What Does the 21st Century Ask of Us?


<Part 1: Historic characteristics of the 21st century and what it reveals to us>1, 2

  • This writing focuses on the 21st century that we are living in, the appearance that the 21st century must take in the future, as well as the approach we must take in order to create that future. The writing is separated into four parts and this issue features the first of them. If we oversimplify the things that arise within the flow of time, it appears as though the events that unfold are being repeated; however, just as the Han River that you saw yesterday is not the same as what you see today because it is continually flowing, if you perceive the events that unfold within the specific flow of change, there are no two events that are the same. Likewise, the historic characteristics of the 21st century and the characteristics that it will come to possess in the future will take on a different appearance from that of the past. From this standpoint, this writing aims to focus on the frame that organizations such as public institutions and private corporations as well as individuals must use in order to understand the 21st century.

1. What is the historic situation of the 21st century?

Since the dawn of man, the history of humankind has progressed from the prehistoric age (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age), ancient era, the Middle Ages, the modern era, and the present age. Humankind spent much more time surviving in the wild during the prehistoric era than in the time that it took to progress from the ancient era to the present age. As a result, that experience of survival remains imprinted in our brains even today, showing us how important survival really is. From the dawn of the ancient ages to the present age today, humankind has experienced religious strife, two World Wars, the Great Depression, terrorism, and financial crises, and the wheels of conflict and development have turned without ceasing, racing towards eternity.

If the big and small conflicts that arose in each age did not become another stepping stone towards the development of civilization and instead led to its collapse, humankind would not be in existence today. The reason why the human race has existed until today is probably due to the dream and passion to make the world into a better place and the necessary tools to bring that dream to fruition. In each age, there surely were different factors that led to the change and development of that age according to its historic situation, but the common factor between all of these ages is that human beings were at the center of those changes. Even more fundamentally, humankind’s desire and passion to solve the problems confronting them and to achieve their dreams and goals have been the driving force that has propelled change and development. The needs of the people living in each age and the method they employed in meeting those needs have shaped the changes that have taken place in that age.

Then, what direction are the needs and wishes of the people headed towards in the 21st century that we are living in and that we will live in, most specifically, the 100 years between 2001 and 2100? When asked this kind of question, most people give a simple response from the standpoint of their own lives, even if they don’t know the corresponding philosophical terminology, specialized psychological jargon, or the spirit of the age in the grand scheme of things. And what they usually respond with is to live a happy and successful life.

That’s right. The prevailing topic of conversation for people of the 21st century is happiness and success. Of course, every single person probably has their own definition of what happiness and success entail. Even if we do not ask why people dream of a happy and successful life, everyone already knows that these things play an integral role in our lives. Then, let’s take it one step further and ask the following question. What are the most influential factors in people living a happy and successful life? If we were to choose just two out of the many factors that play an essential role in living happy and successful lives, what would they be?

If you, the readers, were to receive this question, what would you say were the two most important factors? Everyone will vary slightly in the responses they give, but for the most part, people will probably say that these two very important factors are ‘health’ and ‘money (finances).’ Or perhaps some people will pinpoint more fundamental factors for living a happy and successful life. It is a matter of fact that these people probably have a more enlightened view of life.

Then, what are the factors that influence health and money? On an individual level, it is eating a proper diet, exercising regularly, and warding off potential illnesses by getting regular check-ups in order to manage our mental and physical health. The stress that we receive from external factors also plays a crucial role in our mental health. In addition, we engage in financial activity, work or employ investment techniques in order to provide the funds that we need to live our lives. If we consider the comprehensive influence of all of these varying, day to day activities, we can summarize it into one word, ‘technology.’ Many people already know that the tool of technology has contributed greatly to extending our life expectancy by creating jobs and advancing existing medical technology. That is why nations, corporations, and even individuals depend so completely on technology.

From this standpoint, technology can be seen as one of the factors that greatly instigates change in the world and the lives of humankind. The various ways ‘technology’ is defined in the field of science, engineering and skills is just one simple example of how important of a role it plays. Technology is used not just to solve the problems of our immediate reality; it is also used as a tool to solve the problems of our external environment. In other words, technology is a core tool in creating the kind of world that people desire. What is a means or tool? It is something that is used in order to produce something that we envision in our minds. Technological innovation is just another one of the many means that we employ.

