From Joseon to cyberspace

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From Joseon to cyberspace


Emanuel Yi Pastreich

The misuse of information is one of the most serious challenges for a society that depends on cyberspace. Such abuses threaten to create, in the not-too-distant future, a world in which the details of our lives can be easily collected and manipulated without our knowledge. The massive leaks of consumers’ financial information that have roiled Korean politics for the last week are just the tip of the iceberg in a shift in our society, which extends to the recent abuse of information by the National Security Agency in the United States and many other cases that have received less attention.

But it would be a mistake to judge the increase in both the abuse of information and the fabrication of information simply in moral terms. Although there is greed and arrogance among people, the stark fact is that the ability to gather and alter information is increasing at an exponential rate, in accordance with Moore’s Law. Although we can criticize people for being seduced by the power offered by exponential increases in IT technology, going after bad people will not address the issue.

Rather, we will need to create new systems to respond to this challenge by regulating the misuse of information.

We need to recognize above all that in an information-rich world we need a very powerful and robust intelligence system, but the very nature of that system must evolve. We must innovate and create organizations that are transparent and independent from political pressures as they grapple with the most essential task: making sure that information is accurate.

This crisis knows no borders and must be addressed at a global level. Korea, the most democratic nation in East Asia, with its cultural vitality and tremendous technological know-how, is in a position to lead the world in creating a new standard for the necessary control of information.

But if we are looking for a solution to this global information crisis, we will not find much help in the writings of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Rather, the most valuable material can be found in Korea’s Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, or Choseonwangjosillok, as we formulate a structure for a global “constitution of information” to respond to the current crisis.

The Annals guided Korean governance for 500 years as the heart of an extremely effective Confucian system of administration, based on a system for accurately recording events in government with responsibility to future generations.

The Annals were the final product of a constant process of reviewing and accurately recording government and political affairs by the Hall of History, or Chunchugwan, a remarkable government institution that assured accurate records in the midst of political crises.

Of course, the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty must be modified to fit the demands of today’s information revolution, but it can serve as a lodestone for us as we move beyond the increasingly outdated concepts of media, data, intelligence and information.

For example, the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty employed historians to edit drafts, guaranteeing them independence to report honestly about political events and supporting them in their work.

Such historians compelled political figures of the time to be aware of how actions would be judged by future generations - rather than just think about the next headline or the next election. Such a system for the objective control of information within a 400-year time frame could make a tremendous difference in assuring objective facts are employed in the decision-making progress in government today.

Furthermore, the recent debate about network neutrality around the world is a golden opportunity for Korea to play a central role in formulating new global systems to assure the integrity of information for the 21st century.

The Seoul Cyberspace Conference held in October 2013 put forth precisely such a vision and if Korea can draw on its powerful tradition of maintaining accurate information, it will be well positioned to thrive in the network era.

*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies at Kyung Hee University.

By Emanuel Yi Pastreich
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