I haven’t had time to write my thoughts on Blade Runner 2049. I’ve seen the film three times now, and I’m still digesting the film and its implications. In the meantime, however, I’ve made a short montage of scenes from the original Blade Runner (though set to a piece of the new movie’s score). It’s something I’ve had in mind for a long time: a compilation of all the eye imagery, representations of vision, and related elements in the film. There’s nothing worse than an itch you can never scratch, so I’m relieved to have finally scratched this one. It’s about five minutes long and you can watch it below.
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/241344857″>Filmic Vision in Blade Runner</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user73754156″>Curry Chandler</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
Also, last week I successfully tracked down the IMDB user review of Blade Runner from back in high school. I wrote it in 2003 when I was 17 years old. The review title declares Blade Runner the “epitome of film as an art form”. It was cringe-inducing for me to revisit after all these years, but I’m glad IMDB has maintained the reviews. You can read my Blade Runner review (and all my other IMDB user reviews) here.
Today’s Google doodle honors Marshall McLuhan’s 106th birthday. Traditionally these commemorative doodles use images and designs based on a historic event or person’s life to “spell” out a version of the Google logo. This animated doodle consists of scenes depicting the successive eras of communication media as outlined by McLuhan. Beginning with oral culture in tribal society, the subsequent images progress through: written language and alphabet; the assembly line industrialism of “typographic man;” an animated McLuhan speaking on a TV screen; a human figure drumming in a village scene (perhaps evoking “second orality” or the return of acoustic space); and finally village huts arranged around a circuit board node to represent the Global Village. Clicking the doodle brings up the McLuhan estate web site and his Wikipedia page, along with several news articles and editorials calling McLuhan “the man who predicted the internet.” This is extremely reductionist, of course, but what more can you expect from a Google search? Happy birthday, Herbert.
A Media History of the City
A media history of the city could take on any number of forms. The shape of this history would largely be determined by how we defined its key terms. How should “the city” be understood? Such a history could begin in ancient or pre-historical times, starting with the earliest human settlements and urban agglomerations. On the other hand, it would also be possible to select a single moment along this vast timeline and analyze this temporal snapshot to see how various media are intersecting with urban life. This history could even be a contemporary history of modern media practices and institutions and their role in the urban experience. The other key question is how “media” should be understood. What media should be included in our study? How inclusive or exclusive should our definition be? Depending on how expansive our definition is, our history could begin by looking at human settlements established in pre-literate societies where spoken language was the primary communication medium. Our history could also look at the development of alphabets, and the role of various writing media such as tablets, papyrus, and parchment in facilitating the construction and governance of cities. Our history could instead follow a traditional mass communication view of modern media. In contemporary New York City place names such as Radio City Music Hall and Times Square attest to the impact that media of mass communication has made in urban spaces.
In order to limit the scope of this essay, I will frame my response as a curriculum overview for an imagined undergraduate course on media and the city. Framing the response in this way provides a framework and rationale for defining the terms of our analysis and the range of history we can reasonably attempt. A typical U.S. undergraduate introductory course in media studies approaches its subject using the “big 5” traditional media: newspapers, magazines, film, radio, and TV. For the sake of this essay, and imagining a potential undergraduate course based on this subject, I will structure my response around these “big 5” traditional media. Also in following the structure of a typical undergraduate media course, the history I present will correspond to the history of mass communication in the United States. The history I offer here is mostly confined to the 20th century, and focuses on U.S. cities. As such, this imaginary course I am outlining could be called “History of U.S. media and urbanization.” In what follows, I offer five key moments in this “media history of the city,” with each moment corresponding to one of the big 5 traditional media. Each entry will offer some historical information on the development of that media form, and a case study that illustrates the intersection between media use and the life of city. Finally, I will offer a sixth moment and case study that accounts for more recent developments in digital media and technological convergence, as well as salient aspects of urban life in the 21st century metropolis.
Moment One: Penny Papers and Newsboys on Strike
Early colonial newspapers tended to be political in nature, what were called the “partisan press” as opposed to commercial papers. In the 1830s, technological developments associated with the industrial revolution allowed for new paper production practices. Expensive handmade paper could be replaced by cheaper mass produced paper. Before this change in production, newspapers cost about 5 cents to purchase, which was relatively expensive for the time. Therefore newspaper readers tended to be affluent. Using the less expensive production techniques, publishers could sell papers for as cheap as 1 cent. Thus the “penny press” or “penny papers” were born, and this is the moment when newspapers truly became a mass media. Newspaper publishers had long relied on subscription service for reliable purchases of their papers, but in the penny press era individual street sales became an important part of the business model as well. One of the major penny press papers was the New York Sun owned by Benjamin Day. Under Day’s stewardship, the Sun privileged accounts of the daily triumphs and travails of the human condition, what are now known as “human interest stories.”
The penny papers introduced many innovations that remain part of the newspaper industry today, including assigning “beat” reporters to cover special story topics such as crime, and shifting the economic basis for publishing from the support of political parties (as in the “partisan press” era) to the market. The penny press era gave rise to an increase in newspaper production with an emphasis on competitive, profitable papers. This economic environment set the stage for some of the most famous newspaper barons to enter the scene. For instance, Joseph Pulitzer bought the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst bought the New York Journal shortly thereafter. Pulitzer pushed for the use of maps and illustrations in his papers, so that immigrants who were not fluent in English could understand the stories. Both Pulitzer and Hearst used bold headlines and layouts to attract reader attention. These practices became emblematic of the yellow journalism period, a term that also connotes sensationalism and even unscrupulous journalistic standards. Pulitzer and Hearst papers did call for social reforms and drew attention to the poor living conditions of poor immigrants in the cities; however, the papers also embellished stories, fabricated interviews, and staged promotional stunts in order to increase reader interest and boost circulation. In 1895, a conflict began that would go on to boost both papers’ fortunes. The island of Cuba had been a colony of Spain since the arrival of Columbus, and in 1895 an insurrection began against Spanish rule that would become known as the Cuban War of Independence. At the time Hearst and Pulitzer were engaged in a war of their own: a circulation war. Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s papers used the conflict to sell papers and boost circulation, deriding Spain in headlines and calling for U.S. intervention. In 1898 the U.S. ship the Maine was sent to Cuba and exploded and sank in Havana harbor, with hundreds of sailors killed. The World and the Journal ran headlines like “Spanish Murderers” and “Remember the Maine,” and the Spanish-American War is still remembered as a prime example of propaganda in the U.S. media swaying public opinion in favor of war, even when facts were misrepresented or embellished.
