[VIEWPOINT]Tuning in and tuning out

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[VIEWPOINT]Tuning in and tuning out

If a tuning (the Korean way to say a tune-up) reminds you of an auto repair shop, you are a member of the older generation.
Tuning is more frequently used now when people are talking about upgrading the performance of a car, rather than its original meaning, which referred to tuning in radio waves.
Among people in their 20s and 30s, the use of the word tuning has spread widely, as a word for customizing something. That is why the younger generation is also called the “tuning tribe.”
Cellular phone tuning began several years ago when people started to draw pictures on their phone cases, but it has now evolved into installing materials to put twinkling lights from inside or totally changing the appearance of the phone.
It sometimes costs more than several hundred thousand won to tune a phone, they say.
Tuning shoes - buying a pair of shoes without any colors or patterns and designing it in a person’s own style is also popular.
There is even a company that sells paint, brushes, pens and sprays that come in the shoebox.
The tuning fever is expanding into computers, stationery and jeans. Shops specializing in tuning have opened and online communities have been created.
This kind of consumption pattern is not strange at all. There is the DIY (Do It Yourself) industry that turns out parts for half-made furniture that customers assemble themselves.
However, DIY is usually done to reduce costs or as a hobby, so it is hard to treat tuning as something similar to that. Most of all, tuning is mainly for fashion, not to save money or to improve the performance of a product.
People use tuning competitively as a way to fulfill their desire to differentiate themselves from others. Because of this, the cost of tuning often exceeds the original price of the product.
Actually, differentiated patterns of consumption are closer to our basic human instincts.
French theorist Jean Baudrillard remarked that as society becomes more affluent, products become meaningful in a symbolic sense, rather than for their actual utility value.
This is because consumption is part of both economics and culture.
For this reason, tuning, to show off one’s uniqueness, can be thought of as a meaningful challenge to mass consumption in the golden age of brands.
Or in this age of mass consumption, we might be missing the craftsmanship that has been regarded as an important value to sustain a sane society.
But the current trend of tuning probably won’t end a consumption-based society. Instead, it might deepen the ideology of consumption.
That is because differentiating oneself through tuning is still a mass fad and has become a deeply subordinated part of commercial businesses. Therefore, it is just a surrender to the culture of capitalistic consumption.
The current tuning boom will just make ourselves more deeply caught up in the trap that dictates consumption is virtue and consumption is happiness.
If a consumption society makes everyone small and poor in front of a god named “material,” the essence of the problem is to change our lives from being focused on possession and ownership to being focused on existence and co-ownership.
To achieve this, we have a long and hard road to travel. People from the older generations miss the variously tanned trim of the uniform hats when they were students to express their unique style and characteristics.
Tuning by spending money is not the best tuning. Tuning just evolves.

* The writer is a professor of sociology, graduate school of environment studies, Seoul National University.

by Jun Sang-in
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