“The Importance of the Humanities in an Age of Rapid Technological Change” talk at Research, Innovation, Start-up & Employment Conference | The Asia Institute

Research, Innovation, Start-up & Employment

International Conference

May 21, 2013

Hosted by

Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning

Emanuel Pastreich


The Asia Institute

Keynote Address:

“The Importance of the Humanities in an Age of Rapid Technological Change”

Technological Change demands a Focus on the Humanities

             The unprecedented rate of technological change taking place today provides us with tremendous opportunities at the same time it poses tremendous risks. It is essential that policy makers and ordinary citizens grasp the implications of this transformation of human society brought about by the convergence of technologies, and ultimately by the increasing speed of microprocessors.

The response to rapid technological change will require of us a new focus on the traditional humanities. That means that fields such as literature, philosophy, art, history and above all esthetics will require new attention. We must understand how the very nature of human experience is being altered by technological change—but that change is taking place at a level that is essentially invisible to us because the very means by which we perceive are shifting.

For example, as we rely increasingly on postings on the internet for information, we need to think more deeply about how we read, how we interpret and how we respond to texts. The problem grows increasingly serious as we must process contradictory narratives and we often must make serious decisions with insufficient information concerning motive and intention. This problem requires us to consider how we read and understand texts and the study of literature is the best way to address this critical issue. Literature is the study of the meaning and significance of texts, about the process by which the producers of texts give them meaning and the readers interpret that meaning. A profound understanding of literature is an absolute necessity in this age.

`            We will need to consider what the standards are by which we determine what is true and untrue, what is essential and what is superficial, in our lives and in our societies. Rapid technological change and the liquidity born of the digital revolution will make this problem extremely serious. Such standards can only be found in the study of philosophy, and above all of in the study of esthetics. Esthetics concerns the process by which we determine the significance and the value of what we perceive. Our ability to make such determinations when we are flooded with images of uncertain significance will be a life and death struggle.

             The serious study of art offers many insights into the process by which images and symbols take on sigficance, and how that significance shifts. We are moving back into a highly symbolic intellectual discourse today perhaps unlike anything we have encountered in the last six hundred years—knowledge of the history of art can be of great aid. So also the study of history can give us hints as to how societies in the past have responded effectively and tragically to such fundamental challenges.

             Moreover, we must consider the changing nature of work and jobs. Many forms of work have been deeply impacted by technology, and above all by automation. We should not underestimate the serious implications of such changes. Automation will change everything about our daily lives, and, combined with dependence on computers for information and perception, we face existential challenges. If we are not careful, those changes can tear our society apart. If we use our imagination and our conscience, we can great something truly marvelous. We must create workplaces at home, in cyberspace, and in all the other spaces we inhabit that provide meaningful and substantial lives to people. We cannot allow technology to run away with the carriage; we must assert our will and our vision at all times.

There will be tremendous opportunities available in this process, but they will require extremely careful perception of social and cultural changes and endless trial and error.

Why Korea has the potential to lead in this age?

Korea has a long tradition of producing outstanding technology and conducting sophisticated research in mathematics and philosophy that dates back to the 13th century. Korea also boasts a remarkable legacy of ethical government and  the balance of power in administration that is best embodied by the Joseon Dynasty and its governance system—a system so perfect that it managed to last for five hundred years.

The Korean War (1950-1953) did terrible damage to the nation and consequently destroyed many of the social and cultural hierarchies of old Korea. Ironically, a level playing field was created here that allowed those with skill and an innovative spirit to excel. Old networks did not hold back the entrepreneurs of Korea. Today we find that Korea has both the stability and institutional sophistication of an advanced nation and the flexibility and institutional resilience of a developing nation. There is stability in Korean culture and society at the very moment that it passes through the most wrenching social transformations. That cultural state is a rare thing indeed to find in a country.

This combination of flexibility and stability makes Korea a strong leader as we respond to the challenges of exponential technological change, an event that has no precedents in human experience. Humans have faced rapid technological change before, but they have never seen anything like this revolution. Human genetic evolution takes millions of years; human cultural and institutional evolution takes centuries. But the creation of entire new technical fields and mediums for expression now takes less than a decade and will take less than a year in the not too distant future.