Benjamin Day’s New York Sun did not offer a subscription service, and instead relied solely on individual street sales to make a profit. To better distribute his papers, Day placed a wanted ad seeking workers to sell the newspapers on the street. Day expected adult workers to respond to the ad, but he found instead that children inquired about the job instead. The first vendor he hired was 10 year old Irish immigrant who would take bundles of papers onto a street corner and shout out the most arresting headlines to get reader interest. Soon this became a new and pervasive method of selling newspapers on city streets. These newspaper vendors or “hawkers” were also called newsboys or paperboys, although girls were often found in their ranks as is evident in many of the photographs taken of children news vendors at the time. These children worked long hours, often through late nights and early mornings, and even sleeping on front stoops or in the street, something also attested to by photographs of the period. Vendors would buy bundles of newspapers from the publishers, and they were not refunded for unsold papers. In 1899, in the wake of the boost in circulation numbers precipitated by the Spanish-American War coverage, many publishers raised the price of newsboy bundles from 50 cents to 60 cents. In response, in July 1899, newsboys refused to sell Pulitzer and Hearst papers. Newsboys demonstrated in the thousands and broke up newspaper distribution in the streets. One gathering blocked off the Brooklyn Bridge, disrupting traffic across the East river as well as interrupting news circulation throughout the entire region. Pulitzer tried to hire adults to vend his newspapers but they were sympathetic to the newsboys’ plight and refused to defy the strike. He did hire men to break up newsboy demonstrations and to protect newspaper deliveries. The newsboys asked the public to not buy any newspapers until the cost of bundles was lowered and the strike was resolved. Eventually the publishers relented: although the cost of bundles was not decreased, the publishers agreed to buy back unsold papers from the newsboys. The strike ended in August 1899, two weeks after it had started.
The 1899 Newsboy Strike is a significant moment in the history of U.S. media, U.S. urban life, and U.S. labor relations. New York City was built by a great deal of immigrant labor, and many of these laborers were children. It is important to remember and acknowledge this important part of U.S. urban history. The 1899 strike was credited for inspiring similar newsboy strikes in Butte, Montana and Louisville, Kentucky. It is an important story in the history of labor law reform in the U.S., even though it is not as well-remembered as landmark events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. While the newsboy strike did not lead to the sort of immediate reforms that the Shirtwaist factory disaster did, it did impact the implementation of child labor laws in the city over the following decades. Furthermore this case illustrates the practices of distribution and circulation that newspapers relied on, as well as the political economy of the media and its relationship to national and global politics.
Moment Two: Muckraking Magazines and the Shame of the Cities
The modern magazine has decidedly “urban” roots. The word “magazine” originally referred to a storehouse for munitions. The first use of the term to refer to a publication was in 1731 by “The Gentleman’s Magazine” published in London. The publisher of “The Gentleman’s Magazine” used the pen name Sylvanus Urban, and this is what I meant when I said that magazines had “urban” roots. As with newspapers, developments of the industrial revolution such as conveyor systems and printing processes allowed for less expensive manufacturing practices, and therefore magazines could be sold cheaper and reach a wider audience. Another significant development was the Postal Act of 1879, which reduced the postal rates of magazines to the same price as newspapers, making the cost of a magazine subscription affordable for more Americans. Additionally, more and more jobs and people were moving from rural areas to cities. As increasing numbers of immigrants came together in urban cores, national magazines helped facilitate the formation of national identities as opposed to local or regional identity. Relatedly, the increase in the number of dime stores, drug stores, and department stores created new venues for consumer items, and magazines offered new venues for advertising these items. Ladies’ Home Journal was known for running the latest consumer advertisements, and became the first magazine to reach a subscription base of one million customers, reflecting the growth of the female consumer base.
In addition to sustaining and reflecting the growing consumer economy in the country, magazines also played an important role in social reform movements. Jane Addams reportedly first read about the settlement house movement from a magazine article (possibly from an article in Century magazine). With her interest piqued by the article, Addams and a friend soon travelled to London to visit the first settlement house, Toynbee Hall. The settlement house movement advocated the establishment of “settlement houses” in poor areas where middle class volunteers would come and live, with the goal of alleviating conditions of poverty and creating solidarity among the social classes. Two years after visiting Toynbee Hall Addams opened the first U.S. settlement house, Hull House in Chicago. Addams also wrote articles about the settlement house movement for magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal and McClure’s. Another important role of magazines in social reform movements was related to photojournalism. Magazines had the ability to reproduce high quality photographs, giving them a visual edge against other media of the day. In the late 1880s an emigrant to the U.S. named Jacob Riis became shocked at the living conditions in the New York City slums and purchased a detective camera to document life in these areas. Riis exhibited his photographs as part of a public lecture presentation called “The Other Half: How it Lives and Dies in New York.” The lectures became popular and Riis wrote an article based on his lectures for Scribner’s Magazine. His project was eventually published as a book.
The aforementioned McClure’s magazine was a hotbed of reform-minded journalism at the turn of the 20th century. At the end of the 1800s the magazine had published exposes on the working conditions of miners and corporate practices of the Standard Oil Company. In 1901 journalist Lincoln Steffens published the first article in a series on corruption in U.S. cities. Steffens first went to St. Louis and reported on the machinations of the local political machine. Next he went to Minneapolis, and found the mayor and police chief colluding to take bribes for local houses of prostitution. Then he went to Pittsburgh (Pittsburg at the time), writing that “if the environment of Pittsburg is hell with the lid off, the political scene in the city is hell with the lid on.” The final entries in the series were based on visits to Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. The series was eventually published in book form in 1904, titled The Shame of the Cities. The articles made Steffens a national celebrity and inspired a trend of similar expose articles in magazines, including Cosmopolitan’s “The Treason of the Senate”. Steffen’s magazine articles became icons of the muckraker movement, so called by president Roosevelt because they climbed through society’s much to cover the stories. The muckraking journalists are an important part of U.S. media history, and the social reform movements are an important part of U.S. urban history.
