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November 20, 2007

Korean Internet detox camps — You won't find William Gibson's children there anytime soon


Someone (I can't remember who, but thank you very much) kindly sent me a link this past weekend to Andrew Leonard's interview with Gibson, posted on the Rolling Stone website on November 7, 2007.

Long story short: Gibson believes that our grandchildren will find quaint our habit of distinguishing virtual from real — "In the future, that will become literally impossible."

Here's the interview.

    William Gibson: The Rolling Stone 40th Anniversary Interview

    You made your name as a science-fiction writer, but in your last two novels you've moved squarely into the present. Have you lost interest in the future?

    It has to do with the nature of the present. If one had gone to talk to a publisher in 1977 with a scenario for a science-fiction novel that was in effect the scenario for the year 2007, nobody would buy anything like it. It's too complex, with too many huge sci-fi tropes: global warming; the lethal, sexually transmitted immune-system disease; the United States, attacked by crazy terrorists, invading the wrong country. Any one of these would have been more than adequate for a science-fiction novel. But if you suggested doing them all and presenting that as an imaginary future, they'd not only show you the door, they'd probably call security.

    What are the major challenges we face?

    Let's go for global warming, peak oil and ubiquitous computing.

    Ubiquitous computing?

    Totally ubiquitous computing. One of the things our grandchildren will find quaintest about us is that we distinguish the digital from the real, the virtual from the real. In the future, that will become literally impossible. The distinction between cyberspace and that which isn't cyberspace is going to be unimaginable. When I wrote Neuromancer in 1984, cyberspace already existed for some people, but they didn't spend all their time there. So cyberspace was there, and we were here. Now cyberspace is here for a lot of us, and there has become any state of relative nonconnectivity. There is where they don't have Wi-Fi.

    In a world of superubiquitous computing, you're not gonna know when you're on or when you're off. You're always going to be on, in some sort of blended-reality state. You only think about it when something goes wrong and it goes off. And then it's a drag.

    Is there a downside to that blended reality? Or could it represent a change for the better?

    People worry about the loss of individual privacy, but that comes with a new kind of unavoidable transparency. Eventually we're going to know everything that every twenty-first-century politician has ever done. It will be very hard for politicians and governments to keep secrets. The whole thing is porous. We just haven't really figured out quite how porous it is.

    How would you define the current moment? In your most recent novel, "Spook Country," the pervasive sensation is that the times are fraught.

    Fraught? [Laughs] Fraught is very good. I was going to quote Fredric Jameson about living in the simultaneous apprehension of dread and ecstasy, but I've already done that today. Yep. Fraught. Period.

    How does it break down for you? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

    I find myself less pessimistic than I sometimes imagine I should be. When I started to write science fiction, the intelligent and informed position on humanity's future was that it wasn't going to have one at all. We've forgotten that a whole lot of smart people used to wake up every day thinking that that day could well be the day the world ended. So when I started writing what people saw as this grisly dystopian, punky science fiction, I actually felt that I was being wildly optimistic: "Hey, look — you do have a future. It's kind of harsh, but here it is." I wasn't going the post-apocalyptic route, which, as a regular civilian walking around the world, was pretty much what I expected to happen myself.

    You're talking about nuclear devastation. But couldn't global warming accomplish pretty much the same thing?

    Global warming is very different. It's not "don't push the button." It's "quit doing internal combustion — the shit you have been doing for the past 400 years is coming back to bite you on the ass, big time."

    In the past ten years, we've seen incredible advances in nanotechnology and synthetic biology. Does any of it amaze you?

    My assumption has always been that at some point we would lock on to a literally exponential increase in human knowledge. That was my best guess, somewhere back in the Seventies. There hasn't been anything that made me sit back and say, "Golly, I would never have imagined that." The aspects of recent history that have caused me to do that have been, in every case, manifestations of retrograde human stupidity.

    How do you mean?

    It's been an extraordinarily painful decade or so. I just never in my wildest dreams could have imagined that it could get as fucked up as this guy [George Bush]. It still amazes me how dumb so much of our species can manage to be. But that's kind of like being amazed at life.

