The Grand Culture Project

At the SOAS / AKS conference on 26 June, the talk by Kim Hyeon, Associate Professor of Cultural Informatics at the Academy of Korean Studies, had the title “the Korean Wave, Cultural Content and Cultural Informatics”.

“What on earth is Cultural Informatics?” I hear you ask. You would not be alone. But read on.

The premise of the thesis runs roughly thus:

Some of the biggest hallyu hits have been Joseon dynasty historical dramas. Take Dae Jang Geum and the King and the Clown. These have been great export earners for Korea, Inc. Wouldn’t it be great if you could bottle the formula?

King and the Clown

But a brief look at the genesis of the King and the Clown highlights a problem in the lifecycle of a great cultural product. Here’s roughly how the hit film came about:

  1. 1968: Scholars start translating the Joseon dynasty Sillok from Classical Chinese to Korean
  2. 1993: Scholars finish the mammoth task started a quarter of a century earlier and reintroduce themselves to their families.
  3. 1992-95: the translated Sillok is digitised onto CD-ROM, making it accessible to people outside universities – provided your PC has more than a floppy disk drive.
  4. 1996-2000: the stories start filtering out into the mainstream, with a KBS TV series (“Television Annals of the Chosun Dynasty”) and the publication of hundreds of historical novels
  5. 2000: The stage play “You” is performed, about King Yeonsan and the jester.
  6. 2005: The big-screen adaptation of “You”, “The King and the Clown” sweeps the box-office.

37 years, it must be agreed, is rather a long time for an academic project to produce (ultimately) a profitable export opportunity. It may also be agreed that your average classical Chinese scholar and your average film ideas-man have different and not necessarily overlapping skill-sets.

Dae Jang Geum

The argument goes that the digitisation of the original material took it out of the realm of fusty academe and made it accessible to those hip ideas-people. (And, as an aside, the propagation of the material was enormously assisted by the prompt pirating of the CD-ROM, almost forcing the company which had laboured over it for so long into bankruptcy). So the goal must be to optimise the way that all this wealth of data is organised, tagged and cross-referenced so that the dry, raw facts can be reassembled into colourful creative content, thus accelerating the product life-cycle.

That’s where cultural informatics comes in. The University of York’s Social Informatics Research Unit defines it thus:

Cultural informatics is a critical enterprise that seeks to explain the complex and manifold transformations of culture that are taking place in the information age. Such analysis centres on cultures in which digital media are reconfiguring both the form and content of culture as we know it, across the realms of art, music and writing. Underpinning such analysis is a deeper concern for the connection between knowledge and information, and beyond this the connection of culture and code. Such connections are tied to emergent forms of techno-power, and to smart new forms of capitalist economy that problematise traditional socio-cultural concepts and formations such as class and gender. Cultural informatics is the attempt to rethink such concepts in an age of high technology. Unlike early information science, however, cultural informatics refuses to analyse information or culture in isolation from their material settings. Instead, it reconsiders information and culture as embodied forms that are intimately connected to new technologies of global communication, to changing practices of production and consumption, to transformations of the human body, and to accelerated forms of living and being.

Make any sense? Maybe.

Anyway, the gist of what Kim Hyeon was saying was that the powers that be had learned from the King and the Clown experience and realised that raw data + user-friendly accessibility = cultural content (and, if you get it right, = $$$). One of the outputs arising from this realisation is the amibitious Encyclopedia of Korean Local Cultures, a huge enterprise to make available online a “sweeping encyclopedia covering regional cultures of 232 Korean cities which will be made available online”. The work in progress is here, at the appropriately named domain. Kim had another powerpoint presentation on his laptop which would have made a fascinating follow-up talk: an introduction to some of the mark-up and meta-data concepts which underpin this Grand Culture project.


Several unrelated questions formed in my mind as I listened to Kim’s talk. Is it equitable that ultimately the film and TV companies will reap all the rewards while academia do all the work (funded, presumably, by the taxpayer)? And: if academics are to be turned into data-cataloguers, subservient to commercial considerations, isn’t that a pretty depressing future for higher education? And: with all this content readily accessible to the ideas-people, what assurance will we have that the ideas-people will produce something decent at the end of it all, rather than churning out yet another derivative costume drama? And: is the demand for “period” content insatiable, or at least sufficient to justify this investment? Unfortunately, as so often with a packed conference agenda, there was not enough time to discuss all the questions which the audience was bursting to ask.

But if, along the way of this Grand Cultural journey, another Dae Jang Geum or Jumong can be produced that gets the formula right, that can only be good for us consumers of cultural content, as well as for the export and tourist dollars of Korea Inc.


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