acknowledged the side effects hidden behind the blessings. Side effects such as exhaust gases, noise and urban expansion due to automobiles become invisible, veiled under the blessings of the convenience and speed that cars bring. Side effects of the Internet can be extremely destructive, incomparable to those of cars or other modern technology.
The Internet has brought the blessings of easy access to a vast amount of information and instant communications anywhere, anytime, transcending the barriers of time and space. But this characteristic of the Internet has caused us to lose opportunities of having face-to-face conversations. The Internet confines people to their homes or enclosed spaces, and isolats them from others for a long time. It destroys traditional family ties and a community structure by excluding people from having meaningful contacts with their family or neighbors or from participating in community activities, instead making them expand contacts with anonymous people. We now use various new services on the Internet, including games, chatting and instant messenger services, welcoming them as if they were blessings.
But we don’t know exactly what long-term or social repercussions they will have.
Our country’s rise to a digital power means that more people will become consumers in virtual reality. But services offered in virtual reality are incomplete and can only partially replace services in the real world. More developed Internet technology might produce virtual food, virtual water and virtual air, but whether we could maintain our life and health by eating and drinking them is very uncertain.
I cannot help feeling bitter to see our country’s image described as an Internet power overlapping with Jim Sulkus’s image afloat in cyberspace like a phantom, even after his death.
* The writer is an ecologist in Canada. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Tak Kwang-il