Friday, October 28, 2011

Where is the Korean Steve Jobs?

As South Korea continues to mourn the loss of Steve Jobs, his death has prompted policy makers to ponder whether Korea will ever be able to support the kind of creative, innovative thinking that the Apple co-founder exemplified. Korea is well-known for creative and innovative thinking in areas such as political corruption and tax avoidance, but this kind of thinking has consistently failed to cross over into the nation's IT industry.

During parliamentary hearings this week, the chairman of the Korean Communications Commission asked whether a Korean Steve Jobs could be produced, but industry experts are not hopeful. "If Steve Jobs had been Korean he would have spent most of the 1970s in prison after traveling to India and doing LSD" said 50 year-old Professor Kim of Seoul International University, referring not only to the fact that drugs are illegal in Korea, but also that breaking Korean laws outside Korea is also illegal for Koreans, even if what they do is perfectly legal in the country they did it in. So while Steve Jobs was founding Apple, Korean Steve Jobs would have likely been in a military government jail, possibly having one surgically removed.

Last March, while unveiling the iPad 2, Steve Jobs said "It is in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing." 45 year-old Professor Kim of Seoul International University agreed that what made Steve Jobs special was his innovative approach in combining technology with the humanities, but that "The real problem Korea is faced with is not a lack of advanced technologies - it's a lack of humanity".

A third problem Korean Steve Jobs would have faced is religion. 52 year-old Professor Kim of Seoul International University explains "Steve Jobs was a Buddhist. If he had been born in Korea, his company is unlikely to have been as successful because Korean Christians wouldn't have bought his products".

A fourth issue is clothing. Steve Jobs was well-known for always wearing black turtle-necks and blue jeans for his public presentations, but wearing the same clothes for longer than the two weeks they are in fashion is considered socially unacceptable in Korea, and wearing the same clothes year after year is seen as a sure sign of a CEO with no money, selling non-aspirational products which will not enhance your prestige. And whereas Steve Jobs was seen as a great innovator and creative thinker who wanted his products to be insanely great, the whole of Korean society is organized around the idea of suppressing those who think different, the stress of which some experts say has led to a population filled with the greatly insane.

So if Korean Steve Jobs couldn't be successful domestically, could Korean Apple - which would have been called Aple, Appel or Sagwa - still have found success in export markets? Probably not, says 46 year-old Professor Kim from Seoul International University. "Products would have been exported, but not localized into other languages, because people are constantly being told that the Korean language and Hangeul is sweeping the world, so if eventually everyone in the world was going to end up speaking Korean anyway, what would be the point in translating products into inferior languages?"

And some say there could never be a Korean Steve Jobs because of simple economics - Steve Jobs was well paid for his time with Apple, but Korea only creates low-paid jobs.

But does Korea even want a Korean Steve Jobs? Experts have cautioned against it. 58 year-old Professor Kim from Seoul International University warns "If a Korean Steve Jobs is created, the nature of Korean society means that it is not likely to be in isolation - instead there is the possibility that up to a million Korean Steve Jobs would be created all at the same time." But it is not clear though if such an outcome would cause any more of a noticeable distortion in Korea's reality.

The government say a Korean Steve Jobs would benefit the country however, and it plans to pass more laws as well as setting up a dedicated ministry to better control IT policy and businesses in Korea, with the objective of ensuring that independent, creative and innovative thinking becomes a key feature of the local technology market. The nation's strict anti-drug laws will remain unchanged.

But it may all be in vain. Steve Jobs was adopted, whereas until recently Korean children not directly tied to their family's bloodline because of adoption were not regarded as legal citizens of Korea, and even today adoption carries such a significant social stigma that most Korean babies put up for adoption are ultimately adopted by overseas couples, especially in the US. In other words, if there were a Korean Steve Jobs, he would most likely end up being an American.

Related Links
Finding a Korean Steve Jobs
Top IT Regulator Ponders the Lesson of Jobs
Can Korea Nurture Its Own Steve Jobs?
Seoul to nurture software prodigies
International adoption of South Korean children
Korea still relies on international adoption
Adoption quota causes backlash
Domestic adoption slows
Korea 4th biggest provider of adopted children for US

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