As time goes by, South Korean people seem to be becoming more and more reliant on these things, not only is it a fascinating curiosity to see literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people a day with their heads buried in them, but it is also starting to become an annoyance for me.
I don't drive in Korea, so to get from a to b in my daily routine, I use a bicycle. It is not the safest form of travel on the roads due to Korea's slightly dodgy reputation for driving, so it is quite fortunate that the city where I live has many cycle paths on the pavement along the routes I need to go. However, this has its own disadvantages, the main one being people on smart phones. No one really takes notice of the cycle paths anyway, but at least some people can hear or see me coming and move out of the way or at least stick to going in one direction. I say some, because a great many do not do this. As time goes by, my regular commutes are turning more and more frustrating as I approach people walking in zig-zags along the pavement with their heads down focusing on their smart phones and their ear-phones in. With almost complete sensory deprivation to the outside world, I struggle to predict where they will go next. Some of these smart phone zombies often get so uncoordinated with it all they regularly stumble into a 90 degree manoeuvre just as I approach them, sending me in all directions.
I believe the problem has steadily got worse, people even cross the road without looking and with ear-phones in, and with Korea's horrible - almost third world - statistics for traffic accident deaths, you would think this kind of behaviour would be significantly discouraged, but it appears that no one cares.
Perhaps I simply have heightened sensitivity towards excessive smart phone use, but I am now noticing it in places I never did before. As well as cycling, I also run 3 times a week. I try and head out to the mountain or park trails for this. Beforehand, I do have to wade my way through the smart phone zombies on the streets first, like I do on the bike. However, once I actually manage to find the relative peace of a mountainous trail, I still can't get away from the smart phone. Sometimes I still have to dodge the people walking through the beauty of the sights and sounds of the forest because they have their eyes down in their smart phones and either headphones in, or simply music blaring out loud spoiling the peace and quiet.
Then I go to the gym for a workout and what do I see.... a man sitting on a piece of equipment I want to use, playing games on his smart phone. He does one set of bicep curls, flexes and admires them in the mirror and then sits down to exercise his thumbs once more for another few minutes. I am sure this wasn't happening before, even as recently as last year.
It seems I can't escape these blasted devices, where ever I go. On a trip to the hairdressers the other day, I had to wait for a boy to have his haircut first; he was about 7 or 8 years old I guess, and in front of him, crouched down, was his mother showing him a cartoon on her smartphone. As the hairdresser moved his head and herself to cut different angles, so the mother adjusted her position. When she became distracted and was late to move, the boy whined in disapproval and she quickly corrected herself. It looked absolutely ludicrous, and goodness knows what this was teaching the boy in question.
Of course, we all know the prime example of smart phone zombies and that's on the subway system. It amused my mum and dad when they visited Korea earlier this year. They could look down a carriage and probably 80-90% would be transfixed on their smartphone screens. It is hard to not think there is something drastically wrong with it all when you witness such a spectacle.
A friend of mine, with slightly conservative views on life, can't stand it. He thinks it shows an inability to be entertained by one's own thoughts, shutting oneself off to the outside world, a lack of self-reflection, and a loss of patience. I think I agree with him in most cases, however, when it came to situations of waiting, like on trains or waiting for buses at a bus station, he appeared less concerned with people reading books and I am not sure there is much difference in this kind of situation.
When I visited Japan a year or so ago, I was struck by how many people were reading books or comic books on the subway system, in stark contrast to those being fixated on their smart phones in Korea. Maybe now, a couple of years on, things have changed in Japan too, but anyhow, whether it is a smart phone or a book, I actually don't see much of a problem in killing time immersed in either, in a situation of passive waiting as long as it isn't all the time.
There are some circumstances, though, where I think this smart phone trend is rather harmful; sometimes it is not good to be distracted too much. When it comes to walking, especially in the mountains or in the countryside, there seems something particularly sad about drowning-out nature with a smart phone. There are also some situations where we should not want to be disturbed and we need to focus and our lack of focus is troublesome to others, like in the gym or on the street. When it comes to chances of injury or even death, at least South Koreans don't have to worry about the "Knockout Game", but there are plenty of other dangers out there to which many are oblivious to because of an addiction to smart phones.
"All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking" - Friedrich Nietzsche
Perhaps the greatest of all down-sides to this obsessive smart phone use is the time it is sapping from self-reflection. One of my issues with South Korean culture has always been the feeling that many people are just on the treadmill of life and it simply keeps on rolling. This happens everywhere, but I do think Korean culture runs a greater risk than most because of their adherance to strict social rules, and people's similar life goals, causing a rather set and unquestioned way of life. Time with one's own thoughts, is something we all need to weigh-up where our lives are going. This can sometimes be depressing, especially if we are not going in the right direction or going nowhere and struggling for meaning, but it is vitally important. When I am feeling a little sad or depressed it serves as a sign that something needs changing and it requires time to figure-out just what needs fixing and altering sometimes. A walk in the countryside or to the shops, the bike to work, silent contemplation at home, or even waiting for a bus can provide the time necessary to set things straight.
The modern world is full of distractions, but it appears as if Korea has become the masters at providing it. Their high-tech, hard-working culture has brought the people prosperity, but it has also brought them misery in the form of the highest suicide rates and unhappiness in the young. In the land of distraction, many people do not think about and confront problems, they appear to distract themselves from them (perhaps this is also a factor in the love of computer games). Without time for a bit of self-reflection, things aren't going to get happier any time soon.
"An unexamined life is not worth living" - Socrates