BOGOTA — Once upon a time our cities had physical spaces and institutions that allowed people of different social groups to mix and interact, at least to a degree.
Downtown cafés attracted politicians, intellectuals, traders and students. Churches — back when people still attended mass in significant numbers — were another place where people could meet and converse.
Before the mass diffusion of the private car, parks, tramways and then buses were also, for better or worse, spaces in which people of different backgrounds converged. Public universities too, though they admitted relatively few people, allowed provincial students to interact with professors and students from wealthier families from the capital.
But in time, these meeting spaces and institutions, which permitted a rapprochement of the social classes, came to disappear or radically change. Downtown cafés vanished or stopped being places where people actually sat around and talked. Gradually they gave way to gourmet-type or highly stratified eateries. Parks have had to compete with shopping centers. Private universities have fragmented the university population. Hardly anyone goes to church anymore. And the proliferation of car use prompted many students from comfortable backgrounds to stop using public transport.
Only one institution, the family, had some success resisting the modern world's assault. Until the arrival of the radio, then television, the family was the best place for people to gather and interact. People shared meals. Most importantly they spoke, listened, and looked each other in the eyes. Even after the arrival of television, which began in a way to undermine this basic school of socialization, interactions continued, for better or worse, and conversation remained a possibility.
But with the arrival of social networking on the Internet, tablets and mobile phones, the family is losing its role as the shaper of conversational beings. Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman says we now live in a state of "liquid modernity," whereby the family no longer prays, eats or even watches television together.
The new technology has changed social dynamics outside the family as well. In parks, shopping malls or busses, the places, in other words, where people could theoretically still interact, they don't. Instead they're like zombies, with their ears plugged up by earphones and their eyes fixed on some smartphone or tablet.
The social and political consequences of all these technologies are unpredictable. Perhaps of greatest concern is that dialogue is disappearing, both between and inside the social strata — and with it, age-old forms of solidarity, interaction and mutual defense on which civil society has forever depended. In our new hyper atomized society, will we be more exposed to new forms of domination, especially that of the state itself?
Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.
SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.
The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.
It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.
Seoul housing prices top London and New York
In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.
According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.
Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.
One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.
According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.
Playing the stock market
At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.
A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."
In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.
42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s
Game of survival
In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.
But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.
This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.
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