Chasing the Elephant: Grasping “Digitalization” in Rural Everyday Life in South Korea
The parable of the blind men and the elephant can be found in Hindu, Buddhist as well as Jain texts and revolves around the endeavors of several blind men to grasp what an elephant is, having heard many different stories but never having encountered one. They all use their hands to sense the elephant and naturally – with each person touching a different part of the elephant – come to very different conclusions and imaginations, and the plan ends in dispute (see fig. 1).During our two-month stay in a rural, mountainous area in South Korea for the project B01 “Peripheralized Rural Areas: Digitalization and Constructions of Space”, we, researchers Jae-Young Lee and Sungwon Ryu, would come to relate a lot to these blind men. The goal of our research is to investigate how the use of digital tools in tourism or e-commerce changes the spatial imaginations and practices of the residents of this valley and therefore eventually influences how rural spaces change. Hence, it was important for us to grasp what “digitalization” means for the people in this area – to try to find coherent angles to understand what tools, what vocabulary and what experiences are associated with it in order to verbally ‘approach the elephant’. At the time of writing, we are still in our last week of fieldwork, so in this brief report we would like to narrate some preliminary observations and experiences we had when we started out.
Anticipating the Elephant: Field Access
As a buzzword in philosophy, academic research as well as in broad public discourse to describe planetary events such as a “Zeitenwende”, “digitalization” is considered a multidimensional juncture in our world. This vague phenomenon seems to re-figure our ontological, epistemological and material dynamics, which currently appear to be under scrutiny on a planetary scale: Is access to digital tools a human right? What is digital access (Mirazchiyski, 2016; United Nations, 2020)? Specifically for rural areas, digitalization is discussed as holding the potential to counteract the rural lack of urban qualities, problematized in public discourses as, for example, isolation, marginalization, economic decline, or spatial injustice (Kim et al., 2021; Kim, 2022; Löfving et al., 2022).
Therefore, a literature review and expert interviews in both Chile and South Korea helped to get an initial feel for the topic. Yet after this first entry point into the professional national discourse, the leap into the “field” proved much more complex.
In everyday life in Chile, as well as in South Korea, it was palpable that “digitalization” was omnipresent in every move in space, but everybody associated very different meanings with this word and the process behind it. What is meant by digitalization? What vocabulary, what context, what things should we address so that we can actually see the concrete processes and steps of digitalization in material space? How could we possibly trace cause and action between the invisible digital and the material spatial through conversations? Constantly ringing and pinging mobile phones and visible QR-codes in spaces seemed to suggest just how much “the digital” was seamlessly integrated into the daily routines here. Meanwhile, when confronted with the d-word, people often envisioned institutional hardware, far removed from their private life. It was our task to verbally coax out different encounters, perceptions and experiences with this “elephant” in order to grasp its agency, potential and shape.
Remote Sensing the Elephant, Reading Traces in Space
While preparing these approaches, our own use of digital tools during our field access and spatial practices shed an interesting light on the embodied unconscious practices of “digitalization” as remote sensing:
Both of us had digitally anticipated our actions in space: While Jae-Young had already prepared her field stay and possible interviewees from Germany through digital platforms and social media, Sungwon was quick to research our every move, from food to coffee, in terms of location, quality and opening hours before we even left the door. And this behavior was mirrored to us in the field: When we bought new batteries for the car key and asked the two shop owners for advice on how to replace them, they promptly opened a video manual on YouTube. Eventually, we all sat together around the cash register watching the clip on the phone, skipping back and forth to see the steps, after which the battery was triumphantly changed. This a-priori use of digital information as well as the looming presence of the “Internet of things” were experienced as an open and eternal pool of collective knowledge shaping and informing present spatial movement and imagination.
But there were also limits to this informative and imaginative transfer, which ultimately seemed to manifest in spatial conflicts. These could be observed in the village and echoed in the narrations of its residents: The heightened presence of flora and fauna in the hot and humid heat of the rainy season seemed to bother many tourists, prompting private tourism entrepreneurs to hire exterminators on a regular basis – but only for the guest areas of the house. Small and steep village streets became clogged with shiny white cars carrying visitors who flocked to the village, enticed by digital travel rankings and reviews, parking in every available space not marked by territorial signs claiming private ownership. Valley entrances were thus jammed with high traffic of drive-through tourists, stopping and going as they sought to get a good picture of what other people had promised on digital platforms and what had lured people here in the first place (see fig. 2).
