Pokémon Go and the Unbundling of Reality

(This post is a condensed and re-organized version of two earlier blog posts.)

“Technology tends to see reality as heaps, as a conglomeration of fragments that somehow are put together by someone in order to obtain something . . . that don’t have any inner order or interiority that is resistant to human manipulation.”

—Antonio López 

apple-watchWhen Apple unveiled its new Apple Watch Series 2 at this year’s long-anticipated launch, news of the new smart-watch was overshadowed by reactions to the iPhone 7. Yet the underpublicized news that the Apple Watch is soon to be equipped with Pokémon Go is perhaps of greater significance than the annoying fact that Apple has decided to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone.

I only found out about Pokémon Go a few months ago after it had already taken over the world. Since its release last summer, the hugely popular reality-enhancement game has been downloaded over 500 million times, bringing in over $10 million a day for the developer Niantic. The game enables users to find and capture virtual creatures that have been placed in real-world locations and which are only visible to those with the right electronic devices.

Pokémon in “Real Time”

The Apple watch will give players critical information about Pokémon Go so they don’t even have to check their smart-phones. For example, the watch will alert the wearer when a pokéstop is nearby. It will even inform the wearer when a pokémon appears “in real time.”

“Real time” – what is it? I sometimes imagine going back in history a thousand years and trying to explain to my ancestors about this free-flowing something that is independent from events but which all events participate; this thing that is purely abstract but which we also talk about “keeping”, “losing”, “saving” and “racing against”; this thing that enables us to break our day up into thousands of tiny pieces. The truth is that time, as we know it, is a product of our machines. To be sure, men and women have used time-keeping devices for thousands of years, but before the clock these devices were tied to events in the natural world like the motions of the sun, shadows and seasons. The relationship between time and natural motion oriented men and women to a very different understanding of time than what emerged after the mechanical clock. Historians point out that it was only after the clock that our experience of time became conceptually unbundled from life itself. Prior to the mechanical clock, it was not possible to think of the form of time without thinking about the content of time (the sun, the seasons, the shadows, the natural rhythms of sleeping and waking, etc.).

Although the first mechanical clocks emerged as tools within the monasteries, it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that there was a major impetus for mainstreaming the clock into all of life. For example, scientific management expert Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915) used the clock to standardize factory labor and improve the efficiency of production. However, in so thoroughly fusing men and women’s experience of time with their work, the clock was perceived as un-dignifying and anti-human. For factory workers, the clock was often perceived as a powerful symbol of the way corporate interests had incentive to view work as the primary context in which human experience achieves its meaning.

And now we have the Apple Watch to tell us the time. While on one level the impetus behind the Apple Watch Series 2 is very different from the original factory clocks, it may prove to be equally dehumanizing. In so far as the Pokémon interface on the watch thoroughly fuses our experience of time with our experience of play, it serves as a powerful symbol of the way corporate interests are incentivized to view play as the primary context in which human experience achieves its meaning. But it is a particular type of play in which the human imagination has been mined and co-opted by the software industry, in much the same way that industrialism mined former villagers for factory labor.

Colonizing the Imaginationpokemon

When play is turned into a commodity, it retains something of its original form, but the form is unbundled from the original context in which it naturally occurs.

There is something very natural about populating the real world with imaginary creatures, as Pokémon Go does. As a boy, I remember creating imaginary creatures to inhabit the world with me. To manage this imaginary landscape required an element of work, especially if others were participating with me. Pokémon Go is also hard work, but the work is not an imaginative task even though it retains some of the raw forms of imaginative acts. Pokémon spoon-feeds us a pre-packaged and artificial creativity designed by software firms in much the same way that pornography spoon-feeds us a pre-packaged and artificial intimacy with someone else’s body. The corporate interests behind Pokémon stand to gain by colonizing the very imaginative faculties their products are in the process of destroying, even as the corporate interests behind pornography stand to gain by colonizing the very libido their products both feed and destroy.

At first sight it seems as if those who play Pokémon Go are the colonizers as they walk around capturing and training virtual creatures. However, in a bizarre twist the colonizers have become the colonized. Indeed, those who play Pokémon Go participate in their own colonization since their imaginations, environment and public places are being harvested for the multi-million dollar Pokémon industry. Now, thanks to the forthcoming Apple Watch Series 2, even our experience of time can be colonized and integrated into the liturgies of the Pokémon machine.

Towards an Unbundled Life

To truly understand the Pokémon phenomenon, we have to take a wide-angel look at one of the dominant themes throughout the 21st century, namely the unbundling of form from content, and content from context.

