The Korea Herald


[Lee Joo-hee] ‘I consume therefore I am’

By Lee Joo-hee

Published : Oct. 25, 2017 - 17:49

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Earlier this month, I did the unthinkable. 

I went from being an owner of a smartphone with a 5.5-inch screen with a resolution of 1300 pixels and 3 gigabytes of RAM, to a user of a flip phone with a 3.8-inch display with resolution of 800 pixels and 2 GB of RAM.

While my previous phone could take notes and basic voice commands, split the screen for multitasking and make my face Instagram-ready with its own filters, my new phone can make calls and offers a button key to a basic version of KakaoTalk.

To the disgrace of tech aficionados everywhere, I bought the “filial piety phone,” so dubbed for its customers mainly buying the device for their aged parents.

Now before you judge, I must say, the decision was actually quite a landmark leap on a personal level.

I had always felt expended by all things electronics. As much as I depended on them, I desperately despised them.

Although I enjoyed the comfort of endless new features of technologies in my daily routine, they unequivocally scared me as I increasingly let them into my personal information, habits and domains.

Putting aside the nagging discomfort, I continued to float along the strong current of consuming from one version to the next, believing it must be the right way as everybody else was doing it.

Such an inert spending habit of mine, however, was not confined to today’s technology, but was formed by lifelong accumulation of consumption experiences, which according to evolutionary behavioral scientist Gad Saad, is part of our evolution for survival.

Saad explains that humans seek an optimal equilibrium between the two opposing pulls of the urge for conformity and individuality. As social species, humans wish to affiliate with winners and dissociate from losers.

In teen years, for instance, buying and wearing the right clothes are vital in joining the “winning” crowd of friends.

As we socialize, initial resistance to a movie, a television show or even a song is often ultimately eroded by incessant marketing and pressure from peers to join the hype.

With marketing geniuses carefully crafting strategies to tap into our idiosyncratic preferences that inevitably come with the herd mentality, we are paradoxically left with fewer consumption options.

Living in a country -- like Korea -- with strong characteristics of “groupism,” the weight is even heavier.

Our social survival is indomitably linked to our ability to fit in, as Koreans tend to prioritize connectivity among the peers in a group above anything. Such a tendency often explains why unofficial channels work better than official ones to get things done here.

So venturing out to make a different choice -- be it in a hairstyle, a shoe color or even being vegetarian -- in how we spend our money comes with a constant onus to explain our reasons.

When I approached the telecommunication service vendor after eyeing the flip phone, the first question the employee asked me was: “Who’s going to use it?”

Aware that he assumed I would most definitely not be purchasing the phone for myself, I gave him a lengthy explanation, or excuse, as to why I was interested in it. Realizing I was a highly prospective buyer, albeit a cheap one, the employee only then began presenting me with the selling points, such as lower telecommunication costs and lighter battery use, but with all the basic services an LTE phone can offer.

But it took me about 40 minutes to actually pull the trigger and buy it.

The faces of my passionate and well-versed colleagues covering technology popped into mind. I felt I should be involving more of my personal life with the whopping technological advances of our country’s major growth engines, not the other way around. I felt like I was letting them down, and even denying the glaring importance of other technological advances such as those in the realm of the environment and health.

But then I told myself it was just a phone, and that my small technological relapse was actually no big deal.

About a month into using the device, I have experienced both the pros and cons.

The now-nostalgic push-button keypad was first a refreshing U-turn, but I began to use it less, as the touch screen it came equipped with proved easier and faster.

The tiny screen did made my eyes sore at times, which on the upside, made me reach out for the phone less. In fact, I realized the screen of my previous phone was just too large.

The user experience design dominantly based on the logic of the older generation actually seemed to fit my lifestyle, as I had rarely used other top-notch functions and relied mostly on the basic tools of the phone, messenger, portal search and just a few apps. The petite size of the folded device perfectly fit my palm and I no longer had to juggle carrying a giant bar of a phone with my other belongings.

But every time I ready myself to whip out the phone from my pocket, there is a moment of pause, as I know it is likely to strike up a conversation, which at times I would prefer to avoid.

All in all, I am quite satisfied, but I know in the next year or two I may lust after the fascinating luxuries only the most advanced artificial intelligence-filled smartphone can provide.

But when I do, I believe I will be more aware of why I am making that choice.

Thirst to follow the progression of products and services is inherent in our nature, and because of that, knowing what drove me to make my latest purchase and standing by the decision, indeed, is quite liberating.

By Lee Joo-hee

Lee Joo-hee is the business editor at The Korea Herald. She can be reached at -- Ed.