Moment Three: Movie Palaces and a Tale of One City
As with newspapers and magazines, the development of motion pictures was closely tied to technological and social developments occurring as part of the industrial revolution. Developments in celluloid film, electric lighting, and the mechanical gears to turn film reels all contributed to technological underpinnings of film as a mass media. In France the Lumiere brothers invented one of the earliest film cameras, and the first film they shot was of workers leaving their family factory in Lyon. In the U.S., Thomas Edison developed the kinetograph, and shortly thereafter established an association of film and technology producers called the Trust. The Trust was a consortium of U.S. and French producers who agreed to pool film technology patents. Edison had also made an arrangement with George Eastman to make the Trust the exclusive recipient of Eastman’s motion picture film stock. To escape the control of the Trust, independent film producers left the traditional motion picture centers of New York and New Jersey. They went west, eventually settling in Southern California which offered cheap labor, ample space, and a mild climate that allowed for year-round location shooting. Southern California became the center of the U.S. film industry, and Hollywood became a toponym for the U.S. studio system (and remains metonymic of that industry today). The Hollywood studio system was built on vertical integration, which meant ownership of every means of the movie production process. This included production (everything involved in making a movie), distribution (getting movies to theaters), and exhibition (the process of screening the movies). Edison’s Trust tried to get the edge on exhibition by controlling the flow of films to theaters. The Hollywood studios instead decided to buy theaters themselves. The Edison Trust was eventually ended due to trade violations, and the Hollywood studios controlled every part of movie production and circulation. Paramount studios alone owned more than 300 theaters. During this period of film exhibition, movie studies built single-screen movie palaces, often ornate architectural achievements that offered a more hospitable viewing environment. Some of the most ornate and expansive movie palaces were built in Chicago. The architectural firm of Balaban and Kurtz designed many of the most famous, including the landmark Chicago Theatre (originally called the Balaban & Kurtz Chicago Theater). Other Chicago theaters built by the firm included the Oriental, the Riviera, and the Uptown theaters. The Uptown theater was the largest movie palace built in the United States.
In 1906 of a group of Chicago officials, designers, and business interests met to discuss the various problems facing the city. The Columbia Exposition a few years earlier had been received as a great success, but now problems of overcrowding, congestion, and the growth of manufacturing in the city were causing concern. This group of stakeholders met over a period of 30 months, and in 1909 they finalized their agreed-upon plan. The Chicago Plan proposed sweeping improvements to the city including rehabilitating the waterfront, redirecting railroad traffic in the city, and redesigning streets to permit better flow in and out of the business district. The mayor signed off on the proposal and then ordered a massive public relations campaign to promote the plan. Informative lectures explaining the plan were held throughout the city, articles and editorials were published in the newspapers, and the proposals were even summarized into a textbook that was taught in city schools, and a generation of Chicago school children grew up learning the values of the Chicago Plan. Also produced as part of this campaign was a two reel film titled A Tale of One City. This film was screened in city movie theaters continuously as part of the vigorous PR effort. Communication scholar James Hay has written about the role of the film in promoting the Chicago Plan as a significant moment in the history of urban renewal projects. The role of the film’s exhibition in the promotional campaign demonstrates the significance of the networks of film distribution and exhibition in reaching a mass audience, but also how the architectural design and location of downtown theaters in the city center made movie theaters important sites for engaging the public and shaping the vision of future urban development.
The Paramount decision of 1948 ended vertical integration and required studios to give up their theaters. This ended the era of studio control, but opened up new venues for film screening such as art houses that exhibited foreign films and documentaries, as well as hundreds of drive-in movie theaters for the millions of filmgoers who now had automobiles. As Americans moved to the suburbs, the movies did, too, building new forms of theaters in multiplexes and then megaplexes. While industry expressions such as “blockbuster” harken back to the role of downtown theaters in film exhibition (the term refers to patrons lined up “around the block” to get into a movie theater), most of the movie palaces have been repurposed, disused, or destroyed. Methods of film distribution and exhibition have significantly changed, and the downtown theaters and movie palaces have been largely replaced by suburban multiplexes. The example of A Tale of One City shows, however, that for a time downtown movie theaters played an integral part in the public life of the city.
Moment Four: Radio Remotes and Mediated Urban Nightlife
The groundwork of popular broadcast radio was being established during the late 1800s. Developments in telegraphy and the theoretical proof of electromagnetic waves were among the chief developments in this early history of the medium. The rise of the new medium of the airwaves was soon reflected in the built form of the U.S. metropolis, which was also turning increasingly skyward. By the 1920s and 30s radio broadcasters were transmitting from the Metropolitan Life building in Manhattan, and the Chrysler and Empire State buildings were designed and built with spires to serve as antennas for broadcasting radio transmissions.
In 1923 a nightclub called the Cotton Club opened in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. The Cotton Club was a whites-only establishment, even though the club featured many of the premiere African American performers of the time. In 1927 Duke Ellington and his band the Washingtonians opened at the Cotton Club. Not long after, a Manhattan-based radio station began broadcasting Ellington’s performances live from the Cotton Club. Scholar Tim Wall has written about the Ellington remotes (the radio industry term for these live, on-location broadcasts) as occurring during a moment of transition for both radio and jazz. The technological, organizational, and cultural futures for the new medium were still being explored and negotiation. The broadcasting of jazz music was significant during this period as well. In 1929, radio network WABC began broadcasting the Ellington performances. WABC broadcast nationally, so now Ellington was being transmitted coast-to-coast. As Wall argues, the national broadcasting of jazz music represented the intrusion of urban life and culture into the country. In 1930 another radio network picked up the Ellington broadcasts, and now the performances were heard on the flagship stations of NBC’s Red and Blue networks. These broadcasts grew Ellington’s fame, and he recorded more than a hundred compositions during this period. The Ellington broadcasts represent a significant moment in the regulatory history of radio, but also the attempts of the young medium to establish a cultural role for its programming. The case of the Ellington Cotton Club remotes also represents how urban culture and performance, and especially African American culture, was being mediated through the shifting systems of national radio networks.
Moment Five: Sitcom Suburbs and the Urban Crisis
Television truly became a mass medium in the years following World War II. Housing subsidies and entrepreneurial real estate developments privileged private suburban construction. Many Americans left urban centers to move to the suburbs, which had a lower tax base. Home ownership doubled between 1945 and 1950. As Americans left cities, and therefore also left the downtown movie theaters, music halls, and other urban venues of recreation and entertainment, radio became a cheap alternative to the movies. The years 1948 and 1949 saw peak radio listenership. After that, television replaced radio as the dominant medium in the home.
In addition to the role of housing policies and subsidies in spurring suburban development, there were also many discriminatory housing policies designed to keep U.S. minorities from moving into suburban communities. This practice has been referred to as American apartheid, and is one of the driving factors of the “urban crisis” that developed in U.S. urban life and discourse during this period. The scholar Dolores Hayden has used the phrase “sitcom suburbs” to refer to the homogenous developments that were also depicted in many of the nationally popular sitcoms during this period. One early flare up of these tensions happened in the Los Angeles area. In 1965, California voters passed a proposition that effectively repealed a fair housing act designed to alleviate discriminatory policies that prevented black and Mexican Americans from buying and renting in certain areas. Shortly thereafter, riots began in the Watts district and lasted for 5 days. More riots occurred in U.S. cities in 1967, and again in April 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In each of these cases, the U.S. news media broadcast TV images that have become iconic of these riots and the overall “urban crisis” that came to dominate discourses on U.S. cities for decades.
