I have always felt that the further East you travel the more wisdom you encounter, and the prejudice was sharply confirmed earlier this week in a conversation with Dr Myungdae Cho, Director of the Linked Data Centre at the AICT (Advanced Institute for Convergent Technologies) at the Seoul National University. We had met to discuss the state of linked data in our two very different countries. But all of a sudden the conversation soared away over the skyscrapers of modern Seoul and we found ourselves debating some of the fundamentals of human understanding and communication. As well as a computer scientist my interlocutor is a historian, and his project has been interlinking the documentation of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty And which other civilizations can boast a 500 year dynasty? So then, take all of that documentation, and all the scholarly work associated with it, and begin to work on advanced taxonomies, on inference rules and on semantic analysis until an ontological framework begins to emerge. This then becomes the focus for a development which allows scholars to survey the period from a higher hill, with an additional dimension. Then add the art, the images, the objects from the Internet of Things and a platform of study emerges which opens up analytical perspectives which previous scholars simply could never have grasped. Yes, says my companion, it really is easier to view the future when you are looking backwards.

So why, I wonder, has it taken so long to get the Berners Lee vision of semantic analysis, now the linked data movement off the ground. Unsurprisingly, the answer was that timelines are a poor guide to progress in these matters. So we discussed instead the great change points in communication. First the origins of natural language as a descriptive code for communicating shared experiences. Then pictograms, writing and the source of the alphabet, of which Korea can proudly claim it’s Hangruel as a very early example. Then printing, where Korea and China come much earlier than Europe. What do we make of the fact that these elements, each of which represents not just a step forward but also a radical change in the type and style of communication, seem to happen in similar ways in societies with little or no contact with each other? And is what is happening now, supported by the promise of linked data, a further radical forward motion in the type and style of communication comparable to printing or writing? And anyway, he said, we had been inept in explaining the concepts – and even in naming them. Were expressions like “triple stores” readily understandable? Especially when they were “quadruples”, as his often were? And who named RDF? Even calling it the Resource Definition Framework did not help. He thought and spoke about it as the “logical glue” which kept the elements in place. If we had such difficulty in describing things how could we communicate them?

The essential point is perhaps that we do not know, and cannot tell. But every time Samsung produces a voice agent that sends your messages as texts or emails we must begin to wonder. And while some technology in Korea seems to be heading into a cul de sac (the hotel industry pre-occupation with heated toilet seats could be an example) here is a society which, when it already had 300 kph trains (UK please note) concentrated its infrastructure development on 40 mgb wifi nationally. And much of it is free, certainly in every hotel encountered this trip. Another milestone change from my last visit, in 1981!

So I decided to test the thinking of Myungdae Cho on a young student encountered on the fast train to Busan. Did he think we were facing a revolution in human communication? He was 26, had just finished his national military service and was on his way to visit his parents, after months away from home. But while Myungdae Cho looks back to Loughborough as an alma mater, this young man was a product of Illinois at Champlain-Urbana. Yes, he certainly believed in the internet as the place to do business. His plan was to return to Seattle or Portland, where he felt the spirit of Silicon Valley culture now lived, and build his own business. He already had elements of a team and the beginnings of a plan. Now the next struggle was to persuade his cardiac surgeon father that this was a good plan too! Did he think the internet was the frontier? Of course, but it also enabled you to build your own business quickly. This was almost a definition of freedom. And what was the opposite? Going to work for Samsung, having a “career”.

A few conversations mean little in the great sum of things. But I suspect that even if Korea is a less entrepreneurial society than it once was, it remains a place where the big patterns can be appreciated. I think that Myungdae Cho’s faith in the development of knowledge structures is not misplaced, and that however those forces move through global society Korea will be an early adopter and remain an important player. And when he has made his fortune on the West Coast I am certain that my young friend will return to Busan. After all, where else do you get wonderful spas, sandy beaches and kimchi!


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