Pokémon Go as Counterfeit Reality


Satoshi Tajiri and the Origins of Pokémon

In 1998, a VHS tape arrived in my mailbox. (Or in my parents’ mailbox, more precisely, since I’d barely hit puberty.) It was A Sneak Peek at Pokémon. Since neither I (nor anyone else in the States) knew what a Pokémon was, I watched with a mix of confusion and excitement as the mythology and rules of the world were explained. I felt special, singled out—like I was at the forefront of a revolution.

The marketing worked: I got Pokémon Blue and played endlessly. It was, to my recollection, the first game I ever beat. I watched the cartoon. I bought the cards and traded them with friends. This franchise seemed to present a kind of alternative cosmos, dubbed the Pokéverse. Like Star Wars, it invites fans not only to consume, but to inhabit its world.

It’s a little unclear where, precisely, the prosaically named Pokémon World is situated. Wherever it is, there, too, man has mastered nature. But the denizens of Pokémon World have a more intimate (and more visceral) relationship with it than the average urban earthling.

Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokémon, had a fondness for collecting insects. In a 1999 interview with Time, he said:

The place where I grew up [in Machida, a western Tokyo suburb] was still rural back then. There were rice paddies, rivers, forests. It was full of nature. Then development started taking place, and as it grew, all the insects were driven away. I was really interested in collecting insects. [Later, Tajiri’s father tells me the other kids used to call Satoshi “Dr. Bug” as a child.] Every year they would cut down trees and the population of insects would decrease. The change was so dramatic. A fishing pond would become an arcade center.

It is telling to find, in his statement above, an example of video games supplanting nature. As the years, passed and urbanization increased, he noticed a familiar tendency among children:

Places to catch insects are rare because of urbanization. Kids play inside their homes now, and a lot had forgotten about catching insects. So had I. When I was making games, something clicked and I decided to make a game with that concept. Everything I did as a kid is kind of rolled into one—that’s what Pokémon is. Playing video games, watching TV, Ultraman with his capsule monsters—they all became ingredients for the game.

Near the end of the interview, Tajiri states that one of the goals of his game is to improve the lives of children. He cites the “cram school industry” as one of the reasons kids have so little leisure time. “Right now,” he states, “there isn’t much time for kids to relax. So I thought of games that could help kids fill in those five- or 10-minute gaps.”

A romp outside, a breath of fresh air, scraped knees and muddied fingernails—the urbanized child is too busy for such diversions. So Pokémon functions as a kind of substitute, a palliative, a means of relief to make the situation more tolerable.

I’ve no reason to doubt Tajiri’s sincerity. Pokémon began with intentions that, if not noble, weren’t especially nefarious. Indeed, it could be argued, and convincingly, that his was a noble accomplishment. But Pokémon isn’t the disease—it’s a symptom of a global malady.

Since 1997, the franchise—perennially dismissed as a fad—has proven to have a rare staying power.

If it were just a game and a television series and a card game and a few movies, and so forth, it wouldn’t be especially notable—at least for our purposes.

But, in 2016, Pokémon Go effected a shift in global consciousness, one whose repercussions—despite its apparent loss of popularity—are still being felt.

Pokémon Go, Google, and the Dawn of a New Medium

Pokémon Go will be remembered, if for nothing else, as the first mainstream augmented reality software. Its ties to Google are notable:

“Pokemon Go” is built on the backbone of Google technology — which isn’t surprising since Niantic Labs, the startup that created the game, was spun out last year from Alphabet, parent of Google. Many of the creators of “Pokemon Go,” including Niantic CEO John Hanke, helped to develop Google Earth and Google Maps.

Google reframed the way we understood information. Google Maps—more than any technology, perhaps, since the dawn of agriculture—reframed the way we viewed the landscape. Like the aqueduct and the dam, Google Maps acted as a mediator between man and an often-hostile external world. Those born after the obsolescence of landlines may not remember the task of asking for directions. You’d have to write everything down, drive slowly and look carefully—and even then, you weren’t sure if you’d end up in the right spot. Mapping software, of course, has its hiccups, but it’s a radical improvement upon what it replaced.

The landscape was made more hospitable by this technology, and humanity, in turn, was made softer and more dependent on the product that tamed the landscape—willingly, if somewhat unenthusiastically, ceding its privacy. We share our movements and behaviors, ceding our date, becoming products in turn.

The folks who played it weren’t farmers or hunter-gatherers. On the contrary, with its integration with location software, it appealed to city types who, it can be assumed, didn’t spend much time birdwatching or camping. But these players spent hours chasing after the artificial fauna of the urban jungle.

There were, it must be admitted, some benefits to this innovation. Weight loss among players was widely reported. The increased prevalence of personal computers, it seems, is correlated with a decrease of physical activity.

Maybe we haven’t gotten lazier. In my recent documentary, Funny How the World Ends, I cite the work of Marshall McLuhan, who thought that any medium was an extension of some part of our bodies. “Medium,” for McLuhan, is very broadly defined. We’re not just talking about, say, radio. Any “extension of ourselves” is a medium: the wheel, for example, extends the capacity of the foot, allowing its user to travel farther, carry more weight, and perform all kinds of work more efficiently.

Progress, for McLuhan, comes at a cost. New media, he states, overstimulate the central nervous system. This “superstimulation” generates “physical stress,” and “the central nervous system acts to protect itself by a strategy of amputation or isolation of the offending organ, sense, or function.” A new technological development leads to “the acceleration of pace and increase of load.” The wheel is an extension of the foot. Using the wheel as an example, he sees “the acceleration of exchange by written and monetary media” as necessitating this invention. Money and writing accelerated trade and communication, innovating upon the barter system. This increased pace resulted in increased stimulation to the central nervous system.