Following the riots President Johnson appointed a special commission to investigate the causes of the unrest, and suggest how to prevent further unrest. The Kerner Commission detailed several factors that contributed to the urban riots, including explicit and implicit racism and housing discrimination. The commission also called attention to the news media for coverage that misrepresented facts of life in these cities and contributed to a deepening of divisions between white and black Americans. The Kerner Commission’s concerns were echoed by media theorist George Gerbner in his cultivation theory of television, which posits that increased exposure to violent TV programming cultivates a worldview in the viewer in which they perceive reality to be more dangerous than it really is. This period of urban fear and flight, the move to fortified homes and gated communities, has analogous developments in media coverage and development up to today.
Moment Six: Oppa Gangnam Style
Our history so far has taken us from 1899 to 1968. In this last section, let us catch up on some of the developments that occurred in the last 60 years or so. Developments in microprocessor technology led to a computer revolution. Beginning in the 1980s, home computers became more popular and were predicted to revolutionize daily life. Developments in graphical user interfaces allowed everyday, non-technical users to approach computers. In the late 1960s the U.S. defense department began researching a redundant communication system that could remain intact following a nuclear attack. The project. ARPAnet, eventually developed into the Internet. Web browsers and HTML, such as Tim Berners-Lee’s “worldwideweb” launched in 1990, have enabled the Internet to become a mass medium. The computer revolution has also lead to unprecedented technological convergence. Computers connected to the internet have access to the full array of media content. Developments in smartphone technology have changed what was once merely a phone in a mobile device and site of media convergence, and increasingly the favorite device for media consumption and production.
On December 21, 2012, a milestone was reached. The music video for Psy’s “Gangnam Style” became the first video on YouTube to receive one billion views. The case of Gangnam Style can tell us a lot about the state of mass media industries, as well as the state of cities, in our present moment. Psy is a K-Pop musical act, which stands for “Korean Pop,” a genre originating in South Korea. His global popularity points to the importance of transnational media flows in the contemporary media environment. For instance, the increasing importance of the Chinese box office market for the Hollywood studio system. Also, the fact that his popularity spread globally via the Internet indicates the significance of media convergence, as well as how digital platforms for media circulation have upset the traditional forms of media dissemination, as well as changed our metrics for gauging media success (i.e. YouTube views versus box office, Nielsen ratings, or circulation numbers, etc.).
Gangnam Style also tells us a lot about cities in the early 21st century. The title of Psy’s song refers to the Gangnam district in Seoul, South Korea. The Gangnam district is known for its affluence, and is a hip and trendy neighborhood. This association, and the apparently mocking portrayal of lavish lifestyles in the music video, have led some commentators to interpret the song as a satirical and subversive critique of conspicuous consumption. It should be noted that Psy’s own comments about the meaning of the song do not support these interpretations. Regardless, the Gangnam Style example can help illustrate the valorization of cities that has been a trend of post-industrial economics and post-modern cultural practices. In the 1970s New York City went through a fiscal crisis. City services were sparse, the city government almost went broke, and crime and visible disorder in the city reached peak levels. As part of the city’s recovery and repositioning, the I ❤ (love) NY branding campaign appeared. This campaign has remained hugely popular, and is representative of a postmodern consumption of the symbolic capital of cities. Another salient example would be the tote bags sold by American Apparel that just list names of global cities (Madrid, Tokyo, London, etc.). These cultural products, and the Gangnam Style song, are indicative of a revanchist return of capital to city centers. These examples, and indeed neighborhoods such as Seoul’s Gangnam, also point to the role of gentrification as a global urban strategy for development. In this way, Gangnam Style can serve as a vehicle for addressing some of the most pressing issues facing urban citizens today.
I’ve recently returned from London where I attended a workshop on Urban Change and Moving Images hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image. It was intellectually gratifying to engage with scholars of film, media, and cities over several days, as well as personally refreshing to indulge my lifelong passion for cinema. In addition to the screening sessions in the BIMI cinema, we also enjoyed multiple sojourns across the city to tour historic cinema sites and contemporary production locations. There was also a “mediated city” walking tour, particularly relevant to my research interests, that highlighted various media and communication infrastructure embedded in the urban environment. I relished the opportunity to discuss film and visual culture with scholars and colleagues, and also to share perspectives on urban change and space/place between London and Pittsburgh.
One of the Pitt film students presented on skating spaces in Philadelphia and London, so after the workshop the doctoral students made a pilgrimage to the Southbank skateboard mecca. The Southbank skate park is notable for its decades-long history as part of London’s urban fabric, as a locus for urban art forms, and also as an example of successful opposition to redevelopment. In 2013 the Long Live Southbank coalition successfully prevented a redesign that would’ve removed the extant skating space. It’s a rare example of anti-redevelopment victory (similar campaigns against the redevelopment of Love plaza in Philly were not successful), and raises significant questions about the various factors affecting such movements in cities around the world. The iconic 5 Pointz mural space in Queens possessed at least as much claim to cultural and historic significance as Southbank, yet these claims were challenged in court and ultimately the space was demolished.
It was a great trip and a much needed rejuvenating jolt of creative energy as I begin working on my dissertation project in earnest. The only downside is that I’ve had to reevaluate and overhaul my current research projects in light of the insightful feedback and innovative scholarship offered during the workshop. In addition to critical theories of film and visual culture my major takeaways from the event included ways of historicizing and theorizing media infrastructure in urban space, perspectives on the role of film in mediating experiences of space and place, and new (to me, at least) models of participatory research praxis. It can be tough coming back to Pittsburgh after spending some time in a such a rich and endlessly fascinating city as London, yet trips like these are a reminder of the global flows and phenomenons of development that can be seen manifesting in cities around the world, and a realization of the fecund opportunities for research and exploration waiting to be actualized. And, of course, it’s always good to come home.
This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive exams. It was written in response to the prompt: “Define Media Ecology.”
The meaning of the phrase “media ecology” will likely depend on the context in which it is used. When the phrase appears in popular discourse, it is often used in a journalistic or editorial context to refer broadly to the array of extant media forms in a sense that could also be captured by similar expressions such as “media environment” or “media landscape”. President Barack Obama used the phrase in this sense in an interview published in the November 2016 issue of Vanity Fair. While his discussing his success in reaching demographically diverse audiences, and particularly younger Americans, Obama referred to “this whole other media ecology of the Internet and Instagram and memes and talk shows and comedy.” Obama characterized his decisions to appear on late night talk shows and the online comedy series “Between Two Ferns” as strategic adaptations to a changing media landscape, one in which young Americans are receiving news and information through social media sites rather than through traditional media channels and news sources. In order to reach a demographic that is largely not tuning in to TV and other traditional media outlets, Obama appeared on “Between Two Ferns” to discuss the Affordable Care Act in a comedy video that went viral online, and ultimately reached more members of a younger age bracket than he might have through a standard speech or news sound bite.
