Those Fucking Robots (The Conventional Idiocy)

As other writers have noted, the new English-teaching robots in South Korea may seem interesting to anyone living outside of the country, particularly a roboticist friend of mine who told me several years ago that he wanted to live in South Korea because it was the only country that diverted public funding to robotics, but the truth is that these robots are emblematic of the medley of weirdness that originates from East Asia, and that, in fact, they are not really robots at all, but racist, remote-controlled tape recorders.

I think the inherent oddness is laughably obvious to most Westerners, or would be if they cared or knew anything about South Korea, which is largely a blind spot on the world’s radar in those ten or eleven months out of the year when Kim Jong-il isn’t threatening to kill everyone, but the Koreans who wrote and contributed to that article do not appear to realize that what they said makes them look like children. These two amazing quotes will forever live in infamy—

Plus, they [the English robots] won’t complain about health insurance, sick leave and severance package, or leave in three months for a better-paying job in Japan [like foreigners]… all you need is a repair and upgrade every once in a while.

The robots, which display an avatar face of a Caucasian woman, are controlled remotely by teachers of English in the Philippines — who can see and hear the children via a remote control system.

Beyond the blatant racism of Ms. Sagong Seong-Dae, the article is absurd because it does not question the conventional wisdom, or conventional idiocy, that is prevalent in South Korea today; a belief that children will magically learn to speak fluent English if we just make the same stupid alphabet games and the same annoying English songs (or “chants”) flashier and more expensive than before. But if you look at the picture in the article, you’ll notice that the robot is so boring that more than half of the students in the classroom do not appear to be interested in it at all!

Just after I arrived in Busan my school had completed its “English Zone”, a symptom of this particular ideological disease—a new hallway with a new classroom and library devoted to speaking English; the hallway even featured Chinglish painted on the walls (“Have fun speaking English with you friends!”, “Warty” written under a picture of a praying mantis, etc.), a flatscreen TV, a projector with a huge screen that descends from the ceiling, new desks, everything—the problem is that they chose to put an unqualified teacher in that classroom (the 악마 선생님, or devil teacher, of this blog), a woman who has forced her students to listen to horrible songs, and to watch horribly idiotic cartoons, for nearly all of the two years I have spent reviling her; a person despised by everyone around her; a broken, unfortunate, pitiable human being who is probably not capable of functioning in the sort of environment which expects actual results—and one who will easily continue to make her students despise the English language for years to come, since, so far as I know, it is nearly impossible to fire a public school teacher here in Korea. A stagnant, stale, moth-eaten, half-decomposed—but let me stop there.

And of course the obvious answers to the question of why can’t Koreans learn to speak English when everyone else everywhere else can are not so obvious to the fish swimming in these waters—focusing on conversational proficiency and creative thought, two notions which are anathema to the educational culture here, would make robots and imported white people (whose mere presence exposes the relentless absurdity of life in South Korea) unnecessary, as they are in every other country, rich and poor, where a majority of the educated population has learned to speak passable English from teachers who were born into the same culture as they were.

But instead of undertaking these obvious and much-needed reforms, the middle-aged technocrats who run this country—men who are besotted with dark suits, blue ties, the death-in-life that is beardlessness, and identical slick black-dyed haircuts—would sooner drive their burning chariot into the earth.

The same sort of thing is apparently happening in Japan, where an aging society long since broken by the crushing pressure of its conservative culture is vanishing because it refuses to allow foreigners to refresh its ranks and infuse its society with new, energetic ideas. When one walks the streets in Korea, one sees that one stale idea has been repeated endlessly, everywhere, thousands of times, so that one street in one city is every street in every city—when one walks in New York City, a place packed with hundreds of different cultures, one sees the opposite, a thousand ideas in a single area that cannot be repeated anywhere else. Which is more vibrant or energetic? Which is more preferable? And which will last longer?

Still, a nation of immigrants like America is only at its greatest when it allows, encourages, and tempts the smartest people from around the world to leave their corrupt homelands to come live in a place where talent, and not personal connections, is the means by which people attain success, but of course everyone knows that this America was already wailing in its death throes when its heart was stabbed by a pampered aristocrat who stole the 2000 election from Al Gore, a man democratically elected by a majority of the populace.

Koreans say that Japan is the closest country but the most distant culture, which I think is ridiculous, even if I’ve never been there, and I suspect that the technocrats running the show here are begging for the same two decades of economic and cultural malaise that has crippled Japan, possibly beyond repair. A lack of dynamism, and a continuous dependence on the conventional idiocy, makes such a historical outcome—and historical twilight, historical eclipse—inevitable.

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7 thoughts on “Those Fucking Robots (The Conventional Idiocy)

  1. Jennifer says:

    I like what you say about Korea, but I think you’re wrong about Japan. Having visited there for 6 weeks when I was 15 and since having spent the few days in Fukuoka recently I will say that their culture and streets tend to be way more diverse than Korea’s. This is not to say that it’s as diverse as the U.S. (that would be difficult to obtain anywhere else), but you walk down the streets in Fukuoka and can be exposed to a variety of different cultural experiences from around the world. They have 4 art museums in Fukuoka, a city smaller than Portland, which include modern art from around the world and from citizens in Fukuoka.

