Before us Homo sapiens, there came among others the Homo erectus, the “upright man.” An extinct yet remarkable hominid, wikipedia accounts them of having lived from about 1.3 million to 1.8 a million years ago, with controlled use of fire and weapons and the first to hunt.
And a million years later, an upright structure is a virtue in modern day, speaking of dignity and good health. Numerous sons and daughters can still recall the reprimands of their fathers and mothers to hold their head up, keep their back straight and swing one’s arms lightly back and forth.
If anything, this virtue is making some big compromises in Korea, where a large portion of nearly 48 million people are wired. According to data compiled by major mobile operators in November, the number of smartphone users topped 20 million.
These figures translate into some funny snapshots of Seoul.
Pop into a subway train ― instead of faces one is more like to see people’s crowns where the sheer white of the scalp shines through black hair. All are immersed deep in their world on smartphones, whether it be conversing via Kakao Talk, browsing the Internet or watching their favorite drama or a movie. There is an upside to this, that trains are much more silent and free of the pre-smartphone loudness. At restaurants, out of a group of four, more than half would have their heads down poring over their favorite content and not even bothering to talk to their lunch companions.
Smartphones are also used on the streets, on bikes and also behind the wheel. I saw one man rushing to catch a bus, yet because he would not let go of the smartphone and looked like a person waddling with hands bound. One teenager I saw was on his bike, clumsily meandering on a busy Seoul street so that I thought he was either a novice about to get himself into an accident or drunk. Then I got closer and saw that he was on his smartphone.
So we have a new array of “homo not-so-erectus,” people bent over their smartphones. That word pointing to the “upright man” stuck in my mind as I experienced all these changes in people’s behavior, combined with a story that an acquaintance told me. She recently told me that she underwent surgery for breast cancer, an experience after which she realized how valuable it was to be able to sit or walk upright. I know there is not much of a connection there but the mix of it all somehow alerted me to what it means to be upright and also what it would mean to be “not-so-upright.”
Admittedly, I have yet to cross the Rubicon from the world of 2G over to a smartphone; I am not the earliest adopter of new technology. But I had to marvel at the mass shift of so many Koreans to smartphones to the extent that it is changing mass behavior. What is it that we are finding on that small screen? An immersion; an absorption of things new, variegated and convenient? Or is it a dive into one’s own world, to be lost and completely engrossed, free from the worries of life and the daily grind?