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Seoul As A Life-size Interaction Experience — Better Than WoW

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.

About the author: Psst, want to buy some used marble cheap?

  • swlee

    Can somebody please pull this boring, irrelevant post before it becomes flame bait.

  • R. Elgin

    You may be right; it has attracted *one* troll already . . .

  • Sperwer


    Never mind morons like SWLee, who doesn’t qualify as a troll as he/she/it doesn’t possess enough power to act as a troll.

    Interesting post about a phenomenon about which Jane Jacobs spoke and wrote years ago with a wider perspective than just that of consumerism.

  • globalvillageidiot

    I agree with you about “the awful square box planning” you refer to. I happen to live right behind that row of ten 35-story “We’ve the State” buildings in the linked Bucheon photo. (Sadly, the complex is finished, filling up fast, and screwing up local traffic worse than it was before.) Ugly and boring buildings, with no character to speak of.

    However, I suspect that the water pressure in those units would be better than that of my “villa” apartment. And having a “Home Plus Express” with cheap Heineken on the ground floor might not be all bad.

    “Can somebody please pull this boring, irrelevant post before it becomes flame bait.”

    Thanks for your invaluable contribution. Insightful as ever.

  • swlee

    Calm down white bread, comment was intended to be tongue in cheek.
    BTW, still waiting to hear what happened to the post you pulled. The silence is deafening.

  • Eujin

    Elgin, what exactly do you have against Lego?

    Hanging out in Legoland is already more fun than hanging out in WoW, or did I just have a warped childhood?

  • R. Elgin

    That’s funny “Eujin”. Legoland is probably fun but to build everything using only one shape and without insight as to the psychology of people that must live within an environment is to flirt with lifeless conformity and boredom. :o)

  • http://myrepatriation.blogspot.com William George

    As anyone who’s lived in those areas can tell you: The main problem with those adventurous little “villas” and their neighborhoods is that they’re crumbling pieces of shit built quickly and cheaply back in the day.

    Yeah, they really should come up with something better looking to replace them with than another eye-sore “apatuh” complex. But the sooner they knock down those moldy fire hazards, the better.

  • Matthew

    As a Bundang resident, I agree that the architecture (if you can use that word to describe a soulless collection of boxes) here can be quite boring. But all the (Korean) Seoulites I know seem to be in love with the ‘charm’ and ‘cleanliness’ of these planned cities. And judging by property prices here, Koreans seem to be voting with their mortgages: more big boxes! I think its a Korean thing, and as we expats make up a minuscule (and powerless) percentage of the population, I only see the ‘Lego’ trend continuing. With the ongoing beef issue illustrating to me the value of reason to your average Korean, I don’t see the point in wasting anyones time trying to change minds.

  • kimoochee

    mr. r. elgin, u don’t gots to be shy. just say that “seoul looks, smells and feels like shit.” that’s your whole point in the end, isn’t it?

    you don’t have to quote some prof. erik von oloffson in the beginning to show you care and not offend those militant i-love-kimchi-so-much-i-tug-myself-with-it korean zealots.

    the only time i like seoul is during 구정, 추석 and any other 연휴, when it don’t take me an hour to drive down the block or i don’t have to sit in a restaraunt and smell the fart from the guy sitting next to me.

    and as for trying to look for “old and attractive” parts of seoul, i think tugging myself with kimchi would be much more appealing.

  • Eujin

    I’m actually not too down on the high-rise blocks. Compare Seoul to Osaka, or the Kobe-Osaka-Kyoto sprawl. Similar numbers of people, but Seoul seems much smaller and roomier because everyone is living on top of one another rather than in two storey houses squeezed into every possible space that just go on and on and on…

    Then there are all the green spaces (the hills) in Seoul. I think it’s quite livable compared to your average 15 million inhabitant cities. Go up the hills in the afternoon and there’s virtually no one there.

    On the subject of Legoland (and Japan) I think of Huis ten Bosch as a type of Legoland built large. I think it would be a great place to live. It’s certainly a great place to take your lady friend for a few nights.

  • Won Joon Choe

    Mr. Elgin,

    The only thing that could better than WoW is Warhammer Online :)

  • R. Elgin

    mr. r. elgin, u don’t gots to be shy. just say that “seoul looks, smells and feels like shit.” that’s your whole point in the end, isn’t it?

    No, I do not mean any such thing.

    My observation is that Mr. Ottoson’s thesis seems to explain the more unique and humane and sometimes pleasant aspect of various older parts of Seoul City and helps to explain why the newer tombstone-style areas are so psychologically unpleasant and devoid of character. They often look like horror movie sets (The Apartment).

    Such a lack of understanding in developing living space can only have unpleasant side effects, sooner or later, such as encouraging elevated rates of suicide, depression, hypertension, etc.