This essay offers a different definition of media ecology, although one that is not entirely dissimilar to the popular usage of the term. Within the fields of media and communication studies “media ecology” denotes a distinct line of inquiry shaped by certain questions and assumptions. Even in this specialized use of the phrase, media ecology can be understood in many different ways. Media ecology is a perspective on media effects. Media ecology is a tradition of scholarly inquiry characterized by common concerns and related areas of inquiry. Media ecology can also be understood as a body of literature in media and communication studies. The writing and research that make up this body of literature, however, demonstrate many of the concerns about media that are indicated by deployment of the phrase in popular discourse. For example, many media ecologists have focused their studies on the changing nature of public discourse in the context of a rapidly changing media landscape, as well as questions of media usage and relevancy across different demographics of media users and audiences.
In order to develop a general definition of the media ecology perspective this essay will consider three of the major conceptualizations of the term throughout the literature, as offered and exemplified by three scholars most closely affiliated with the tradition. The first of these figures is Marshall McLuhan, a central thinker in the media ecology literature and perhaps the most influential theorist in the field. McLuhan is a significant figure in the development of media studies, and several of his insights and aphorisms about media effects serve as foundational elements of the media ecology perspective. The key aspect of McLuhan’s use of the ecological metaphor is his notion of media as extensions of human faculties. The second figure is Neil Postman, an intellectual, educator, and founder of the program in Media Ecology at New York University. Postman trained and inspired a generation of card-carrying and certified “media ecologists.” Postman’s use of the ecological metaphor is tied to his idea of media as environments. Lastly, Lance Strate is a graduate of the NYU media ecology program and a founding member of the Media Ecology Association. The MEA is a scholarly and professional association that works to continue, refine, and expand the media ecology tradition. Strate’s understanding of the ecological metaphor is defined by his approach to media as media.
Media ecology is an intellectual perspective concerned with the impact of communication technology on human culture and behavior, particularly in relation to environmental and ideological effects attributable to the inherent characteristics of technological forms. Across the theories surveyed here (as well as many others not mentioned in this essay) these various perspectives that comprise media ecology share these features in common.
McLuhan and the Toronto School: Media as Extensions
Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in 1911 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. As a graduate student he studied at Cambridge and was particularly interested in the trivium, the part of the liberal arts comprised by logic, grammar, and rhetoric. McLuhan wrote a dissertation on the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe, a somewhat obscure figure who was a prodigious pamphleteer. McLuhan held several academic posts before settling at the University of Toronto. His interest in classical literature and print culture, as well as education and pedagogy, lead him to an interest in how emerging electronic modes of communication would impact traditional literacy and learning. His first book, The Mechanical Bride, looked at the role of the mass communication media in producing popular culture, with a particular focus on advertising. McLuhan wrote in the book that for the first time in human history thousands of the best-educated minds were actively engaged in the business of influencing the “collective mind”. McLuhan used Edgar Allen Poe’s short story Descent in the Maelstrom as a recurring literary reference but also significant analogy for his purpose in writing the book. In Poe’s story, a mariner is the sole survivor of a shipwreck and finds himself drawn into a whirlpool. The mariner studies the effects of the whirlpool on other objects (barrels, ropes, and other detritus from the sunken ship); by observing the maelstrom’s effects on each of these objects, the mariner is able to comport himself in such a way that he manages to swim away, rather than be carried under and drown. McLuhan makes an analogy between the situation of the mariner and the threatened by a whirlpool of pop culture and mass media messages. His second book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, posited an array of sweeping societal effects ushered in by the Gutenberg printing press. McLuhan argues that the introduction of movable type printing had major ramifications for European consciousness and culture. Specifically McLuhan highlights the uniformity and repeatability of the texts produced by the printing press, connecting this uniform and repeatable character to the rise of nationalism, new specializations and regimentation in society, and associated feelings of alienation. It was in this book that McLuhan first used the phrase “the global village” to refer to the linking and homogenizing effects of the mass media.
McLuhan’s breakout book and most lasting contribution to media studies came in 1964 with the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. This book also presented McLuhan’s ideas about media as extensions, a concept that would become a fundamental aspect of the media ecology perspective. Central to McLuhan’s use of the ecological metaphor is his notion of sense-ratios, and the idea that the characteristics of each communication media altered the relation of the five senses to each other. Key to this concept is the dichotomy between aural space and visual space. Before the invention of written language humanity lived in acoustic space, defined by the primacy of spoken communication. Acoustic space, McLuhan says, engages all of the senses at once (besides hearing the spoken communication you also visually register the source of the sound, and the sonorous even has an embodied/tactile element, etc.). By contrast, the printed word of typographic space engages primarily with the visual sense. In McLuhan’s terminology, acoustic space is characterized by an “all-at-once-ness,” a simultaneity of sensory engagement. An additional component of this aspect of acoustic space is that spoken language is not recorded or “frozen in time” as written language is, further contributing to this temporal notion of “all-at-once-ness.” Typographic space is characterized by a linear, segmented, “one-at-a-time-ness.” Just like reading the printed word, typographic space (or typographic consciousness) comprehends discrete elements in a linear fashion. McLuhan believed that the advent of electronic media signaled a return to acoustic space. The flow of images and disjointed nature of channel surfing introduced by television disrupted the linear character of typographic culture. Television enables a stream of images and information from different times, places, and sources, thereby retrieving the “all-at-once-ness” of acoustic space and inaugurating the electronic global village.
Understanding Media also included McLuhan’s first use of the expression “the medium is the message.” Through this phrase McLuhan sought to convey the idea that the lasting significance of any communication technology is not the specific content it transmits, but rather the change of pace and scale introduced into human affairs by virtue of the technology’s inherent characteristics. This articulation represents a further development of the ideas first put forth in Gutenberg Galaxy. The electric lightbulb is an archetypal example for McLuhan, as it has no specific “content” per se, but its introduction into society lead to significant changes as artificial light made possible a range of activities to be done indoors and times of the day that would not have been practical previously. As evident by the book’s subtitle, McLuhan saw all media and technology as extensions of human faculties, either physical or psychic. The wheel is an extension of the foot, as it “extends” the capacity for human travel by enabling the covering of distances beyond what is capable by mere human locomotion. Clothing and housing are extensions of the skin and body, increasing capabilities for shelter and protection. The technology of written language is understood as an extension of the eye, as it enables a “seeing” of things not actually present but represented in the language. Every extension, however, is accompanied by an amputation. McLuhan says that in response to the shock and disorientation of these extensions changing the sense-ratios, the central nervous responds by “numbing” other areas in order to cope. Radio may extend our aural senses, but there are associated deficiencies in other senses, such as the visual. These extensions and amputations have psychic and physiological effects. This represents a key use of ecological metaphors in McLuhan’s media theories, one based on the self-regulating perspective on ecological systems, where a change in one part of the system results in changes in other areas in order to maintain equilibrium or homeostasis.
