One of the most unique experinces of walking around the older neighborhoods of Seoul is the sense of discovery. This feeling is something that most people have experienced but have not been able to explain well, that is until Erik Ottoson of Uppsala University (Sweden) decided to base his thesis on how people search for objects in places like shopping streets, malls and markets. It turns out his thesis description is a close analogy of what one goes through in exploring the winding ways found in the older parts of Seoul and why this is such an endless source of enjoyment.

“Being a consumer sometimes means fantasizing and dreaming about objects, and this is boosted when we come face to face with things that arouse various feelings of attraction and resistance,” says Ottoson, who has researched the way we look for things we want to acquire.

He has observed how people behave at flea markets, root through skips, make their way along shopping streets and through malls. According to Ottoson, searching in this way teaches us what is available and how we can track down what we are looking for. At the same time it becomes an opportunity to look inside ourselves and explore our feelings when faced with what is actually available.

“This means searching becomes a way for us to interact with the world around us, an experimental horizon where certain aspects loom large in the foreground while others are pushed into the background,” he explains.

In particular, his research focuses on what is actually going on when we are “window shopping”, i.e. strolling round and “just looking” at things without having a clear idea of what we are looking for. The people he has been studying search patiently for certain things, but more than anything, they are searching for the feeling of having found something that is better and finer that they could have imagined. At this point they have stretched the boundaries of what would be reasonable to expect to find.

The paper also shows that what we call just looking is not just about looking with your eyes, it involves your entire body – walking till your feet ache, picking things up and putting them back and feeling things with your hands. Meanwhile, you are waiting for that particular aha feeling you get when you discover something you want – a peculiar combination of confirmation and surprise,”

This is also why I sometimes cringe when I read and see some plans for the “re-development” of parts of Seoul City, which just do not intuitively understand or sense this quality found in some older parts of Seoul, thus giving rise to some of the most unpleasant, soul-draining, Lego planning one could imagine. If new places could be “developed” that incorporated this sense of exploration, Seoul could be more fun that hanging out in WoW (World of Warcraft) and might be closer in feel to walking through the older parts and more attractive than the awful square box planning found in other places (Bundang or Bucheon?).

Much thanks also to the excellent collection of pictures from Skyscraper City (Seoul Metro Images).

Soopung Building
Photo credit: ‘Kigulove’, Daum cafe and skyscraper city.