Mapping Gulags - What Happened When Google Turned the Lights on in North Korea

Google turns the lights on in North Korea

When journalist Barbara Demick wrote her book about the lives of North Koreans (Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea), she opened with a darkened map – the black mass that is North Korea at night, surrounded by the flickering lights of an Asia immersed in modern life. But last month, those lights went on. Google released a detailed map of the gulags in North Korea, compiled by a group of volunteers working from outside the country. There is something amazing about a map of gulags – a map of pain and suffering in real time – that we can suddenly peer in over the borders and say, yup, we see you. Creepy details include a street named Gulag 16 Road in the Hwasong Gulag. The street ends at a train station, after which – nothing.

Access to information doesn’t fix anything – here we all sit, watching the crisis in Syria unfold and unfold and unfold. But the world couldn’t download a map of Soviet gulags 50 years ago.

Or take an interactive journey as a defector while sitting at home (a huge improvement over trading dictator witticisms on Twitter from the comfort of your couch).

Filmmaker Ann Shin (I should mention that she lives up the street and our kids shared a nanny for a while) just released a phenomenal new online interactive where you get to be a North Korean defector, trying to escape. If you’ve ever wondered whether you could survive when called upon, go try this out.

“You can only do so much in film, but in an interactive web doc, you place the user in the point of view of a defector–they see, hear, and experience what a defector goes through,” says Shin, who’s also executive producer at Fathom. “It’s an incredibly powerful way of letting people understand experiences that are completely out of their realm.” – Co.Create

I can’t say enough good things about it. You should all just go take the journey here: Escape from North Korea Interactive.

It’s become really easy to say that social media – and thus technology – hasn’t changed the world. But we forget that there are a lot of other tools available to us to tell these stories. I get excited when I see us finding ways to talk about a totalitarian regime that might actually lead to something more than another 140-character tweet.

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