Tonight after dinner we went to Kangnam, a neighborhood in the south of Seoul (the city is bisected by the Han River; the Shilla is in the north). Kangnam is a very hip place, full of crowds of young kids. We started out walking down Kangnamdero, one of those great Asian city avenues heavy with crowds and ablaze with neon signs.


[Walking south on Kangnamdero]


[A bar, I think]

Kangnamdero is one of those places that seems like to combine pieces that you might see in London, Rio, New York, or Sydneythe ubiquitous fast food places and Hard Rock Cafes, Prada and Louis Vuitton, late-model glass towersembedded in a matrix consisting of small, utterly distinctive local things: noodle shops designed to look like they were carted wholesale from a traditional village, luxury buses with flimsy white curtains and white-gloved drivers; and, of course, signs everywhere, in Hangul.


[American cultural imperialism, coated with powdered sugar]

(I was amazed during my first visit to England that some little things I had always thought of as distinctly Braziliana vivid yellow kind of lighted sign, a certain design of traffic bollard, advertising design turned out to actually be European, or trans-Atlantic.)


[Turning down a side street]

We then wandered down some side streets, which turned out to be a mix of hip youth culture and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” The corners were a matrix of street vendors hawking dried fish, tiny shops selling cell phone accessories, trucks parked on the sidewalk, and guys hired to encourage women to go into nightclubs. (The working uniform for this job is a mix of late-model dark clothes, unbuttoned overcoats, and ear pieces. The effect was like Secret Service chic.)


[A side street]

Down the street, it shifted to a mix of coffee bars, regular bars, PC baangs, video rooms, and karaoke rooms. My Future Already Here dashboard light started blinking two minutes after we turned off Kangnamdero.


[Down the block]

After a few minutes of wandering around, we chose a building more or less at random, and went exploring. Architecturally it was about as bright, cheery, and well-laid out as a subway station; it’s depressing that the effect can be replicated aboveground, and that people put up with it. However, it was buzzing with bars, a PC baang, a pool hall, and a video room.


[Signs advertising, from left to right, a PC caf, video parlor (with DVDs), and pool hall.]

The pool hall was just what you’d expect: they seem to have a common DNA the world over. PC baangs are already a known quantity, thanks to some Wired magazine reporting. This one had about 40 PCs, and virtually every one was occupied, mostly with people playing Starcraft or Lineage.


[Door to the PC caf]

The decor– black walls and exposed asbestos ceiling, a mix of garish game posters, tchockes from trade shows, and stickers advertising various bands and games– seemed oddly familiar, but I couldn’t place it until later: in spirit if not content, it was a lot like a mildly disreputable college record store, the kind with bootleg concert albums on the shelves and a wide assortment of water bongs. There was one woman there.


[Yes, I know the picture’s dark. It was dark in there.]

Why would such places thrive in a country with amazingly high rates of home broadband? The answer, it seems to me, is that this needs to be seen as a social phenomenon, not explainable in terms of technical supply and demand. The PC baang exists for the same reasons that bars exist: it turns a potentially isolating experience into a social one. Place still matters, even when you’re online.


[Entrance to video room]

I was prepared to treat the PC baang seriously; video rooms, in contrast, are a phenomenon I’d never heard of. They’re small shops (warrens, really: more of that stunningly bad architecture) consisting of maybe a dozen small rooms, each big enough to seat two. You go in, pay about $10, and watch a movie: basically you rent the room for a couple hours. Apparently many of the patrons are couples who still live with their parents. For some, the video room is a rented living room. For others, it may substitute for another part of the house. Doubtless this is part of the appeal of PC cafes too: you can blow up bad guys without Grandma getting grossed out.

The movies, not surprisingly, were a mix of new Hollywood releases and Korean soft core porn. Though if the video room manager is a reliable informant, apparently there really isn’t a domestic hard core market. At first I found this surprising, since I’m used to porn and gambling being stock features of any wired nation’s portfolio; but maybe this is an example of how national culture shapes Internet use. Or maybe Koreans just go to American and European sites.


[Back outside]

I wonder if the drabness of the architecture might help explain the popularity of digital culture. In a city of concrete housing blocks and uninspired public building, the little color screens on your cell phone, or the portal of your monitor might be the most interesting thing around.


[Down the street]

That logic doesn’t really work for the Bay Area, of course; and perhaps I’m underestimating the charms of Seoul.


[Parking is not easy]

But I did often feel that the most interesting visual elements in the landscape were not the buildings themselves, but the neon signs, the giant flat-screen monitors, and other non-architectural eye candy; the color cell phone just moves that aesthetic to the palm of your hand.


[Another building with a bar and PC cafe]


[More bars, PC cafes, etc.]

Eventually we found our way to Pangnunsaro, then circled back to Kangnamdero and the Kangnam subway station.


[Kangnamdero looking north]

Seoul has a large (and ever-growing) subway system, and a number of the stations anchor multi-block underground arcades.


[Seoul underground]

I’m not sure there’s anything quite like it in the States, outside New York’s Penn Station, and Philadelphia’s Center City stations (which I always find supremely creepy spaces). This, in contrast, was at least much more densely trafficked.


[A cell phone store in the arcade]

The subway was packed, but I liked the system overall. I expect I’ll use it a lot more when I’m next there.


[Here comes the train]