Awareness of this multi-vectoral impact of digital platforms, communications, and tools meanwhile seemed to be incredibly high within among the residents due to these spatial conflicts. While entrepreneurs carefully curated their own digital presence for potential customers on various digital platforms, the digital echo of external views of their services loomed large in almost every conversation. With online reviews, blog entries, and pictures, it seemed to be a collective truth in the village that the subjective interpretations of the customers’ experiences were directly linked to the physical and conceptual development of the village. There were stories about former private spare rooms being redefined as commercial “experience spaces” for tourists to be reserved via digital platforms, or about functional work paths in the mountains now adorned with QR-codes and signs for designated “photo spots” (see fig. 3). At other times, we were told how scouting trends for rural tourism on social media had become an important evening habit, while online-market delivery boxes quietly arrived on doorsteps overnight.
However, while everyone in the village agreed that the digitalization of their businesses and assets “mattered,” their explicit accounts of how it was changing their surrounding spaces and their daily practices varied. Many residents would not talk about how their lives were being “digitalized” until we persistently asked follow-up questions to track their daily habits, often based on the reflective discovery of our own digital behavior. These experiences led us to the image that digitalization is like “air”: omnipresent in every move, looming but never fully tangible, like a mystical “elephant” – a perception that seemed to be equally true of the residents’ experience. Digitalization as well as space itself were thus perceived rather like the everyday background to their busy lives.
Preliminary Thoughts on Chasing the (Digital) Elephant
Faced with the challenge to verbally navigate the interrelationship between digital action, imagination and physical consolidation in space, material matters and their agency, we ultimately had to give up on the elephant of “digitalization”. Instead, we ended up following and sensing its witnesses in the field, trying to understand its impacts in space: By talking not only about digital hardware, but also about how interviewees digitally anticipated and simultaneously accompanied the literal production of their spaces, we opened narrative doors to a truly hybrid stream of action. Following this stream, we also learned about its other end, narrated as natural resources such as water, land, or local climate conditions. As finite and uncontrollable entities, these material dynamics seemed to juxtapose the imaginary and physical mobility supposedly debordered by digital connections and actions. These negotiations between material and digital agencies through the residents’ actions therefore remain to be analyzed with data from both Chile and South Korea.
And in the end, by giving up on the elephant, the chase itself had turned into a philosophical question and more of a methodology. Homework, if you will, that is to be done in order to delve deeper into the multiple realities of “digitalization”.
Jae-Young Lee is an architect with GyawGyaw and a research associate and doctoral candidate at the CRC 1265. Her research focuses on entangled material and soco-spatial dynamics in mountainous rural areas and the construction of so-called “peripheries”. In the project B01, she investigates this relationship against the backdrop of digital new economies, such as rural tourism and e-commerce, in Chile and South Korea.
Sungwon Ryu is a student of sociology and statistics at Seoul National University of Korea, and supports the fieldwork in the Jiri mountains as a translator, cultural mediator, and research assistant. Her interest lies in incorporating the sociological imagination with data science – exploring socio-cultural phenomena through new and creative computational methods.
Kim, J.-J. (2022) ‘Digitalization of rural communities leads way to better future’, Korea Times, p. 2.
Kim, S. et al. (2021) Rapidly changing distribution environment, digitalization is the answer. Chapter 9 in Agriculture Outlook 2021. Korean Rural Economic Institute (KREI).
Löfving, L. et al. (2022) ‘Can digitalization be a tool to overcome spatial injustice in sparsely populated regions? The cases of Digital Västerbotten (Sweden) and Smart Country Side (Germany)’, European Planning Studies, 30(5), pp. 917–934. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/09654313.2021.1928053.
Mirazchiyski, P. (2016) ‘The Digital Divide: The Role of Socioeconomic Status across Countries’, Solsko Polje, 3–4, p. 31.
United Nations (ed.) (2020) Digitial government in the decade of action for sustainable development. New York: United Nations (United Nations e-government survey, 2020).