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.
- The 2014 World Cup kicked off yesterday with a futuristic twist on the opening ceremonies. A paraplegic kicked a soccer ball using an exoskeleton designed by the Walk Again Project:
The exoskeleton — a system comprising a helmet implanted with a microchip that sticks out from the underside; a T-shirt loaded with sensors; metal leg braces; and a battery worn in a backpack — is set in motion when the user envisions himself making the kick. The chip translates those electronic commands to a digital language that powers the skeleton, which then moves accordingly. The T-shirt vibrates to enhance the user’s sensation of movement (and eliminate the need to look at his feet to see if he’s stepping forward).
- Unfortunately, as io9 reports, the moment was not well-covered by TV networks:
Talk about dropping the ball. Earlier today, Juliano Pinto — a 29 year-old paraplegic — successfully kicked off the 2014 FIFA World Cup by using a mind-controlled exoskeleton. But sadly, most TV networks failed to show it.
After months of hype, the official broadcast of the opening ceremonies showed only a fraction of it, while some TV networks missed the event altogether. Commentators criticized the organizers for casting aside the moment in favor of performing acts.
- Thomas Frey at the Futurist Speaker blog forecasts the coming AI crash wars:
The invasion of high-frequency trading machines is now forcing capitalism far away from anything either Adam Smith or the founders of the NYSE could possibly find virtuous.
We’re not about to let robots compete in the Olympics, driverless cars race in the Indianapolis 500, or automated machines play sports like football, basketball, or baseball. So why is it we allow them to play a role in the most valuable contest of all, the world wide stock exchange?
With crude forms of AI now entering the quant manipulator’s toolbox, we are now teetering dangerously close to a total collapse of the stock market, one that will leave many corporations and individuals financially destitute.
- Microsoft has announced their version of apple’s Siri virtual assistant. Named Cortana, after the AI character from the Halo video game series, she is coming to Windows smartphones, and as Brad Molen at engadget reports, developers programmed her with a distinct personality:
Confident, caring, competent, loyal; helpful, but not bossy: These are just some of the words Susan Hendrich, the project manager in charge of overseeing Cortana’s personality, used to describe the program’s most significant character traits. “She’s eager to learn and can be downright funny, peppering her answers with banter or a comeback,” Hendrich said. “She seeks familiarity, but her job is to be a personal assistant.” With that kind of list, it sure sounds like Hendrich’s describing a human. Which is precisely what she and her team set out to do during Cortana’s development; create an AI with human-like qualities.
Microsoft’s decision to infuse Cortana with a personality stemmed from one end goal: user attachment. “We did some research and found that people are more likely to interact with [AI] when it feels more human,” said Hendrich. To illustrate that desired human-machine dynamic, Hendrich pointed to her grandmother’s experience with a Roomba vacuum: “She gave a name and a personality to an inanimate object, and it brought her joy.” That sense of familiarity is exactly what Microsoft wants Window Phone users to feel when interacting with Cortana on their own devices.
- “General Semantics and media theory“: video of a 20-minute presentation by Thom Gencarelli from this year’s IGS symposium.
“Those levels of interactivity, for me, recapitulated the levels of participation that we as a society have had since the invention of media,” Rushkoff said, referring to similar shifts that occurred when humans first transitioned from written language to the age of movable type.
Our conversation started with Rushkoff’s concept of “present-shock” and moved into a larger discussion of the relationship between market thinking, quantification, and what is ultimately measurable and knowable.
- So apparently there’s a YouTube channel called PBS Idea Channel. This video poses the question, “are cell phones replacing reality?” and briefly engages Baudrillard’s thoughts on hyperreality.
- This page on LearnStuff.com covers the life and work of Baudrillard and contains links to resources and further reading.
- WIRED’s Dead Media Beat considers Lev Manovich’s statement in a recent article that “there is no digital media, there is only software.”
- “Drop the mic“: an article about how the microphone changed Catholic mass.
In 1974, Marshall McLuhan argued that the microphone was the proximate cause both of the elimination of Latin from the Mass and of the turning around of the priest to face the congregation. Before microphones, a priest quietly said Mass in Latin, with his back to the congregation. From any distance, his voice was indistinct, although an instructed Catholic could follow what he was saying from a missal containing the Latin text of the Mass or a translation of it.
- “The humanism of Media Ecology“: this address was delivered by Neil Postman at the 2000 MEA convention, but I just came across it and wanted to share it here.
I think there is considerable merit in McLuhan’s point of view about avoiding questions of good and bad when thinking about media. But that view has never been mine. To be quite honest about it, I don’t see any point in studying media unless one does so within a moral or ethical context. I am not alone in believing this. Some of the most important media scholars—Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul, for example—could scarcely write a word about technology without conveying a sense of either its humanistic or anti-humanistic consequences.
- When researchers started using the term “digital divide” in the 1990s they were referring to an inequality of access to the Internet and other ICTs. Over time the issue shifted from unequal access to emphasizing disparities of technological competency across socioeconomic sectors. The new manifestation of the digital divide, according to a New York Times article, is reflected in whether time on the Internet is spent being productive, or wasting time:
As access to devices has spread, children in poorer families are spending considerably more time than children from more well-off families using their television and gadgets to watch shows and videos, play games and connect on social networking sites, studies show.
The new divide is such a cause of concern for the Federal Communications Commission that it is considering a proposal to spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers.
A study published in 2010 by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children and teenagers whose parents do not have a college degree spent 90 minutes more per day exposed to media than children from higher socioeconomic families. In 1999, the difference was just 16 minutes.