There is an additional component of McLuhan’s use of ecological metaphors. He argued that not only did media alter the relationships of the five senses to each other, they also altered the relationships between different media. Thus the introduction of popular radio broadcasts impacted how news was reported, and also affected the use of sound in motion pictures. When media combine, McLuhan said, the form and use of each are altered. Furthermore, the pace, scale, and intensity of human affairs are affected, as are the sense-ratios of the users. McLuhan used the ecological metaphor again in reference to a holistic implementation of various media technologies so as to compensate for ways in which they might “cancel each other out.” Specifically in relation to using media to facilitate classroom learning, McLuhan suggested using different media for different purposes in such a way that the media complement each other and provide the fullest sensory engagement. McLuhan’s writings on the societal impacts introduced by communication media proved very influential. Walter Ong, whose MA thesis was supervised by McLuhan, went on to write Orality and Literacy, a book comparing differences between oral cultures and literate cultures through a broad historical survey. Orality and literacy studies remains an important aspect of media ecology-related communication studies. Elizabeth Eisenstein cited McLuhan in her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Social Change. Her work investigates social and cultural changes in literate western European society following the introduction of the Gutenberg printing press, and has been credited with bringing needed clarity and scholarly rigor to McLuhan’s notions of oral and literate cultures. McLuhan came to be retroactively associated with a group of other scholars who had been working at the University of Toronto around the same time, although all members of this loose affiliation had worked separately from one another. This group became known as the Toronto School of Communication Studies. The influence of these scholars would eventually lead to another school arising from similarly minded thinkers in the United States, which would become known as the New York School.
Postman and the New York School: Media as Environments
Neil Postman was born in 1931 in New York City. He earned a PhD in education and wrote prolifically about learning and pedagogical practice. In 1969 he co-authored Teaching as a Subversive Activity with Charles Weingartner. In the book, Postman and Weingartner posited an inquiry-based method of pedagogy. They outlined a set of ideals and practices that should guide teachers, as well as specifying techniques that should be avoided, with the goal of inculcating characteristics of “good learning” among students. In 1971 while at NYU’s Steinhardt School of education, Postman founded the graduate program in Media Ecology. Postman thus coined the phrase, although the exact origins of the term are somewhat disputed. Postman seems to have believe at times that McLuhan used the phrase “media ecology” in Understanding Media, though in fact that term does not appear in the book although the ecological metaphor of media effects and relationships is clearly present. Marshall McLuhan’s son Eric has suggested that he and his father came up with the phrase during the year McLuhan was teaching at Fordham University in 1967; Eric has said that McLuhan then mentioned the term to Postman, and Postman “ran with it.” Graduates of the Media Ecology program have mentioned to me anecdotally that Neil Postman used the phrase precisely because of its nebulous nature. “People will ask you, ‘What’s media ecology?,’” he told students, adding, “Then you get to define it!” In 1982 Postman authored The Disappearance of Childhood. In this book Postman argued that the notion of childhood was a relatively recent social phenomenon. Historically “child” had merely designated that someone was a “daughter of” or “son of,” but it had since come to refer to a stage of development before adulthood. Postman pointed to the role of the printing press in this change, arguing the introduction of literacy created a “world of adult secrets” that was only accessible to literate adults. This also led to changes in learning, as literacy now became a necessary part of education. As his argument here indicates, Postman was primarily interested in the social effects of communication technology, rather than the sense-ratio effects that McLuhan emphasized.
In 1985 Postman’s best-known book was published, titled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Postman begins the book by comparing the dystopic visions of George Orwell’s 1984, where a totalitarian government controls an austere state, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the populace self-medicates themselves into a blissful narcotic state. Part of Postman’s argument is that Huxley’s vision is much closer to contemporary society than Orwell’s, and he compares the soma drug of Brave New World with the effects of television consumption on the populace. Following McLuhan’s maxim that “the media is the message,” the first chapter of Postman’s book is titled “the medium is the metaphor.” Postman states “form excludes the content” in arguing that each medium of communication can only sustain a certain level of ideas or discourse. When literate culture (and oratory based on written language) predominated, public discourse consisted of statements and propositions that an audience would evaluate as true or false. This sort of exchange contributed to public communication based on rational discourse. Postman highlights the introduction of the telegraph as a turning point in the nature of public discourse. The telegraph made possible communication and information exchange virtually unbounded by geographic distance. The near-instantaneous transmission of information was revolutionary. This brought about several significant changes to the character of discourse. For one thing, Postman states, just because Maine could now talk to Texas doesn’t mean that they had anything worthwhile to say to one another. In other words, the mere possibility of persistent communication came to be seen as a necessity for persistent communication, in a manner that devalued and degraded the quality of the discourse. Part of the reason for this degradation lies in the inherent characteristics of the telegraph to transmit certain quality and quantity of information. Another significant aspect of this development is the great increase in information that the telegraph contributed to. Postman points to the persistent communication of the telegraph (along with the mass reproduction of images around the same period of time) as resulting in a deluge of information. In response, there was a shift from audiences discerning the context of information and evaluating it, to instead collecting information (often irrelevant information) largely independent of any context. Television represents a further change in the nature of public discourse. Postman states that he is not against television as a means of entertainment, but rather his concern is that the very nature of television reduces all serious discussion to the level of entertainment. All television content is packaged and presented as a commodity, leading to a leveling of all televised content in a way that further contributes to the lack of rational debate in public discourse. Postman references politics as a key arena where these changes play out, as election campaigns become “battles of advertisements,” where candidates are turned into images and brands that then craft sound bites to sell a generalized notion of what they think the country lacks, just as advertising functions.
Postman may have been the first person to offer a definition of media ecology, stating: “Media ecology is the study of media as environments.” He said that media ecology is concerned with how media affect thoughts, feelings, and values. He also said that the role of media technology in influencing human affairs is directly implicated with the species’ prospects for survival. In 1973 Christine Nystrom became the first graduate of the Media Ecology program, writing a dissertation titled “Toward a Science of Media Ecology.” Nystrom characterized the sweeping social changes indicated by McLuhan and Postman as a transition from a compartmentalized Newtonian world to a more holistic world defined by interrelatedness and interdisiciplinarity. Other graduates of the Media Ecology program would continue the process of defining media ecology, and further contribute to the field’s interdisciplinarity.