    Does any of it scare you? A new synthetic life form or nanobot running amok?

    That could happen. It could all go to gray goo. But it just isn't in my nature to buy a lot of canned food and move to Alaska and try to escape the gray goo.

    The world of ultracool techno gadgets you envisioned pretty much came true. Does it make you feel satisfied to look at, say, an iPod Nano now?

    I just take it for granted. When I was envisioning the future, one of the things I was sure of was that consumer technology would look really cool. I just knew these postindustrial artifacts would be stunningly slick — they would have to be in order to compete with the other guy's postindustrial artifacts.

    The very first time I picked up a Sony Walkman, I knew it was a killer thing, that the world was changing right then and there. A year later, no one could imagine what it was like when you couldn't move around surrounded by a cloud of stereophonic music of your own choosing. That was huge! That was as big as the Internet!

    When you coined the word "cyberspace," did you envision that the term might be your lasting legacy?

    Not at all. I thought the book would be despised to the extent that it wasn't ignored. Now, on a good day, my career seems so utterly unlikely that I wonder if I'm not about to snap out of a DMT blackout and discover that I'm not actually a famous writer of William Gibson novels but that I'm working at a used-book shop that smells of cat pee and drinking beer out of a cracked coffee mug.


Then last evening I read Martin Fackler's front page story from this past Sunday's New York Times about South Korea's growing problem with cyberspace addiction – and the draconian methods being employed to combat it.

Much longer story short: A child psychiatrist in South Korea — the most wired nation on earth — who has just completed a three-year survey believes up to 30% of those under 18 are at risk of Internet addiction.

"To address the problem, the government has built a network of 140 Internet-addiction counseling centers," among other things, to deal with the 2.4 million individuals it believes are at risk.

Here's the Times piece.

    In Korea, a Boot Camp Cure for Web Obsession

    The compound — part boot camp, part rehab center — resembles programs around the world for troubled youths. Drill instructors drive young men through military-style obstacle courses, counselors lead group sessions, and there are even therapeutic workshops on pottery and drumming.

    But these young people are not battling alcohol or drugs. Rather, they have severe cases of what many in this country believe is a new and potentially deadly addiction: cyberspace.

    They come here, to the Jump Up Internet Rescue School, the first camp of its kind in South Korea and possibly the world, to be cured.

    South Korea boasts of being the most wired nation on earth. In fact, perhaps no other country has so fully embraced the Internet. Ninety percent of homes connect to cheap, high-speed broadband, online gaming is a professional sport, and social life for the young revolves around the “PC bang,” dim Internet parlors that sit on practically every street corner.

    But such ready access to the Web has come at a price as legions of obsessed users find that they cannot tear themselves away from their computer screens.

    Compulsive Internet use has been identified as a mental health issue in other countries, including the United States. However, it may be a particularly acute problem in South Korea because of the country’s nearly universal Internet access.

    It has become a national issue here in recent years, as users started dropping dead from exhaustion after playing online games for days on end. A growing number of students have skipped school to stay online, shockingly self-destructive behavior in this intensely competitive society.

    Up to 30 percent of South Koreans under 18, or about 2.4 million people, are at risk of Internet addiction, said Ahn Dong-hyun, a child psychiatrist at Hanyang University in Seoul who just completed a three-year government-financed survey of the problem.

    They spend at least two hours a day online, usually playing games or chatting. Of those, up to a quarter million probably show signs of actual addiction, like an inability to stop themselves from using computers, rising levels of tolerance that drive them to seek ever longer sessions online, and withdrawal symptoms like anger and craving when prevented from logging on.

    To address the problem, the government has built a network of 140 Internet-addiction counseling centers, in addition to treatment programs at almost 100 hospitals and, most recently, the Internet Rescue camp, which started this summer. Researchers have developed a checklist for diagnosing the addiction and determining its severity, the K-Scale. (The K is for Korea.)

    In September, South Korea held the first international symposium on Internet addiction.