Not long after digital books started becoming readily accessible on the internet, I began hearing that one of their advantages was that they enabled key sections of a book to be extracted from the larger context. Instead of having to read the whole book, a person can use search tools and navigational aids to jump straight into the best sections. What really caught my attention, however, is when I began being told that eventually the context of a book, even a work of fiction, might pass into irrelevancy as an anachronistic relic of our literary past. Instead, sections of literary works might come to be organized according to new fluid contexts that emerge organically from algorithms based on user preferences. In an article on the post-literary mind, Mark Federman called this emerging model “the UCaPP world” (UCaPP stands for “ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate.”) In an article on the University of Toronto website, Federman described this as

“a world of relationships and connections. It is a world of entangled, complex processes, not content. It is a world in which the greatest skill is that of making sense and discovering emergent meaning among contexts that are continually in flux. It is a world in which truth, and therefore authority, is never static, never absolute, and not always true.”

It is only recently that technology has made possible this perpetual flux of textual connections. Prior to the digital revolution, all content in a book was tied (literally, and often with string) to the book’s larger context. Moreover, as Nicholas Carr showed in The Shallows, the very act of silently reading a printed book strengthens the mental muscles involved in creating neurological schemas and narrative contexts in which to situate new information and understand the world. If, as Federman suggests, static contexts for texts are becoming a vestige of a bygone age, then we should expect the post-literary mind to be one in which context—any type of context—plays an increasingly limited role.

Perhaps this future is already upon us. In November 2005, Amazon announced that it had been in discussion with publishers about technologies that would encourage customers to purchase sections of a book (e.g., a page or a single chapter) without having to buy the entire text. Amazon has also been experimenting with introducing a new system in which authors are compensated according to specific pages that keep readers’ attention and therefore generate the most sales.

Along similar lines, I’ve been told that one of the advantages to the convergence of the television with the computer is the ease at which it will hasten the fragmentation of context, as people can begin to be provided with the best scenes from their favorite movies without needing to wade through the entire film.

We would do well to consider the human implications of living at a time when structures that once portended a larger architecture of meaning are scattered into a jumble of disconnected particulars.

Unbundling People

The way we think about ourselves has often been mediated through our approach to art in general and texts in particular. This is not surprising given that a person is a kind of text. A person, like a good story, cannot be understood independent of his or her context, which is always a complex fabric of experiences, relations and (most importantly) embeddedness in time and place. Understanding people, like texts, requires attentive surrender to context.

Given the important role that context plays in understanding people, I’m ashamed to say that for many years one of the things that actually attracted me to social media (and especially Facebook) was how it enabled me to detach aspects of myself from the larger context of my life, and to exhibit slices of myself to the world.

I know I was not alone, as many people have described receiving a kind of false therapy from social media by being able to isolate particular aspects of themselves from the larger story in which those aspects were organically situated—a larger story that is often full of complexity, ambiguity, vulnerability, confusion and pain. Through media like Facebook an individual can construct emergent meanings among contexts that are continually in flux and which can thereby be adapted and manipulated. Accordingly, Facebook does to human life and relationships what Pokémon does to the world: it creates a virtual world that is separate to, but overlapping with, the real world.

Within the virtual world of social media, we can exhibit a pseudo-context to the public, escaping from the given-ness of real-life contexts as we fulfil the postmodern impulse of self-creation. In place of given contexts that may include shame, grief, embarrassment and loneliness, the virtual world liberates us to construct identifies made up of only those slices of ourselves that we choose to publicize. We can customize the context of our life while interacting with others through the snippets they provide. The ease with which we can construct these fluid self-identities bolsters the hegemony of raw will in a kind of Nominalist rebellion against the given-ness of life. We become what we name ourselves to be.

The Body as Enemy in the Technological Utopia

The main context that gives our life meaning is our materiality: the physical, living, breathing body. But with the body comes a certain discomfort. To be enfleshed is to be vulnerable. It is with the body that we smile but it is also with the body that we cry. It is with the body that we exert strength, but it is also in the body that we experience weakness, fragility, danger and mortality. The lure of online relationships—or even real-world relationships in which the majority of communication occurs through texting—is that we can act as if we were disembodied and thereby suspend the vulnerability and fragility connected to our body. Through our digital devices we can act and respond to others as if we are not bounded by space. We can dispense with the physical element and still have our social cravings satisfied online.

