Upon my visit to the Grand People’s Library in Pyongyang, I saw a room with people accessing information for free, in a public place. I was excited. I wanted to use the North Korean Intranet. My handler set out to help me. He was unsuccessful, the military man beside me who was comfortable surfing his way through the intranet came over, he could not help me. Since the computers were running an English version of Windows XP, I decided to play solitaire. Being unproductive in North Korea seemed just as exciting. As I sat there, moving virtual cards, my handler got upset. He hissed at me to stop. He then started to smack me on the shoulder and in strained, quiet tones commanded me to stop. Technophobia is a powerful tool.
The Great Leaders’ Technophobia
Technophiles “gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved.” Technophobes “are inclined to speak only of burdens,” new technologies might bring about. (Postman, p4) These two extremes do not exist in our world but parallels can be drawn. Western society, especially the United States of America, has embraced technophilia. In Asia, the second largest economy in the world, China and its small neighbour North Korea are technophobes to varying degrees.
Quick to adopt the Internet, America now hosts the headquarters of a large number of top technology companies, Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc. Google could not exist without the Internet and is a large supporter of uncensored access to this particular source of information. The government has survived protest and still manages to run the country.
The internet is necessary in order for China’s massive economic growth to exist. Apple and any other company involved in production in China needs unrestricted information transfer. The Internet in China is a much different place than in the USA but mostly noticeable to ex-patriots who want access to Google, facebook, twitter and YouTube. The general Chinese population can search, tweet, friend and watch all they want on government approved, more easily censored software. The internet in China is still the internet, however. You are connected to the world and if you have the means, you can go anywhere you like. The government’s vast resources are used to prevent this from happening. Government controlled information access is necessary for effective government in China.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea uses a different tactic. They have created the illusion of the internet with an intranet accessible and containing information only from within the country. Lacking the seemingly endless growth and cash reserves of China, the DPRK has completely shut down the internet to prevent unauthorized education. The internet is seen in the same way as the printing press was by the church. The printing press, like the internet is capable of “giving rise to theological confusion and shaking the solidity of the church’s traditional teaching.” (O’Donnell) This shaking of traditional teachings is exactly what Pyongyang does not want.
Thamus and Kim Jong Il had a little something in common.
Thamus was a knowledgeable man with great wisdom and leadership to accompany his thoughts. He could not be king otherwise. In his wisdom he saw the power of writing and did not welcome it. He knew that “those who cultivate competence in the use of a new technology become an elite group.” (Postman, p9) Thamus was not part of this elite group. As a member of the old guard, he saw that his oral knowledge monopoly was threatened. The technology of writing would create a knowledge source outside of the king’s control. Knowledge that could be used against him or any future king.
Pyongyang has technical universities with rooms of HP computers and SMART boards. I did not, however see anyone in contact with these technologies beyond the tour guide and a cleaning lady because it was Wednesday and all the students were reading in their dorms. Technologies in North Korea are so strictly controlled that even those with access do not understand how to use them. The inability of my handlers to get the internet working, the mistakenly deleted memory cards at the border are evidence of the effective control of information access to even government approved sources. Print media itself is limited to government sponsored billboards decrying the beauty of this starving country. Oral poets would feel comfortable that true to oral tradition only Great Leaders are allowed to rule. (Ong, p68)
Strict control of technology has allowed the hermit kingdom’s knowledge monopoly to remain undisturbed. Without the wealth of China to back its government censorship campaigns, North Korea uses a more physical approach to control. Both countries rely on the teachings of oral traditions with communist slogans to remind people how happy they really are.
O’Donnell, J.J. The virtual library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed. Retrieved from Lecture Notes Online Web site: http://web.archive.org/web/20070204034556/http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/virtual.html
Ong, W.J. (2002). Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Routledge.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.
Internet Censorship in the People’s Republuc of China. In Wikipedia. Retrieved September 30, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_censorship_in_the_People%27s_Republic_of_China
North Korea. In Wikipedia. Retrieved September 30, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korea