I am not assuming that Korea necessarily will handle this challenge well, but Korea has as good a shot as any country of responding in a creative and effective manner.

You see, although Korea seems like a rather insular nation on first glance, and there is not that much ethnic diversity, and the architecture and dress of Koreans is quite uniform, nevertheless, Koreans travel around the world as few people do and they also maintain an optimism about the potential for government to play a positive role in leading society that is inspiring. Koreans believe in the potential of people to improve our world—to a degree that is rare these days. Above all, many Koreans are interested in helping others, even those who are complete strangers on the other side of the world. The mixture of pragmatism and idealism we sense in Korea today is reminiscent of the United States in the immediate Post-WW II period, the age of the “American Dream.”

Technology and Spirituality

The explosion of technology over the next thirty years will pose unprecedented and unexpected challenges for all of us. We will need to retain our humility, and not to allow the oddly empowering qualities of technology to blind us to the manner in which technology can diminish our perception, undermine our imagination and desiccate our humanity. Such humility in our interaction with technology will be as important, if not more important, as the speed of the internet connection that we use or the memory of the computer that we work on.

So also there will be a desperate need for spirituality in this age of endless technological progress. The potential to reproduce an infinite number of images and words quickly offers short-term excitement and potential, but over time it will result in a terrible degradation of the value of any one image or word. An awareness of the technologies of the mind, from meditation to prayer, from mindfulness to grace, will be essential to guiding humanity forwards. I call on Koreans to take the lead in the response to the spiritual trials of technology. Korean strengths in Buddhist mediation or Confucian ethical systems will be invaluable in responding to future epistemological and ontological challenges brought on by technological change, including the blurring of the natural and the artificial and the difficulty of distinguishing between virtual and actual experience. .

The next Generation of Technology

And then there are the new opportunities offered by this age. If Korea can seize the initiative to put forth new visions for the creative adaptation of technology to current issues, and the convergence of technology with traditional learning, we can make tremendous progress.

Let me give a few examples of the sorts of opportunities and challenges that lie before us.

First and foremost is the return of agriculture as a major technological and industrial field. The world’s economies have moved away from agriculture over the last hundred years at a breathtaking pace, but the challenges of climate change and unprecedented population growth will bring agriculture back into focus and make it possibly the source for a majority of jobs and technological innovations.

Agriculture is already the best opportunity for creating jobs for youth, whether in Korea or the United States. By creating urban farms, new farm communities, and new vertical farming initiatives, we have a tremendous opportunity to provide long-term productive work for both youth and the under employed. If we can move away from factory farming and back to family farming—enhanced by new technological innovations, there is potential to turn our economy around and find new avenues for sustainable growth.

It will not be, however, the same agriculture that was practiced previously. High-rise enclosed farms (vertical farming) that takes advantage of new technologies for the dispersion and reuse of water, has the potential to revolutionize agriculture. Korea has already started vertical farming in Suwon and has plans to expand in this field. We can take advantage of new technologies, from robots to new materials, to maintain strict control over how water and nutrients are absorbed by plants, even at the molecular level, for maximum efficiency. Moreover, the building of such new farms will demand creativity and institutional innovation. If agriculture has a negative connotation for young people today, our entire culture needs to be reinvented. Koreans are already developing an interest in agriculture, and starting to return to the farm; they could be global leaders in this trend. Mayor Park Wan Soon of Seoul has made a serious commitment to urban farming—including putting a farm in his own office. Korea could create a new image of agriculture for the world and lead the new green revolution.

Such efforts can be combined with the remarkable work done by Korean scientists such as Dr. Kwak Sang-Soo at KRIBB (Korea Research Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology) to create genetically modified plants that are suited for extremely arid land. Dr. Kwak’s modified sweet potatoes have been employed to good effect in arid regions of China and promise to help local farmers around the world to respond to climate change. Such applied biotechnology will be increasingly critical in an age of extreme climates and Korea has already taken the first steps towards leadership.

As we think about how to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and create a more sustainable economy, it will be increasingly important to strive for a convergence of traditional and advanced technologies. The return to wind-powered ships is a perfect example of such convergence, one in which Korea as a leader in ship building is well positioned to play a key role. At present almost no commercial ships employ wind-power on the open sea. Yet the potential for doing so is considerable and a return to wind-power could do much to reduce pollution and energy costs.