Then, let us take a look at the technological innovation that is taking place in the 21st century. Starting from mechanization in the Industrial Revolution to the use of computers in the present day, technological innovation has exerted broad and deep influence on corporations, the public sector, and even in the lives of individuals. Thanks to the enhancement of computer performance and the efforts of one innovative entrepreneur, we now transcend time and space through smart phones that have the same capacity as computers. Through the smart phone, the entire world is interconnected and if wearable devices (wearable device: glasses, watches, and clothing that incorporate computer technology) come into mainstream use, technology will have an even closer relationship with our daily lives. The 21st century is often coined the digital age. The driver of growth for this digital age has been the birth of the internet in the latter half of the 20th century. Internet connects all of the computers in the world and gives and receives information through the use of a telecommunications protocol called TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol).

The use of internet network is no longer limited to a particular group of specialists. Now, the internet has taken its place as a significant, if not most central, part of the lives of even the average citizens. We are now living in an age in which data regarding all of the activities of our daily lives are collected through various sensors, saved, and shared when needed, transcending time and space, through the internet. If we look at the astronomical growth of the representative internet companies like Google or Facebook, we can see just how much the internet has changed not only our personal lives but also the entire world. These companies are also undertaking various special projects to improve and expand internet access in countries in Asia or Africa that are relatively behind in internet use in order to fulfill their corporate goals.

-Google Project Loon & Satellite Project:

The aim of Project Loon is to use a network of balloons that serve as wireless routers that are placed 20 km in the stratosphere so that people in remote areas where high-speed internet networks cannot be installed can gain access to the internet. This project underwent a pilot test in New Zealand in June 2013 and the balloons have been placed in the regions located at 40 degrees south latitude so that these regions can continue to have access to uninterrupted internet services. Google’s satellite project uses lower altitude satellites than standard satellites. It shoots up hundreds of small-sized satellites that are 113 kg or less in order to supply internet connection to remote areas where internet usage is difficult.

-Facebook Internet.org Project:

Facebook announced on August 2013 that it would undertake its Internet.org Project in order to supply internet services to remote areas in Asia and Africa where internet access is difficult. Companies such as Ericsson, Samsung Electronics, Nokia, Opera, and Qualcomm are taking part in this project and the world’s foregoing technology leaders, nonprofit organizations, regional communities and specialists are working together in order to provide the two-thirds of the world’s population without internet with greater connectivity.

These companies have invested vast sums of money to acquire companies that possess this technology or have brought in the manpower in order to push forward with these special projects. Google posits that if the entire world becomes connected through the internet, online education and telemedicine services will be available even in remote areas of the world and farmers will be able to utilize the internet to find weather information and increase their harvest. It emphasizes that this project aims to help residents of regions that lag behind to enjoy the advantages of the internet. Mark Elliot Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, expressed his great ambition to make Facebook into a utility, a daily necessity like electricity or running water when Facebook was just starting up. We can imagine the great dreams that he has for the future. In addition to the corporate social responsibility emphasized by these corporations, we can assume that there is another more practical, ultimate purpose in addition to profitability through the increase in potential internet users.

In addition to these widespread efforts to expand internet access across the globe, the development and commercialization of smartphones, tablet PCs, and other innovative smart devices have led to services that were unimaginable in the desktop PC era to be developed as software. Now, we can make use of them anytime, anywhere. A number of apps are available for online installation on our smartphones and according to the user’s preferences, a diverse array of services are easily within reach.

People access the internet through high quality computer devices and create and transmit a tremendous amount of data. As more people access the internet, more data is produced and transmitted. Using the data that is created, companies will seek to sell tailored services or products that befit the desires and needs of the individual. Even governments (public institutions) will use the big data that is created in order to provide a higher quality of service. We will also see the birth of various organizations (forces) that seek to use this data for their own profit, using it to control the world.

We are now standing at a crossroads as to how we must choose to approach this vast network kingdom based on the internet that is constantly evolving through digital technological innovation. Of course the choice that we make will vary according to the demographics of the users as well as the preferences they have. For example, the same choices will not be made by the baby boomers, Generation Y (Millenials; children of the baby boomers), and Generation Z (the generation following Generations X and Y in their teens).

The majority of baby boomers who lived through the analog age may instinctively feel a repulsion to the flow of digital technological innovation. However, for Digital Natives (generation that uses personal computers, smartphones, tablet PCs, internet, and MP3s on a day to day basis ever since birth) such as Generations Y and Z, this is not so much a choice but a necessity.

As all of our daily activities became intertwined with the internet within the flow of this technological innovation, the only choices we have available to us is to become a member of this vast network kingdom called the internet, return to the most natural state of man by being extremely closed off like in the prehistoric era, or else straddle the fence without choosing one or the other.