There was a need to traverse greater distances, and more frequently. Humankind reacted by developing the wheel—a kind of “amputation or isolation” of the foot. He writes, “The wheel as a counter-irritant to increased burdens, in turn, brings about a new intensity of action by its amplification of a separate or isolated function (the feet in rotation).” The wheel alleviated some of the stress caused by accelerated trade and communication—at the same time, it intensified this acceleration by making trade and communication, the exchange of writing and money, possible over greater distances. It did this by amplifying one function at the expense of others—in this case, “the feet in rotation.” “Such amplification,” he writes, “is bearable by the nervous system only through numbness or blocking of perception.” Anyone who has performed manual labor knows the hypnotic state that can result after long hours of repetitive, focused work—one can virtually become the implement used or the motion made.

In Understanding Media, McLuhan wrote:

With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself. To the degree that this is so, it is a development that suggests a desperate and suicidal autoamputation, as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism. It could well be that the successive mechanization of the various physical organs since the invention of printing have made too violent and superstimulated a social experience for the central nervous system to endure.

The Rise of a Counterfeit Reality?

Decades before the widespread adoption of the internet, McLuhan predicted that “the final phase of the extension of man” would be the “the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.”

This is a perfect description of the internet. The advent of social media only amplified “the technological simulation of consciousness,” collectivizing and corporatizing the “creative process of knowing.” If McLuhan is correct, there would follow a requisite, and severe, “superstimulation.” This could make sense of the apparent rise of loneliness and depression among some social media users. According to the study cited, “limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being.”

Unfortunately, in a world increasingly linked to technology, such a suggestion is a mere short-term solution. Google, perhaps the most powerful force driving this increased connection, has, in the form of Pokémon Go!, provided a suitable numbing mechanism. Pokémon Go!, more any platform before it, helped create a “buffer” between the user and a world that overcharges the central nervous system.

Google Maps and similar technology caused us to reinterpret the meaning of the landscape. In America, and throughout most of the developed world, landscape is now conceived in cooperation with “the technological simulation of consciousness.”

This may sound outlandish, but the example of asking for directions can prove instructive here. As noted, we formerly had to rely on ourselves, and the one giving directions, to know where to go. Assuming we were directed accurately, it was our internal judgment that determined whether or not we’d arrive safely. Now that the “creative process of knowing” has been “collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society,” Google provides a far more reliable alternative.

“The technological simulation of consciousness” seeks, like the organic the consciousness it simulates, to be the ground of our experience. The manufacturers of consciousness can modify experience to suit their ends. If properly engineered, it could yield a global phenomenon, an entertainment far more intimate than the average video game—Pokémon Go is proof of concept.

There’s no need for conspiracy theories. Assume there are powerful actors conspiring, and with truly nefarious motives—it’s of only temporal consequence. Those who guide great developments are never its author. They are, on the contrary, handmaidens of the lord of this world—and history is not under his authority.

It is imprudent to speak of an endgame—on this side of the veil, at least. But the developments we’re witnessing will have consequences, perhaps severe ones.

The commercial possibilities are obvious. And it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to how AR could be used for surveillance and propaganda. It’s military applications have been widely reported.

In 2017, TechRadar offered an insightful look at the Combat Vehicle 90. Manufactured by BAE Systems, this tank-like machine employs AR to facilitate more efficient killing:

The CV90 is already a formidable machine, a combat vehicle large enough to hold eight troops and configurable to include 30, 35 and 40mm autocannons.

But, building on BAE’s sixty years worth of experience in designing heads-up displays, the aim is to make a metaphoric “vehicle of glass” through new augmented reality advances […]

Where once a gunner on recon would had to have left themselves exposed on the top of a tank in order to operate a machine gun turret, AR headsets will let them not only get a 360-degree view of the battlefield from the relative comfort inside the machine, but also to actively engage automatically-tracked combatants, using AI image recognition systems with access to extensive “threat libraries” that sieve expansive amounts of information in order to make a call on who is or isn’t a foe.

One would, I think, not be paranoid to ask precisely what information is collected, and how. What distinguishes combatants from civilians, and what crimes must one commit to be incorporated into the “threat libraries”?

Previously, soldiers would have to rely on snap judgments—not always correct, admittedly—to determine the guilty from the innocent. According to a BAE representative, this “cognitive load” can be reduced through AR technology:

Cognitive load can be traced back to three main factors: too many choices, too much thought required for an action, and lack of clarity[…] The less vehicle crews must think about what they must do to achieve their goals, the more likely that they’ll actually achieve them.

I’ve warned elsewhere of deepfake technology. It will—because it must—develop to a point where no fact is verifiable.

AR could provide a solution that, if not desirable, is quite convenient. If “the technological simulation of consciousness” could perform judgments for us, we would be spared the burden of thinking.

Is this, then, progress of the worst sort? My answer is in the negative. Whatever forces are aligned in the service of injustice and oppression and evil, however vast their numbers, however powerful their armaments, they’re infinitely outmatched. Ask King David. Ask John of Patmos. My proposed solution, platitudinous as it sounds, is not violence, but vigilance—is faith, hope, and, above all, charity.

For God can transform even the most rabid enemy of Truth, and enlist him as a servant of the Gospel. Ask Paul:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

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