[Viewpoint] Toward democracy or disintegration?

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[Viewpoint] Toward democracy or disintegration?

We are better and more quickly connected today than ever before thanks to staggering strides in technology. We have never been so wired. Yet in the new communication habitat, we feel more detached and lonely.

The revolutionary information age, converged with digital technology, incubated and bred new communication means like ubiquitous smartphones and online social network platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. As a result, connections among individuals and groups have broadened to an unimaginable scope, changing lifestyles and relationships.

People are too busy looking at and texting with their mobile phones to exchange greetings or make small talk on elevators or in other cramped spaces. In exchange for faster and easier interconnections with people who are far away, we have lost contact with those nearest to us. In the new mobile and digital age, we may be growing more and more distant from our closest families, friends and neighbors.

But these worries are nothing new. German philosopher Theodor Adorno and his intellectual collaborator Max Horkheimer in their book “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” published against the backdrop of the Second World War, pointed out that “modern communication media have an isolating effect” both in social and physical terms. The societal changes that accompany a political and economic turning point should be addressed in the context of broad civilization rather than from a socio-scientific perspective.

Truth should be understood in historical context. In their critique of modernity, the two philosophers claimed civilization’s progress brings not only comforts from technology and mass production but also negative consequences on human lives. The Enlightenment unleashed a civilian awakening and freedom from feudal and religious suppression, but at the same time, it bred a new type of barbarism.

Science and technology flourished in the 20th century, but mass communication, at risk of falling under control and manipulation by a certain elite and ideological group, can force more uniformity and domination than individuality and freedom. Their argument explains the trajectory of the Korean race in the 20th century and the dilemma the two Koreas face today.

Korea, liberated from Japanese colonial rule in the early 20th century, adopted two independent state models - Soviet Union-style communism and democracy modeled after the U.S. and Britain. The Korean people had to split into two as the price of being liberated. The contradictory governance systems remain intact today. Guerrilla and independence fighter Kim Il Sung, in cementing the North Korean regime, imported the deified dynastic rule and “military first” ideology from Imperial Japan.

But what explains South Korea’s current political chaos? South Korea’s history has been a continued evolution toward greater freedom and democracy. But looking back at the democratization trajectory over the past six decades, especially the two since direct presidential elections began in 1987, we may have fallen under the “dialectic of democracy.”

The fervent enthusiasm to replace autocracy with democracy may have bred antidemocratic elements by bypassing the fundamental democratic norms and behaviors in order to hastily build a democracy. There is no other explanation for the extreme distrust of lawmakers in the legislature and government by the people who elected them.

Will inflated communication capabilities in the digital age help create a better community based on democracy? Or will the new communication culture aggravate alienation and disintegration, deepening class and group ideology as well as social division? The future of the Korean democracy will depend on the answer.

We hope we can reawaken the warm appreciation and happiness we feel among loved ones in this land as we exchange greetings this holiday season.

*The writer is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Hong-koo
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