Strate and the Media Ecology Association: Media as Media
Lance Strate graduated from the Media Ecology program in the 1990s. While at NYU he had worked with Neil Postman on several published studies, and Christine Nystrom had served as his dissertation advisor. In 1998 he was a founding member of the Media Ecology Association, inaugurated at Fordham University, and served as the association’s first president. The association holds an annual conference, and mains a strong presence at related scholarly events. They also publish a journal, Explorations in Media Ecology, named for the “Explorations” publication that McLuhan was involved in at the University of Toronto, and where many of the key concerns of media ecology were first articulated.
Strate has contributed not only to the institutionalization of the media ecology perspective, but also its ongoing definition. Strate writes: “Media ecology is the Toronto School, and the New York School. It is technological determinism, hard and soft, and technological evolution. It is media philosophy, and medium theory, and mediology.” This part of Strate’s definition refers to the Toronto school associated with McLuhan, and the New York School associated with Postman. In referring to technological determinism, it also references one of the most persistent criticisms of the media ecology perspective, that the theory is inherently deterministic (see Curry Chandler’s “Marshall Arts: An Inventory of Common Criticisms of McLuhan’s Media Studies,” in Explorations in Media Ecology). By doing so, Strate seeks to acknowledge determinism as part of the media ecology legacy, and one that is commensurate with the theory rather than an internal contradiction that undermines it. Strate also references other strands of media theory that can be traced to media ecological roots, including “medium theory” which was coined by Postman and Nystrom’s student Joshua Meyrowtiz in his book No Sense of Place. His definition also includes other strands of scholarship that are typically included in or conflated with the media ecology perspective: McLuhan studies, orality-literacy studies, and media philosophy and history.
In a 2008 article, “Studying Media AS Media: McLuhan and the Media Ecology Perspective” Strate builds a definition of media ecology around McLuhan’s maxim “the media is the message.” The medium is the message, Strate says, because the medium precedes the message; communication cannot exist without a channel, information cannot exist in a vacuum. As these variables change, so too does the message being communicated. Furthermore, Strate states that the nature of structure of technology is ultimately more significant than our intentions in using it. The materials we use, and the methods with which we use them, will ultimately determine our outcomes. The symbolic form of our communication is the lasting significance of that communication, rather than the specific and individual messages that are conveyed. In all of these ways, Strate argues that “the medium is the message,” and therefore that the media ecology perspective entails studying media as media. It is in this sense that Strate meaningfully distinguishes media ecology from other perspectives in communication and media research, which also acknowledging and affirming the various intersections and related fields. Strate suggests that the differences in definition surrounding media ecology are an inherent strength of the perspective, rather than a weakness.
Five years ago I wrote a paper about an ongoing revival of interest in Marshall McLuhan and a recovery of his media theory following decades of mainstream academic misunderstanding and dismissal of his work. The paper was well-received and eventually published in the Media Ecology Association journal. In the time since I went on to PhD school and my research trajectory developed first through political economy and then urban studies, which is where my current work is rooted. When I saw that an ad hoc conference dedicated to the Toronto School’s legacy and future was being convened at the University of Toronto I was intrigued and submitted a proposal. I attended the conference this past weekend and the event does seem destined to be seen as a landmark event in the history of the Toronto School of Communication and its contribution to media studies and other fields. More than twenty nationalities were represented by the participants, and the presentations were all high quality and generative. Children of Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis were also in attendance (Michael McLuhan bears a somewhat uncanny resemblance to his father), as were colleagues and contemporaries of the Toronto School theorists, and some of the foremost scholars and historians of the tradition. During the opening ceremony conference organizer Paolo Granata posed the question, “Where is the Toronto School?” His answer was that it was in the room, embodied in the people and research represented in the conference. At the end of the weekend this certainly seemed to be the case.
My only major grievance with the conference was my inability to obtain one of the “cool medium” shirts made for the volunteers (the blue shirts visible front and center in the above photo). When I arrived at the registration tables on the first morning I was stunned to see all the staffers wearing shirts that read “I’m a cool medium.” Since I have a certain attachment to that particular phrase I was fixated on getting one of those shirts, but alas it was not to be. I was part of a panel organized around the theme of “city as medium,” and the presentations all offered insightful applications of McLuhan’s media theories to urban design and development. I was aware of various McLuhan and Jane Jacobs connections around the Toronto nexus, but I was surprised during the opening remarks to hear several speakers include Jacobs as one of the members of the Toronto School. I was left considering the implications of this inclusion, and plan to develop these thoughts at the Jacobs centenary panel at NCA next month. The other takeaway from the conference (aside from the helpful insights and ideas, and unfortunately not a shirt) were the connections made with other attendees. I saw some familiar faces that I had met at past events, and made new connections including Toronto community organizers and activists. I hope to develop some research opportunities from these relationships, as I think Toronto is a wonderful city and it would great to include some of the developments there as a case study in my current research. It certainly occupies a unique position in the contemporary discussions of city policy and urban life.
Earlier this month the mobile-app game Pokémon Go was released in the U.S., and the game has been ubiquitous ever since. Aside from being a sudden pop culture phenomenon, the game’s success poses some significant implications. First of all, this is clearly a breakthrough moment for augmented reality. Pokémon Go is not the first augmented reality game, nor is it the most ambitious, but it has undoubtedly brought AR into mainstream consciousness. Secondly, the success of Pokémon Go has led me to reconsider all my previously held assumptions about the uses of mobile apps and gamification for interfacing with urban spaces. I have historically been cynical about the prospect of using mobile games or AR interfaces to interact with urban space, since they usually strike me as shallow and insignificant, typically resulting in a fleeting diversion like a flash mob dance party, rather than altering people’s perceptions of place in any lasting or meaningful way. Pokémon Go satisfies all the requirements of my earlier preconceptions, yet despite my best critical instincts, I really like the game.
The buzz about Pokémon Go had been building on various forums online, and after it was released it was virtually impossible to avoid Pokémon Go-related posts. Save for maybe 10 minutes with a friend’s Game Boy in the late 90s, I’ve never played a Pokémon game and I preemptively wrote off Pokémon Go as yet another cultural fad that I would never partake in or understand. Curiosity got the best of my wife, however, and she downloaded the app and we walked around our neighborhood to test it out. To my surprise, the game was a lot of fun; our familiar surroundings were now filled with digital surprises, and we were excited to see neighborhood landmarks and murals represented as Pokéstops, and wild Pokémon hanging out in the doorways of local shops. We meandered around discovering which of our local landmarks had been incorporated into the game, and each discovery increased my enjoyment of the app. Yes, the game is simple and shallow, but I was completely charmed. I downloaded the game so I could play, too.
