Here is the tech revolution America may miss: On a gray, cloudy weekday morning in August, I drove across the wide Han River that divides the northern and southern parts of Seoul. I turned east onto a furiously busy highway that runs alongside the river. I was noticing everything at once: the enormous pale forests of concrete apartment blocks, each forest pointed in a seemingly random direction, each building labeled with a number; the traffic; and the Lotte Group tower ahead of me, the tallest building in South Korea, narrowing to bat-like ears at its top—it had been the CEO’s dream to build the tallest tower in the country, but the structure is roundly disliked, and sinkholes have started opening at its base. The traffic in Seoul is crushing and constant, an oppressive fact of life for the ten million impatient citizens of that booming metropolis.
After a few minutes, a huge concrete stadium with fading Olympic rings decorating its side came into view. This was the Seoul Olympic Stadium, built for the 1988 Summer Olympics but not used for a major world sporting event since then. I drove on, and the forests of apartment towers and the crushing traffic continued for another twenty minutes but then fell away; I was in the suburbs and heading toward the mountains.
I had been on many journeys over the previous five years, interviewing hundreds of people in Stockholm, Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, Berlin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Havana, as well as in a long list of U.S. cities, about the possible effects on human lives of virtually unlimited, cheap, ubiquitous communications capacity. This was my third trip to Seoul. I had come to see what South Korea, the most wired nation on the planet, would show the world when it hosted the 2018 Winter Olympics, six months away.
My destination that morning was a rural, hilly area three hours east of Seoul—about ninety- five miles away—a small town of some thirty thousand people called Pyeongchang. There was no way to get there other than by driving. Although a high- speed rail link between Seoul and Pyeongchang was being built that would make a one- hour trip possible, the line hadn’t been completed. No one knew how expensive the rail tickets would be, and these calculations mattered: there weren’t enough hotel rooms in Pyeongchang for the anticipated seventy-five thousand fans, even though buildings to house visitors were hastily being thrown up near the event venues and older structures were being pressed into new roles as hotels. Many Olympics enthusiasts would have to make a daily round trip by train from Seoul, a gigantic place with thirty thousand hotel rooms. There is no housing to speak of between Seoul and Pyeongchang and the Pyeongchang Olympic hockey center and ice arena can hold up to twenty-two thousand spectators.
And so I found myself driving east of Seoul on a brand-new four-lane freeway, specially built for the upcoming Olympics. I checked my phone: my 4G coverage throughout the three-hour trip was spectacular.
The ice track ahead of you slopes steeply down and curves sharply to the right and out of view. And then you’re off, at unimaginably high speed, slamming into the banks of the track and zipping forcibly around every curve, while you keep an eye on the stopwatch and the heart-rate indicator projected on the top-right corner of your view. You are seeing and hearing a bobsled run—your stomach is convinced you yourself are hunkered down in the body of the streamlined bobsled—from the perspective of your favorite athlete, a young man from Seoul who is a luge prodigy and hopes with his team to snag the gold medal for his country. Seconds later, you’re in the virtual company of your friends, chatting away; they’re all around you. The bobsled, meanwhile, is taking an alarming turn, high up on the side of the track, to gain crucial momentum for the end of the run, and you and your buddies, sitting in your living rooms or standing on street corners, have been granted your favorite athlete’s point of view and insight into his climbing heart rate. You collectively hold your breath: will he win?
Later that day, you visit the ice arena to see the high-pressure couples ice-dancing competition. You are still in your living room in Seoul, but it doesn’t feel like it. You can see every corner of the arena from any one of a hundred cameras, your view moving easily around the enormous building with its sky-blue seats and bright digital displays. As your attention wanders to the VIP boxes, you miss a crucial dance moment; the roar of the crowd brings you back, and you quickly speak, asking for a replay.
The replay you are instantly shown allows you to see the ice dancers’ perfectly choreographed jump and to freeze the image, leaving both dancers above the ice, graceful and eternal. You move the skaters backward and forward a few times to see how they got to that height, before smoothly, slowly allowing them to continue their flawless joint routine. You marvel at their skill. And the image you see is so detailed, and seems so real, that you feel you could touch the woman’s silk sleeve and feel the thinness of the fabric.
That evening, the visitors to the events who have made the physical trek out to the Olympic venues—not you, because you are still at home in your living room in Seoul—ride around the city in an aquamarine bus; on the side of the bus, bold white letters read “World’s First 5G Connected Car.” The Olympic visitors touch the windows of the bus and write there with their fingers, interacting with displays showing them live coverage of the Olympic events around them. A man with a long white cane suddenly walks right in front of the bus. The bus has no driver. The riders realize the pedestrian is blind and feel powerless to do anything about the collision that is about to happen—but the bus, guided by tsunamis of data running over 5G networks, smoothly rolls around him, avoiding an accident. The riders turn back to bantering with their personalized window displays—sometimes the face of a guide, sometimes a map, sometimes text, whatever they’re interested in. And when they go inside the physical arenas, their smartphones speak softly to them about where they are in relation to their ticketed seats and where snacks are being sold.
Late at night, stirred by the bravery and heart of the athletes you’ve seen and whose perspectives you’ve shared, you walk around Seoul. You’re interested in knowing more about your favorite athlete; you want to hear from him about his childhood dreams, and Seoul is having a special digital event in his honor. Wearing glasses that allow you to see digital overlays on physical objects, you are fascinated by the stories told by the buildings that were part of the athlete’s past. You’re touched by the connections to your own life and delighted by the digital scenarios and jokes your favorite athlete has left for you to enjoy.
From Fiber by Susan Crawford published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.
Susan Crawford is the John A. Reilly Clinical Professor at Harvard Law School. She lives in New York City and Cambridge, Mass.