As new hand-held devices have enabled our online communities to become ubiquitous and seamlessly integrated into normal life, ordinary life is starting to be stamped with the imprint of our online habits. That is, all social activity is starting to take on the cluster of assumptions and expectations appropriate to the digital technologies that now mediate so much of our interaction with one another. At the heart of these assumptions is the rebellion against embodiment. To be embodied is to be contextualized, and to be contextualized is to be limited. In the technocratic era, the limitation of embodiment represents a kind of fall from which technology promises to redeem us.

In its most extreme form this rebellion against materiality can be seen in virtual worlds like “Second Life”, where users adopt the identity of an avatar and become residence in a simulated society that mirrors the real world. But even in less extreme forms, as our social lives continue to go digital we are increasingly oriented to view the physical dimension of human contact as an unnecessary addition, rather than an essential part, to human encounters. Just as physical goods (tickets, newspapers and greeting cards) are increasingly shedding their materiality and being turned into pure information in “the cloud”, and just as physical places (banks, schools, libraries and stores) are becoming displaced by online venues offering the same services, so our social lives are also gradually shedding their physical integrity to become matters of pure information. This is why, in his 2008 book The Big Switch, Nicholas Carr could observe that “Second Life may be only a game, but its central conceit—that we can separate ourselves from our bodies and exist as avatars in a digitized landscape—is more than an amusement. It’s a metaphor for our future.” Carr backed this concern up with a 2007 study conducted by the Annenberg School for Communication’s Center for the Digital Future which found that “nearly half of the people who have joined online communities ‘say they ‘feel as strongly’ about their virtual community as they do about their real-world communities.’”

Since writing The Big Switch, Carr has collected further information on the rebellion against the body that has become the new orthodoxy in Silicon Valley. In his hot-off-the-press book Utopia Is Creepy, Carr documents how the appeal of new technologies is precisely their ability to unbundle the content of being human from the context of the human body:

“In 2014, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen sent out a rhapsodic series of tweets – he called it a ‘tweetstorm’ – announcing that computers and robots were about to liberate us all from ‘physical need constraints’…

“‘Computing is not about computers any more,’ wrote Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in his bestseller Being Digital (1995). ‘It is about living.’ By the turn of the century, Silicon Valley was selling more than gadgets and software: it was selling an ideology. The creed was set in the tradition of US techno-utopianism, but with a digital twist. The Valley-ites were fierce materialists – what couldn’t be measured had no meaning – yet they loathed materiality. In their view, the problems of the world, from inefficiency and inequality to morbidity and mortality, emanated from the world’s physicality, from its embodiment in torpid, inflexible, decaying stuff. The panacea was virtuality – the reinvention and redemption of society in computer code. They would build us a new Eden not from atoms but from bits….

“Our craving for regeneration through virtuality is the latest expression of what Susan Sontag in On Photography (1977) described as ‘the American impatience with reality, the taste for activities whose instrumentality is a machine’. What we’ve always found hard to abide is that the world follows a script we didn’t write. We look to technology not only to manipulate nature but to possess it, to package it as a product that can be consumed by pressing a light switch or a gas pedal or a shutter button. We yearn to reprogram existence, and with the computer we have the best means yet.”

Isolated by our Machines

The eighteenth-century poet, Oliver Goldsmith, wrote a moving poem called ‘The Deserted Village’ which describes the shell of an English community following rural depopulation. He contrasted the empty village to the rich tapestry of connectivity that had previously existed there. When former villagers were crowded together in cities to work the factories, they were closer geographically, with multiple families often huddled together in the same house; yet in all the crowding came isolation. No longer did their lives revolve around the rhythms of village agriculture (a context that brought people together), but the rhythms of the mechanical clock (a context that isolated people from each other and from the world itself).

Is something similar happening now as our virtual worlds connect us only to scatter and isolate us? Like workers crowded together in the slums, we are close together while also being alone. The machine-world offers a sense of connection even while being strangely isolating. It is isolating to the degree that people are invited to know us in slices, in only those slices of our content that we choose to mediate to the world.

To truly know a person, one must approach the person in all the multi-dimensionality that make up the context of their life. How different people are from machines! For a machine, the whole is only as good as the constituent parts. Consequently, parts or processes which are not strictly necessary to the machine are expunged in the interest of preserving the system’s efficiency. That is why the destiny of computers is to become smaller and smaller. But people are not like that. A person is more like a story, where the parts achieve their meaning only in relation to the whole. A person’s story does not get smaller and smaller like a computer – reduced to ones and zeros –  but larger, more complex and more embellished.