    I don’t know what their immigration rules are, but their working laws are much easier than here in Korea. It’s much easier for foreigners to perform a variety of jobs in Japan, and in the few days I spent in Fukuoka I met tons of Europeans as well as the usual suspects from other English-speaking countries.

    In terms of their economy, I read about it recently and it doesn’t have much to do with anything you’re talking about, although please don’t ask me to repeat what I read, because it was in an economics article full of boring economics terms that I’ve since forgotten.

    Korea and Japan are actually very different, even if they do share some similarities. Anyway…

  2. hiddenconnections says:

    Hmmm! Can you send me the link? I thought it was generally due to cultural issues, like how the Japanese are typically savers, and not spenders, the problems inherent to a country with a declining birthrate and an increasing elderly population, etc., etc. Those problems were also talked about in this article here, with regard to Europe—

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/02/world/europe/02youth.html?pagewanted=1&ref=general&src=me

  3. Gid says:

    You’re as alarmist and self-contradictory here as a talk-show radio host. Which is it? The United States is a good example for others to emulate? Or the United States will fail unless anyone with any talent ignores his or her homeland’s public good to take advantage of opportunities? Or the United States is an autocracy? Please clarify.

  4. hiddenconnections says:

    A what? A talk-show radio host? What did you say??

    To clarify, I’d say 우리 나라 문제 있어요—our country has problems—and the ideal, where talent and character are the means by which one succeeds, rather than family names and personal connections, and where everyone follows the laws, not just the underprivileged and dispossessed—that ideal is the best.

    It doesn’t exist in America today, and maybe it never did, but we should still all work together to make it happen.

  5. Gid says:

    I really did enjoy learning something about educational robots. The mix of technological ingenuity and indifference toward children’s actual psychology is something you should have expanded on.

    I compared you to a radio host earlier because, though you’re educated enough to know better, you fail to see shades of grey is the world. The notion that leaders in the US or anywhere else in the world have an overarching conspiracy is as ridiculous as the notion that poor people are animals and deserve what they get. What you’ve done here is to take two only marginally related issues (namely, outsourcing English teachers in Korea to robots in the Pacific and immigration law in Japan, the only commonality at all being they both relate to East Asian countries) and trying to diagnose a whole range of social issues on this basis. Yes, the rote-learning-based teaching style you describe sounds ineffective. However you sacrifice coherence in your argument by simultaneously expressing emotional distaste at the homogenization present in Korean society. I don’t doubt that you could implicate the latter in the former, but you would have to use several more objective examples to make a strong case.

    Next, you admit that you don’t know much about Japan but expect it to be exactly like Korea (at least that’s how I understand it). I don’t think I need to go further to point out the weakness in your argument there.

    I have to ask you if you have empirical evidence that New York has a greater diversity of ideas. It is certainly more racially diverse, but when you say ideas I have to wonder if you miss a lot of cultural and linguistic subtleties. If you expanded on this and previous points, I’d be more likely to believe you.

    Finally, the ideal you mention is so vague. It is true that personal connections and arbitrary standards play a part in success for a lot of people, but suggesting that nobody succeeds on the basis of work ethic and intelligence is easy to disprove – and you describe the 2000 election you seem also to imply that Al Gore is in no way pampered and that’s why he lost. That Al Gore lost then is an example of shortcoming in the American electoral system, a reason to initiate corrective legislation, and to identify ways in which Al Gore could be a stronger candidate. It was not a war between rich people and poor people. Again, rather than a sweeping generalization you could elucidate specific instances where injustice is identifiable and concrete examples of how to fix them. Instead, you connect immigration law and everything else related to the US economy without further clarification.

  6. hiddenconnections says:

    There is little ingenuity with regard to the robots; the goal at the moment is to make them cheaper than imported English teachers, who had to be brought in because the Koreans were cutting corners with their English education and teaching the language as a subject like math or science rather than an actual language that must be spoken aloud and practiced. I believe I’ve written somewhere else that English education still largely takes the form of fill-in-the-blank tests, which they spend years studying without any kind of conversational practice or essay writing or anything that would actually require them to use their brains. The cliche notion that there is almost no creativity here is true, at least so far as I’ve observed it. The robots are symptomatic of these issues, and I think it’s unnecessary to go into a detailed explanation of why children are bored by repeating words they don’t really understand.

    Where did I write that there was an overarching conspiracy? I was trying to say that nepotism had become a significant force in our culture, something that was not necessarily true in eras of greater social mobility. The words you’ve put in my mouth do not belong to me.

    The two ideas are absolutely related, and it’s not my fault that you failed to see how. Japan and Korea are two cultures that have been interacting with one another for millennia, and both of them are continuing to suffer from a legacy of fascism that sees the Japanese continuing to deny immigrants any place in their aging society, a characteristic that is also true in Korea, where most of the foreigners are only here on temporary visas or are imported Southeast Asian brides.

    I was trying to suggest that the fact that both nations are notoriously inept when it comes to speaking English is possibly a result of their refusal to consider certain ideas from the outside world, namely, that creative thought and hands-on activities superseded rote memorization as the primary method of educational instruction in the West over a century ago. But as I admittedly know very little about Japan it’s best if I focus on Korea.