2. What are the results that we are witnessing through these historic changes of the 21st century?

Let us now take a look at the influence exerted on the world and our personal lives, as well as the results that we are witnessing through the technological innovation that is driving the historic changes of the 21st century. Advancements in digital technology have shown positive effects in health, economy, energy, and information and communication. It is expected that this technology will also fundamentally change the future of business and the future lives of individuals.

Especially, since the birth of the Web under the banner of a liberal spirit, the Web 2.0 era which uses keywords such as openness, participation, and sharing has opened up an age in which the consumer is both the consumer of contents as well as the producer/vendor. As the diagram below shows, the daily activities of users are collected and used in order to form the basis for various Web services. A few of them have a clear reason to exist and even boasts of a loyal following, realizing various social and economic values. These services continue to create a differentiated ecosystem, or platform, in order to retain their users.

<Diagram 1> Current state of apps affiliated with various daily user activities

why are you unique

It is not easy to measure the results that stem from technological changes. Here, I wish to only look at two aspects. First, I wish to look at whether people are becoming wiser in terms of living the life they dream about and creating a world they desire. The second aspect I wish to look at is the economic standpoint of these changes and their influence on the lives of individuals, as well as the world.

What exactly has changed in the people who are now connected by this vast internet compared to the people who did not know such connectivity in the past? Are the data and information collected by various services regarding individuals really being used effectively in order for individuals and organizations (corporations, government and public institutions, educational institutions, etc.) to fulfill their purpose? Are they becoming wiser as a result of such data? I wish to address this issue at a more fundamental level, looking beyond the entertainment, productivity, and effectiveness that digital technology has brought us. As I already mentioned, the people and organizations of the 21st century have gained a new tool called the internet. Then, have people and organizations become all the wiser through the vast amounts of information that have been created? Furthermore, are the persistent problems of human society on the verge of a breakthrough through this data and information? There is a need to define wisdom at this point. Wikipedia defines wisdom as, “the mental ability to quickly apply reason and perform the action with the highest degree of adequacy. It implies a possession of knowledge or the seeking thereof in order to apply it to the given circumstance.”

Regarding this dictionary definition of wisdom, Nicholas Maxwell, renowned scholar and professor (University College London), writes in “From Knowledge to Wisdom” that wisdom is “the capacity, the desire, and the active endeavor to realize what is of value in life, for oneself and others.” He has clarified what this ability called wisdom must be used for. This is the answer to why we must become wiser.

There are also many specialists who lay forth their own original opinions regarding wisdom in the digital age. Marc Prensky, an American scholar in the field of education, popularized the term Digital Native through his dissertation in 2001. He posits that digital technology can be used to make humankind wiser in addition to making us smarter.

The term ‘Digital Wisdom’ that he used encompasses two concepts. First, it refers to the wisdom that stems from our ability to utilize digital technology to tap into metacognitive abilities that surpass our own innate abilities. Second, it refers to the caution we exercise in using technology to enhance our abilities. In short, he emphasizes that technology itself cannot replace the intuitive powers, problem solving abilities, and exemplary judgment of humankind, but those who enhance their abilities through the use of digital technology are better off than those who do not.

As Marc Prensky has stated, there are clear examples of the benefits of the proper use of digital technology on our daily lives and economic activities. However, there are other scholars who have a different opinion regarding the issue of whether digital technology has, in fact, enhanced our wisdom. Regarding this issue, I asked Professor Nicholas Maxwell personally.

-Author’s question: “Are our human beings more wise than before? Specially, are our human beings wiser in the digital age of the 21st century than in the non-digital age? If so, are there any evidences to support it?”

-Professor Nicholas Maxwell’s response: “Do I think the digital age promotes wisdom? I am inclined to say: No. It seems to me the internet has both good and bad repercussions. It makes it much easier to access information, and keep in touch with people who live far away: good. But it also encourages pockets of dogmatism and slight craziness to develop: not so good. It is a mixed picture.”

Now let us take a look at the economic aspects of the results of technological innovation. The central question with regard to the economics is whether all people are able to fairly share the wealth that is created. We will look at technological innovation and inequality. In other words, we will delve into whether the economic benefits that have been obtained through technological innovation have been fairly distributed among a great number of people. With respect to this issue, David Rotman’s article entitled “Technology and Inequality” (October 21, 2014) in the MIT Review states on the very first page.