    “Korea has been most aggressive in embracing the Internet,” said Koh Young-sam, head of the government-run Internet Addiction Counseling Center. “Now we have to lead in dealing with its consequences.”

    Though some health experts here and abroad question whether overuse of the Internet or computers in general is an addiction in the strict medical sense, many agree that obsessive computer use has become a growing problem in many countries.

    Doctors in China and Taiwan have begun reporting similar disorders in their youth. In the United States, Dr. Jerald J. Block, a psychiatrist at Oregon Health and Science University, estimates that up to nine million Americans may be at risk for the disorder, which he calls pathological computer use. Only a handful of clinics in the United States specialize in treating it, he said.

    “Korea is on the leading edge,” Dr. Block said. “They are ahead in defining and researching the problem, and recognize as a society that they have a major issue.”

    The rescue camp, in a forested area about an hour south of Seoul, was created to treat the most severe cases. This year, the camp held its first two 12-day sessions, with 16 to 18 male participants each time. (South Korean researchers say an overwhelming majority of compulsive computer users are male.)

    The camp is entirely paid for by the government, making it tuition-free. While it is too early to know whether the camp can wean youths from the Internet, it has been receiving four to five applications for each spot. To meet demand, camp administrators say they will double the number of sessions next year.

    During a session, participants live at the camp, where they are denied computer use and allowed only one hour of cellphone calls a day, to prevent them from playing online games via the phone. They also follow a rigorous regimen of physical exercise and group activities, like horseback riding, aimed at building emotional connections to the real world and weakening those with the virtual one.

    “It is most important to provide them experience of a lifestyle without the Internet,” said Lee Yun-hee, a counselor. “Young Koreans don’t know what this is like.”

    Initially, the camp had problems with participants sneaking away to go online, even during a 10-minute break before lunch, Ms. Lee said. Now, the campers are under constant surveillance, including while asleep, and are kept busy with chores, like washing their clothes and cleaning their rooms.

    One participant, Lee Chang-hoon, 15, began using the computer to pass the time while his parents were working and he was home alone. He said he quickly came to prefer the virtual world, where he seemed to enjoy more success and popularity than in the real one.

    He spent 17 hours a day online, mostly looking at Japanese comics and playing a combat role-playing game called Sudden Attack. He played all night, and skipped school two or three times a week to catch up on sleep.

    When his parents told him he had to go to school, he reacted violently. Desperate, his mother, Kim Soon-yeol, sent him to the camp.

    “He didn’t seem to be able to control himself,” said Mrs. Kim, a hairdresser. “He used to be so passionate about his favorite subjects” at school. “Now, he gives up easily and gets even more absorbed in his games.”

    Her son was reluctant at first to give up his pastime.

    “I don’t have a problem,” Chang-hoon said in an interview three days after starting the camp. “Seventeen hours a day online is fine.” But later that day, he seemed to start changing his mind, if only slightly.

    As a drill instructor barked orders, Chang-hoon and 17 other boys marched through a cold autumn rain to the obstacle course. Wet and shivering, Chang-hoon began climbing the first obstacle, a telephone pole with small metal rungs. At the top, he slowly stood up, legs quaking, arms outstretched for balance. Below, the other boys held a safety rope attached to a harness on his chest.

    “Do you have anything to tell your mother?” the drill instructor shouted from below.

    “No!” he yelled back.

    “Tell your mother you love her!” ordered the instructor.

    “I love you, my parents!” he replied.

    “Then jump!” ordered the instructor. Chang-hoon squatted and leapt to a nearby trapeze, catching it in his hands.

    “Fighting!” yelled the other boys, using the English word that in South Korea means the rough equivalent of “Don’t give up!”

    After Chang-hoon descended, he said, “That was better than games!”

    Was it thrilling enough to wean him from the Internet?

    “I’m not thinking about games now, so maybe this will help,” he replied. “From now on, maybe I’ll just spend five hours a day online.”


Well, is the Internet a benefit or a hazard?

As happens more and more often these strange days, it would appear Philip K. Dick was there a long time ago.

November 20, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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