    Were Koreans to allow outsiders a significant place in their culture, and listen to their ideas, this might change, but for now Korea is just for Koreans, and because none of them can understand English well enough to translate it into their own language, the flow of ideas from the rest of the world is somewhat constrained. If you were to come here, you would see these abstractions in action everywhere you looked.

    As for diversity of ideas—the businesses in New York are owned by a multiplicity of people from all over the world. The businesses in Korea are owned by Koreans. When I traveled from one to the other, the difference was overwhelming. Everything was different, everywhere; in Korea, everything is the same. My evidence is anecdotal, but I’ve already invited you here so you’re welcome to see for yourself.

    The election was handed to George W. Bush because a majority of the members on the Supreme Court were appointed by Republican presidents. If that isn’t favoritism superseding the rule of law, I don’t know what is. I never said Al Gore wasn’t pampered; I did say he was elected by a majority of the people, and still lost, because the Republicans on the court decided that a Republican president would be better than a Democratic one, against the opinion of the majority of the American people and, very possibly, a majority of the voters in Florida.

    Abolishing the electoral college would ameliorate some of these issues, but I really don’t know what to do about the Supreme Court, which is following the general trend in American politics in that it obeys only the whims of a corporate, and not a popular, electorate. To give some obvious examples, the decision to allow corporate sponsors to anonymously donate as much as they please to political elections is largely what fueled the Tea Party movement (see this article in The New Yorker http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/30/100830fa_fact_mayer) and is a particularly apt case in point, as is the new Health Care law which forces everyone to buy health insurance from the same price-gouging companies that have made the American health care system the worst in the western world, the recent concessions to Republicans which give enormous tax cuts to the rich, the lack of immigration or tax reform, the continuing standstill with regard to increasingly catastrophic climate change (green laws hurt businesses), the inviolability of America’s gargantuan military budget, the continuing prosecution of two pointless wars, etc., etc., etc.

    If you want to argue the contrary, that America is a land of golden opportunity open for everyone to succeed, then you must do more than simply say that my points are all vague generalizations.

  7. Gid says:

    “…Because none of them can understand English well enough to translate it into their own language, the flow of ideas from the rest of the world is somewhat constrained.” The notion that one would have to understand English in order to absorb outside ideas is reminiscent of Victorian-era ideology about the White Man’s burden. I do understand what you mean though, that the Korean peninsula is slow to adapt ideas it doesn’t generate itself. Point taken, but you imply that this is universally true. To my knowledge, the technology even for the robots you describe did not originate in East Asia (and arguably pinpointing a single person or place who developed all of the technology involved would be impossible). However, Southeast Asian countries, and especially Japan, have had a great deal to do with developing electronics, and the knowledge required to master that field is not simple. It seems to me that the fact that both nations are “notoriously inept when it comes to speaking English” has more to do with the fact that fluent English is extremely difficult and takes a long time and often a good reason to master. Teaching it is even harder. I’m sure you would like to teach English better, but would you agree that to instruct students for whom it is a second language is supremely difficult? I suspect also that learning Korean will help you, as you know, because it takes someone who knows students’ original language well to identify the reasons they make certain mistakes and to explain certain abstract or higher-level concepts. If there aren’t many Koreans with those qualifications and not many foreigners either, fill-in-the-blank exercises are the best attempt at making instruction in the basics available to more than very few students.

    I used the words “overarching conspiracy” – perhaps a little too strong – because I was thinking of something you wrote earlier. You described a war between rich people and poor people, which I think is a simplistic view of the world. If I remember what you said correctly, it boiled down to the idea that powerful people get what they want more than the disaffected. That is true, but careful, informed judgments and amendments to policy rather than socialist aphorisms are the solution for that.

    You also mentioned that nepotism is becoming a significant force in our society. When has it not been? The difference is that most people think of that as “networking”. They do it because they like to identify closely with people they conduct business and other affairs with. I’m saying this to point out that you’re criticizing an aspect of human nature that would be exceedingly difficult to minimize.

    The fact that the Supreme Court favored Bush and not Gore is probably an example of favoritism, and for the obvious reason you stated. in this particular case the highest authority in the matter would not have been objective. But how would you fix that? The executive office listened to them because ignoring judicial authority would have been a further deviation from the rule of law, and you would have the same sort of upheaval that accompanies elections in many third-world countries. Obama, like every president, favored appointees to the Supreme Court whom he could expect to rule in favor of his party line, and that is why he appointed Sotomayor rather than another Scalia. I understand and agree that upward mobility is still very difficult, particularly those already below the poverty line. Effective education reform or any other program that could actually mitigate that inequality would be great for the country. What I’m arguing against is the almost universally pessimistic view of national politics you seem to take. The rich can start political movements. The highest federal court is not incorruptible, or at the very least is less than completely objective (another flaw in human nature rather than a specific criticism of our system). These really aren’t secrets. But it is a testament to the effectiveness of this system that people continue to go through the motions knowing it’s imperfect than trying to establish a utopia with bombs.

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