“The signs of the gap—really, a chasm—between the poor and the super-rich are hard to miss in Silicon Valley. On a bustling morning in downtown Palo Alto, the center of today’s technology boom, apparently homeless people and their meager belongings occupy almost every available public bench. Twenty minutes in San Jose, the largest city in the Valley, a camp of homeless people known as the Jungle—reputed to be the largest in the country—has taken root along a creek walking distance of Adobe’s headquarters and the gleaming, ultramodern city hall.”

Professor Vivek Wadhwa, renowned Indian-American academic in the field of business management and IT entrepreneur, stated, “Silicon Valley is the future that we are creating and it is extremely chaotic.” These words are filled with implicit meaning. Silicon Valley is the center of technological innovation, not just for the U.S., but for the entire world. Through the aforementioned statements, we can see a glimpse of the lives of both the poor and the super-rich. To this extent, the economic disparity is ever-widening.

Then, what about South Korea? Compared to the economic gains made by the developed nations over the course of hundreds of years, South Korea has experienced exponential growth in just a fraction of that time. The following shows a clear representation of the state of present-day South Korea.

-A country with 1 million students who are taking a break from college

-A country where 1 out of every 2 college students who are taking a break from school receive allowance from their parents

-A country that educates its students for 30 years only to make use of that manpower for 20 years, whereas other competing nations educate their students for 20 years and reap the benefits of their talents for 40 years

-The country with the lowest birthrate among the OECD nations

-A country with 1 out of every 6 people making less than 10 million won a year

-A country where, among the people who responded to a recent survey, only 16% thought of themselves as the middle class, which is lower than both China (48.4%) and Japan (28.8%)

-A country of addiction with 1 out of every 8 people addicted to something, including the 4 social ills (alcohol, drugs, gambling, internet), which induces social costs of 109.5 trillion won

-The country with the highest suicide rate among the OECD nations for the past 8 years with 31.2 people per every 100,000 people committing suicide (an average of 42.6 people a day)

-A country where the highest crime rate is found among 40 year olds, compared to the U.S. where most crimes are committed by teenagers

-The country with one of the lowest happiness quotients (ranked 32nd) among the OECD nations

-A country where 1 out of every 3 people are at risk for cancer with a life expectancy of 81 years of age

Though we have not taken a look at every single country, when we look at Silicon Valley, where technological innovation is taking place at the fastest rate in the world, and look at South Korea, which rose to the ranks of being a developed nation in a short span of time, we can see that though the digital technology and related products (smartphone) of the 21st century have indeed improved our entertainment and fun and increased our productivity and convenience, contrary to expectation, they have not enhanced our cognitive abilities or judgment in order for us to pursue a more happy and successful life, and they have not solved the problems of the world. Rather, it is highly possible that technological innovation has instead introduced various new problems. Of course, we cannot assume that technological innovation is the sole culprit behind these problems. However, it is a matter of fact that whatever the technology, we hope that it can be used to solve the fundamental problems of humankind and help create a better world and a better life for all individuals.

In other words, instead of solving the fundamental problems of humankind, a different world where those same problems persist, namely, an internet kingdom has been created through digital technology. This internet kingdom goes beyond simply connecting individuals with individuals and has expanded and evolved into connecting all digital devices through the Internet of Things (IoT). Nations and companies are placing great importance on this new field as a source of profit. However, instead of being caught up in feelings of awe and envy at the small minority of people who are amassing tremendous wealth and power through these unending changes and innovation, now is the time for us to ask fundamental questions and take some time for self-reflection. What those of us who are living in the 21st century need is not innovative tools (technology); rather, perhaps what we need most of all at this time is to deeply reflect on and come to a consensus regarding why such tools are needed and if they are necessary, how we can use them to create a world that we desire and live the kind of life that we genuinely seek after.

3. What must we do in order to create a world and life that we dream of in the 21st century?

All people living in the 21st century dream of a happy and successful life. There is no one on the face of the earth who wishes to live an unhappy and failed life. I happened to meeting with Professor Arvind of MIT for my platform development project and asked him, “What percent of the world’s population do you think consider their lives to be or to have been happy and successful?” At this, he responded, “Maybe 1%. It’s probably a small minority.” Now let me ask all of you the same question. Though you may not be able to give a specific percentage, I’m sure most people will agree with Professor Arvind. That’s right. Though we do not have specific statistics, when we look at the comprehensive results of a number of resources, we can conclude that there are not that many people who are truly living the kind of happy and successful lives that they are dreaming of. Why is it that technology continues to advance, and yet, the proportion of the world’s population that are happy and successful does not improve? Are there absolutely no systems or tools that help people live happier, more successful lives? With the exception of the abnormal few who feel a twisted sense of joy and benefit from the sorrows and failures of others, most people living in the 21st century truly desire historic changes and innovation that open up the possibility of the kind of life and world that people truly dream of.