Reactions to Pokémon Go have been as fascinating as the game’s widespread adoption. Many news articles sensationalized the inherent dangers of playing the game: distracted players wandering into traffic or off of cliffs, people’s homes being designated as Pokéstops and besieged by players, and traps being laid (using the games “lures”) to ambush and rob aspiring Pokétrainers. There have also been insightful critical analyses of the game. An early and oft-shared article by Omari Akil considered the implications of Pokémon Go in light of recent police shootings of black men, warning that “Pokemon Go is a death sentence if you are a black man“:
I spent less than 20 minutes outside. Five of those minutes were spent enjoying the game. One of those minutes I spent trying to look as pleasant and nonthreatening as possible as I walked past a somewhat visibly disturbed white woman on her way to the bus stop. I spent the other 14 minutes being distracted from the game by thoughts of the countless Black Men who have had the police called on them because they looked “suspicious” or wondering what a second amendment exercising individual might do if I walked past their window a 3rd or 4th time in search of a Jigglypuff.
Others questioned the distribution of Pokémon across neighborhoods, suggesting that poor or black neighborhoods had disproportionately fewer Pokémon and Pokéstops. Among urbanists, however, reaction to the game has been mixed. Mark Wilson at Fastcodesign declared that Pokémon Go “is quietly helping people fall in love with their cities“. Ross Brady of Architizer celebrated the game for sparking “a global wave of urban exploration“. Writing for de zeen, Alex Wiltshire boldly states that the game has “redrawn the map of what people find important about the world“. City Lab contributor Laura Bliss proclaimed “Pokémon Go has created a new kind of flaneur“.
Others have been more critical of the game, with Nicholas Korody at Archinect retorting: “No, Pokémon Go is not an urban fantasy for the new flaneur“. At Jacobin, Sam Kriss implores readers to “resist Pokémon Go“:
Walk around. Explore your neighborhood. Visit the park. Take in the sights. Have your fun. Pokémon Go is coercion, authority, a command issuing from out of a blank universe, which blasts through social and political cleavages to finally catch ‘em all. It must be resisted.
Some, like Jeff Sparrow at Overland, drew direct parallels to the Situationists:
On the one hand, that’s way cool – suddenly, the old pub near your house is inhabited by monsters.
On the other, there’s something faintly distasteful about the recuperation of specific real histories into a billion-dollar corporate mythology. Nearly 150 people lost their lives when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned to the ground, entirely needless deaths caused by the atrocious working conditions of the garment trade. The tragedy became a rallying point for the trade union movement, the name of the factory, a shorthand reference to employers’ greed.
Now, though, it’s three free Pokeballs.
We might also say, then, that, even as the game leads players to embrace the derive, it also offers a remarkable demonstration of the phenomenon that Debord critiqued.
Writing for the Atlantic, Ian Bogost mediated on “the tragedy of Pokémon Go“:
We can have it both ways; we have to, even: Pokémon Go can be both a delightful new mechanism for urban and social discovery, and also a ghastly reminder that when it comes to culture, sequels rule. It’s easy to look at Pokémon Go and wonder if the game’s success might underwrite other, less trite or brazenly commercial examples of the genre. But that’s what the creators of pervasive games have been thinking for years, and still almost all of them are advertisements. Reality is and always has been augmented, it turns out. But not with video feeds of twenty-year old monsters in balls atop local landmarks. Rather, with swindlers shilling their wares to the everyfolk, whose ensuing dance of embrace and resistance is always as beautiful as it is ugly.
Pokémon Go’s popularity has led to many online comparisons to the Star Trek: TNG episode “The Game,” in which the crew of the Enterprise is overcome by a mind-controlling video game. The game in Star Trek is not strictly-speaking an augmented reality game, but does involve projecting images onto the player’s vision similar to an AR-overlay. Previous gaming and gadget fads have been compared to the TNG episode, notably Google Glass (for it’s similarity to the eye-beaming design used to interface with the game in Star Trek) and the pervasively popular Angry Birds game (as evident in this parody video). The comparison has regained cultural cachet because, unlike Angry Birds which can be played on the couch, Pokémon Go is played in motion. This, of course, has contributed to the perception of the game’s zombie-fying effects; we’ve grown accustomed to the fact that everyone’s eyes are glued to a smartphone screen in our public spaces, but now there are whole flocks of people milling around with their eyes on their devices.
My cynical side is inclined to agree with the critics who see Pokémon Go’s proliferation as proof positive of the passification and banalization of our society; the visions of Orwell, Bradbury, and Phil Dick all realized at once. But there’s something there that has me appreciative, even excited about this goofy game. As my wife and I wandered our neighborhood looking for pocket monsters, we noticed several other people walking around staring at their phones. This is not an uncommon sight, but it is re-contextualized in light of Pokémon Go’s popularity. “Look,” my wife would say, “I bet they’re playing, too.” After a while she had to know for sure, and started walking up to people and asking, “Are you playing Pokémon Go?” Every person she asked was indeed playing the game. Then we were walking along with these people we’ve just met, discussing play strategies, sharing Pokéstop locations, spreading word of upcoming lure parties.
One night around 10:30 last week we went into the Oakland neighborhood, home to both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon’s campuses and a hotbed of Pokémon Go activity. When we arrived, at least 20 people sat along the wall in front of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial, smartphones in hands. We walked around the base of the Cathedral of Learning, where dozens of people in groups of two, three, or more were slowly pacing, stopping to capture a virtual creature. We crossed the street to Schenley plaza, where still dozens more people trekked through the grass, laughing and exclaiming and running up to their friends to share which Pokémon they had just got. Sure, most of these people were only talking to their own groups of friends, if they were talking at all, but it was still a cool experience. For me, the greatest thing was not which monsters I caught or XP my avatar earned; rather it was the energy, the unspoken but palpable buzz generated by all these people walking around in the dark of a warm summer night. Yes, I was giving attention to my smartphone screen, but what I remember most from that evening are the stars, and the fireflies, and the murmuring voices. Pokémon Go is promoting a sort of communal public activity, even if the sociality it produces is liminal at best. Yes, it is still shallow, still commercial, still programmed, but it’s something; there’s an energy there and a potential that is worth paying attention to.
Pokémon Go is not the be-all-end-all of augmented urban exploration, nor should be it considered the pinnacle of how mobile technology can enable new ways of interfacing with city space. But the game’s popularity, and my personal experience using it, has given me hope for the potential of AR apps to enrich our experience of urban spaces and engender new types of interactions in our shared environments.