Fresh from his recent victory over the evil forces of the FTC Google’s Eric Schmidt arrived in North Korea this week on a “private Humanitarian mission” with New Mexico’s Governor Bill Richardson. The message he brought for Mountain View was essentially that ‘the Internet is good, cell phones are good and if you hope to have any shot at dragging your economy out of the mire, you have to get with the program.’ Excuse me while I hold my breath….nope no change visible yet. Here in the glorious west we regard access to those tools as a birth right, in other countries not so much, indeed just before Christmas a good sized chunk of the worlds less free countries attempted to stage a coup on the web which would have allowed regimes which want to even greater control of the web in their countries. It’s certainly laudable to even make the effort to talk to the insane clown posse currently running that poor benighted state and if it contributes towards getting several American activists currently jailed there free then even if the State Department didn’t appreciate the effort it was worth a shot.
Ironically Google Maps has contributed to the discussion. Here’s an exercise for you to try. Go to Google maps and type in “North Korea.” Take a look at it zoomed out so that you can see China to the north and South Korea to the south. At first you might think there is some kind of error because the entire country seems to be feature free. The weird thing is that although there are some roads and towns none of them show up in ‘map’ view…you have to flip to satellite view to see anything. My guess is that North Korea just doesn’t publish any maps (why would you need to know…it’s not like you are going to visit). As a comparison now type in “Gobi Desert” next to North Korea it seems to be a hot bed of roads and towns. Now search for “Pyongyang” again, nothing visible in ‘map’ view but in ‘satellite’ mode you can see the city in as much detail as any other. Now pick and area and zoom in…there is no street view (of course) but you can zoom in to see more than you probably ever thought you might want to. What do you see…rather what don’t you see? For comparison jump back to the Gobi Desert….search for “Ulaanbaatar” (an awesome word in Scrabble when stuck with too many vowels… if it weren’t a place name). Zoom in to Ulaanbaatar and you will clearly see the thousands of traditional circular Yurts the Ulaanbaatarist live in…and between them and on the roads you will see lots of cars…not as many as in LA or DC…but many. Now take another look at Pyongyang….I did a very quick scan and in what I assume is downtown Pyongyang I counted maybe a dozen cars on the road a few more parked here or there.
What’s fantastic is how easy and accessible Google Maps makes getting a different kind of perspective. What’s sad is how little chance Google chief really has of moving the dial on a country which is essentially a prison camp without any cars.