It is my opinion that in order to carry this out, we must return to the more fundamental aspect of things. Rather than asking ourselves the question of ‘how,’ we must ask ourselves, ‘why.’ Let us take a look at some of these questions.

-Why do we wish for a happy and successful life?

-Would we be satisfied with just our own personal happiness and success?

-In order to live this kind of life, what must we do?

-There are all too many books that address these issues and introduce their own solution and method! Is it because these methods are ineffective that our lives remain the same?

Beginning with these questions, we can ask ourselves an unending array of questions. In order to discover the fundamental solution to these questions, we must first ask ourselves these questions instead of simply posing them to other individuals, organizations (workplace), or nation. From this standpoint, let us take a look at our daily lives. Our lives are constantly bombarded with external suggestions. For example, we may meet with people directly and receive an external suggestion or receive an indirect external suggestion through our smartphones which is a means of communication. We can also receive an external suggestion through various other channels. The following are some examples of possible external suggestions we might receive.

-The nation and government officials exist for the happiness of the citizens.

-Schools (college, elementary school, middle school, high school) exist for the future and happiness of the students.

-Corporations exist for the happiness of the consumers.

-Hospitals exist for the sake of the lives of the patients.

Through these external suggestions, whether it be aimed at citizens, students, or consumers, these entities seek to brainwash the people into acknowledging the value of their services or products in order to retain their loyalty. By doing this, they seek to confirm the value of their existence. Through the persistent efforts of these entities, many of the target audience become addicted to these services and products. The question, then, is whether these services and products help to further our efforts to realize the kind of lives or the kind of world we seek to create. There are some who will make the counterargument that despite the helpful nature of the service or product, the problem lies with the people who are not able to use it properly.

In order to explain the situation we are in, I used the following metaphorical representation that you see on the right side of the diagram in which I attempted to express how we are rendered powerless by the Pandora Box Paradigm. This seeks to depict the appearance of people who have been endlessly brainwashed and as a result of that brainwashing, have become addicted. Digital technology, which is a symbol of the 21st century, has made possible the collection and usage of personal information. In the worst case scenario, it has now become possible to provide personally tailored services or products that are highly addictive to each individual.

If so, what is the method for us to overcome this situation and create a better future? The solution cannot be found in the Pandora Box Paradigm. If, due to our predisposition, we cannot get rid of the Pandora Box Paradigm, we must seek to find a new paradigm in order to control the Pandora Box Paradigm and fulfill the purpose of our lives. From that perspective, I would like to introduce the Wisdom Box Paradigm that you see as a metaphorical representation in the left side of the diagram. Within the Wisdom Box Paradigm, we are able to gain realization and make judgments within the unending barrage of external suggestions. Furthermore, we are able to move that realization and wisdom into action. If such a paradigm is able to coexist with or even replace the Pandora Box Paradigm, we will be able to realize the life and the kind of world we have been dreaming of.

 <Diagram 2> Wisdom Box3 and Pandora Box


Then, one might ask, “How can we create and use this ‘Wisdom Box’ within this new paradigm?” In the articles to follow, I will address this issue more concretely. However, in order to leave you with a few hints, I would like to ask you the following four questions. These questions apply not only to the individual, but also to organizations (corporations, public institutions, etc.).

-Question 1: Give two examples of the factors that you believe will exert the greatest influence upon your future life.

Question 2: What is your dream?

-Question 3: What do you consider to be the most worthwhile work in this world?

-Question 4: Do you truly love yourself?

If you have found your answers to the above questions, you are already approaching your life and the management of your organization with wisdom. I will deal more specifically with these topics in Part 2 (Method of approach in creating the future of the 21st century), Part 3 (In-depth research regarding special fields within the future of the 21st century), and Part 4 (Contemplation regarding survival and growth strategies of the 21st century).


  1. To contact to the author, please e-mail: michaelchang@ahatyd.com
  2. I extend my deep appreciation to Professor Nicholas Maxwell for giving me a good opportunity to understand wisdom, and to Professor Y.H. Gam for comments on an earlier version of this article, Professor Arvind, and to Sora Han for contributing to the english version of this article.
  3. For the story of the birth of the Wisdom Box., please refer to ‘Project W’ on Amazon(http://www.amazon.com/dp/B006V9WIP4).

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