If persons are very unlike machines, they are very much like texts. It doesn’t make sense to assess which sections of a story are strictly necessary and then expunge the rest. In this sense stories are utterly inefficient, and gloriously unpragmatic. In The Wind in the Willows, you can’t fully appreciate the scene where the four friends recapture Toad Hall unless you’ve first journeyed with them in the earlier portions of the narrative. Persons are plagued by the same inefficiency as texts: you cannot fully appreciate people without being attentive to their story, immersing yourself in it, even becoming part of the story yourself.

When we try to unbundle persons from their contexts and approach them in slices, the results are dehumanizing. Consider how so many of our society’s sexual disorders hinge on the impulse to approach people in slices, unbundled from their larger contexts. To take a slice of a person’s content, and treat it as a commodity to meet my needs without being attentive to the person’s full context, is essentially to treat persons like machines. It is to splinter our lives and relationships into a type of radical particularism in which everything becomes isolated in disconnected slices.

When our humanity is split into slices, the body becomes the most dispensable slice. This struck me when I was doing journalism for a UK company and I was hired to report on the epidemic of “sexting.” I was surprised to learn that for many women the appeal of sexting was that it liberated sex from having to deal with real material people, freeing sexual relationships from the constraints that come with physical presence. The subtext was that our humanness – even our embodiment in time and space – represents a type of “fall” from which technology can redeem us.

The Anti-Poetry of Pokémon Go

Becoming unbundled from the physical world remains a dominant theme behind the Pokémon craze.

Commentators have talked about the potential for Pokémon Go to get people back to nature, to move us off our couches into the outdoors. What is often overlooked is that the Pokémon-induced “turn to nature” is possible only to the extent nature has first been turned into a commodity. In a bizarre twist, the Pokémon craze has seen the world of the real become the commercialized context for the unreal.

As nature becomes commercialized, our relationship to it is subtly changed. This is best appreciated by contrasting the artificial imagination of the Pokémon world with the vision offered by good poetry.

In the poetical vision encapsulated by G.K. Chesterton’s writings, we are invited to re-imagining the world in ways that offer a fresh appreciation for the ordinary. Similarly, the best poems are those that infuse ordinary things – daffodils, nightingales and even mundane household chores – with wonder and romance. The true poet gives us new eyes to appreciate the glory that was there all along. Pokémon, on the other hand, offers us the ultimate anti-poetry: instead of offering a fresh appreciation for the ordinary, it offers us a respite from the real. Instead of sending us back to the material world with fresh appreciation and enhanced vision, Pokémon Go sends us into nature in order to escape from it. As such, it is the fitting culmination (thus far) of the Silicon Valley meta-narrative in which the physical world is seen as an obstacle to be overcome.

Reality-enhancement apps, now in their infancy, give us the god-like power of being able to populate the world with an almost unlimited array of creatures from our own imaginations. This ability to customize reality offers what innovators of the digital age have long sought, regeneration through virtuality.

I’ll Take the Real World Any Day

Last Thursday I went for a walk with my children and some of their friends around the pond near my office. As we walked, I was impressed by how many other people were at the park, ranging from young to very old. Yet there was something strangely odd about everyone else. As they walked around the pond, they seemed oblivious to what was going on around them. They were looking at the same nature we were appreciating, but they were doing so through their electronic devices.

I asked someone what was going on and he explained that they were playing Pokémon Go.

As I continued with the children around the pond, we saw some baby ducks and gave them some bread to eat. We found some wild apples and picked them. We even saw a muskrat swim across the pond to his underwater home.

As we wound our way along the edge of the pond and back to the apple tree where we had agreed to meet some friends, my reverie was suddenly interrupted by a stranger’s voice.

“Did you see the Doduo over there?” A middle-aged stranger in glasses approached me.

“A what?” I replied.

“The Doduo. I saw one over there by the pond,” the man said, taking it for granted that I would know what he meant.

“Uh…is that something from Pokémon?” I inquired tentatively. “I don’t play Pokémon, so I didn’t see it.”

The moment I said “I didn’t see it” I suddenly felt left out. I felt like I was an outsider, isolated by myself in the real world, unable to attain to the hidden knowledge made possible by these magical devices.

Then it hit me that the Pokémon community were really the ones who were missing out. Viewing the park through the lens of their enhanced reality, they were unable to see, or at least to appreciate, the wonders that were right there in front of them. The real world is where you see baby ducks, pick apples and watch muskrats swim across the pond. But this messy, confusing, ambiguous and unpredictable world of matter is also the only place where we can love. The physical world is the place where we can touch one another. The physical world is the place where we can be human, with all its pain, beauty, imperfection, wonder and salvation.

Yes, I’ll take the real world any day over the world of Pokémon.

Further Reading