Eric Schmidt recently took a delegation to North Korea where he encouraged the country’s government to relax its grip over internet control. “As the world becomes increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their view of the world,” the Google Chairman said.
But it seems it’s his daughter’s account of the trip that is proving more headline worthy. In a detailed post Sophie Schmidt provides readers with an unedited the-way-I-saw-it account of the country saying “it’s like The Truman Show, at country scale”.
“Ordinary North Koreans live in a near-total information bubble, without any true frame of reference,” she writes. “I can’t think of any reaction to that except absolute sympathy. My understanding is that North Koreans are taught to believe they are lucky to be in North Korea, so why would they ever want to leave? They’re hostages in their own country, without any real consciousness of it. And the opacity of the country’s inner workings — down to the basics of its economy — further serves to reinforce the state’s control.”
Schmidt junior talks about very orchestrated experiences with staged encounters with citizens, making it difficult to actually gauge how much of what was seen in the country could be classified as real.
“We had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans and were never far from our two minders (2, so one can mind the other),” she writes.
Access in North Korea is a privilege like everything else, she explains.
“Their mobile network, Koryolink, has between 1-2 million subscribers. No data service, but international calls were possible on the phones we rented.”
Internet is tricky, and you have to be special to get access:
North Korea has a national intranet, a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real internet. Our understanding is that some university students have access to this. On tour at the Korea Computer Center (a deranged version of the Consumer Electronics Show), they demo’d their latest invention: a tablet, running on Android, that had access to the real internet.
Whether anyone, beyond very select students, high-ranking officials or occasional American delegation tourists, actually gets to use it is unknowable. We also saw virtual-reality software, video chat platform, musical composition software (?) and other random stuff.
She also talks about the bizarre nature of their visit to the Kim Il Sung University e-Library, where all the students stared at the same page with very little action and once the “show” was over the delegation was asked to “move along”.
On encountering the North Korean traffic girls of Pyongyang, who are gaining cult status in the internet realm, Schmidt writes:
“Not that we were allowed to talk to them, but riddle me this: How do you explain to someone that she’s a YouTube sensation if she’s never heard of the internet?”
Image credit: Sophie Schmidt