But the next generation of wind-powered ships would not be a throwback to the 19th century. Rather supercomputers will be employed to create complex sails—not unlike what was done in the Gossamer Albatross—that will maximize the energy generated by the wind. Korea has tremendous strengths in both the traditional fields of ship building, welding to steel production, and in the high tech fields of simulation and technology convergence. The return of sail-powered shipping is just a matter of time and Korea can be the leader.

Call for Korea to draft a “constitution of information”

Let me close with a challenge for Korea. I call on Korea to make use of its tremendous tradition of good government, which stretches back over more than six hundred years, to put forward the vision and the commitment to come up with a global solution to the information crisis we face today. As the technologies of mechanical reproduction, to use Walter Benjamin’s term, increase their capacity exponentially, it will be increasingly difficult to determine what is true and what is accurate in our world. It will be extremely easy to reproduce, alter and fabricate images, and increasingly sounds and videos, at an extremely low cost and on a massive scale.

At the same time, the harvesting of information will become cheaper and cheaper, making it possible for individuals to do what only intelligence agencies were capable of previously. Individuals and small groups are increasingly able to collect extremely detailed information about large numbers of people and to abuse that information with great ease.  In the future, the general accessibility of miniature spy drones, combined with drop in the price of computational power, will mean that it will be easy to integrate information picked up randomly, allowing for meaningful sorting and analysis into detailed profiles by just about anyone. Spying and the misuse of information threaten to become so cheap and so easy an activity that we will face enormous challenges in responding.

It will become a critical issue to assure that information that is collected is not abused and at the same time to determine what information in circulation is accurate and assure the reliability of that information. The process must take place on a global scale and it must be done in such a manner as to assure that no one player assumes an undue degree of power. There will be a serious need for a balance of power, both locally and internationally, regarding the use of information.

The next step for mankind will be to use our imaginations and our highest ideals to create new systems to respond to this unprecedented challenge. Just as President John F. Kennedy called for the United States to “put a man on the moon” I call upon Korea to create a “constitution of information” to respond to the tremendous threat posed by technologies for the gathering, reproduction and alteration of information with a new system of law and governance.

This task of assuring that information is accurate will be extremely difficult and will at times require painful and tense negotiations. We need a global constitution of information that sets down new rules for how we can be assured that information is accurate. How exactly such a constitution of information would work, I cannot say, as it would have to be negotiated through a series of discussions between major stakeholders. But I believe that Korea has the technological expertise, the strong relations with just about every country in the world, the cultural power and political legitimacy necessary to take on such a historic task and bring it to its conclusion.

Moreover, I have seen a high level of integrity among Korean academics, civil servants and citizens that leads me to believe that Korea is up to the task. In fact, granted Korea’s leadership in modern IT and its history of excellent government from the Joseon period, I wonder if this role is not perhaps Korea’s destiny.


I am not here in Korea because I love kimchi or because I admire Psy’s Gangnam Style. I am here because Korea’s role in the historic transformation of our human civilization is so critical.

Rapid technological change offers tremendous opportunities for research and for institutional and technological innovation. The start-ups born of the changing social and technological landscape of this age will transform our world and determine the future of work, and even the future of human experience.

This “RISE” (Research, Innovation, Start-up & Employment) conference will offer us a remarkable opportunity to combine our expertise and our wisdom and to put forth new models. I hope that we can establish closer relations and networks through the events of the next two days. I am delighted to see members from across Asia from the United Nations Asia Pacific Training Centre for ICT for Development here today with us.

We are here for a reason. To learn from each other and explore new opportunities, but even more importantly to formulate a new vision for the future of human civilization, one that is both inspiring and ultimately practical. Finally, let us keep in mind that technology and innovation is ultimately about people, ordinary people, and we should never forget our obligations and our duties. We have all received tremendous benefits and we have therefore tremendous obligations to those from less fortunate backgrounds (in our own countries and around the world) and above all to the future generation.

On that note, let me close with an apposite quote:

               “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

pastreich talk at RISE 2013.05