- In an op-ed for the LA Times Neal Gabler writes that Obama’s legacy may be disillusionment with partisan politics and a shift toward do-it-yourself democracy:
Disillusionment with partisan politics is certainly nothing new. Obama’s fall from grace, however, may look like a bigger belly flop because his young supporters saw him standing so much higher than typical politicians. Yet by dashing their hopes, Obama may actually have accomplished something so remarkable that it could turn out to be his legacy: He has redirected young people’s energies away from conventional electoral politics and into a different, grass-roots kind of activism. Call it DIY politics.
We got a taste of DIY politics last fall with the Occupy Wall Street sit-ins, which were a reaction to government inaction on financial abuses, and we got another taste when the 99% Spring campaign mobilized tens of thousands against economic inequality. OWS and its tangential offshoots may seem political, but it is important to note that OWS emphatically isn’t politics as usual. It isn’t even a traditional movement.
- In a piece on The Daily Beast Andrew Blum, author of a new net-centric book titled The Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, details the condescension and furtiveness he encountered while researching Google for his book:
Walking past a large data center building, painted yellow like a penitentiary, I asked what went on inside. Did this building contain the computers that crawl through the Web for the search index? Did it process search queries? Did it store email? “You mean what The Dalles does?” my guide responded. “That’s not something that we probably discuss. But I’m sure that data is available internally.” (I bet.) It was a scripted non-answer, however awkwardly expressed. And it might have been excusable, if the contrast weren’t so stark with the dozens of other pieces of the Internet that I visited. Google was the outlier—not only for being the most secretive but the most disingenuous about that secrecy.
After my tour of Google’s parking lot, I joined a hand-picked group of Googlers for lunch in their cafeteria overlooking the Columbia River. The conversation consisted of a PR handler prompting each of them to say a few words about how much they liked living in The Dalles and working at Google. (It was some consolation that they were treated like children, too.) I considered expressing my frustration at the kabuki going on, but I decided it wasn’t their choice. It was bigger than them. Eventually, emboldened by my peanut-butter cups, I said only that I was disappointed not to have the opportunity to go inside a data center and learn more. My PR handler’s response was immediate: “Senators and governors have been disappointed too!”
- A recent study from Penn State’s Media Effects Research Laboratory investigated how narratives constructed by news media in reporting a story impacted consumers’ empathic response to the material:
When news reports focus on individuals and their stories, rather than simply facts or policy, readers experience greater feelings of compassion, said Penn State Distinguished Professor Mary Beth Oliver, co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory and a member of the Department of Film-Video and Media Studies. This compassion also extends to feelings about social groups in general, including groups that are often stigmatized.
“Issues such as health care, poverty and discrimination all should elicit compassion,” Oliver said. “But presenting these issues as personalized stories more effectively evokes emotions that lead to greater caring, willingness to help and interest in obtaining more information.”
The emphasis on “personalized stories” reminds me of Zillmann’s exemplification theory, though the article makes no mention of exemplification.
- In an article for the Observer (apparently a sub-site of the Guardian…I’m really not sure) John Naughton writes about the real cost of the smartphone revolution:
The problem with living through a revolution is that you’ve no idea how things will turn out. So it is with the revolutionary transformation of our communications environment driven by the internet and mobile phone technology. Strangely, our problem is not that we are short of data about what’s going on; on the contrary we are awash with the stuff. This is what led Manuel Castells, the great scholar of cyberspace, to describe our current mental state as one of “informed bewilderment”: we have lots of information, but not much of a clue about what it means.
If, however, you’re concerned about things such as freedom, control and innovation, then the prospect of a world in which most people access the internet via smartphones and other cloud devices is a troubling one. Why? Because smartphones (and tablets) are tightly controlled, “tethered” appliances. You may think that you own your shiny new iPhone or iPad, for example. But in fact an invisible chain stretches from it all the way back to Apple’s corporate HQ in California. Nothing, but nothing, goes on your iDevice that hasn’t been approved by Apple.
So I’ve decided to headline these posts with interesting (to me) media-related content from around the web “In medias res”. Not very original, I know, but “in the middle of things” seems appropriate.
- I came across the semiotics-centric site Semionaut via this post: “Semiotics and non-verbal communication“. It looks to have a practitioner-oriented angle but they have some interesting analysis up.
- In other semiotics news check out this post on Arkham City art direction and semiotics from the site How Not to Suck at Game Design.
Following the semiotics goals I defined earlier, we will explore the complex network of sign language of AAA games, comic books, the Batman universe and related pop-culture, we will explore the narrative themes behind it all and we will examine how Rocksteady implemented said sign language using semiotic principles.
- I’ve come across what appears to be a blog for a graduate course in new media and an assignment centered on exploring new media via Marshall McLuhan.
- Some folks at the site Communication Steroids recently posted a podcast discussing the Attention Economy.
- Recently I’ve been delving into the literature on the political economy of communication, and that means I’ve been reading Dallas Smythe and Herbert Schiller. This blog post by Safiya Noble discusses the continued relevance of Herbert Schiller.
Schiller elaborates on the ways in which, “Corporate speech has become the dominant discourse…While the corporate voice booms across the land, individual expression, at best, trickles through tiny constricted public circuits. This has allowed the effective right to free speech to be transferred from individuals to billion dollar companies which, in effect, monopolize public communication (pg. 45).” Privatization, deregulation and the expansion of market relationships are cited by Schiller as the environment in which the national information infrastructure has been eroded (pg. 46).
- Tomi Ahonen, apparently the person who declared mobile technology the 7th mass medium (who knew?), has declared augmented reality the 8th mass media. The list of media, in order of appearance:
1st mass media PRINT – from 1400s (books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, billboards)
2nd mass media RECORDINGS – from 1890s (records, tapes, cartridges, videocassettes, CDs, DVDs)
3rd mass media CINEMA – from 1900s
4th mass media RADIO – from 1920s
5th mass media TELEVISION – from 1940s
6th mass media INTERNET – from 1992
7th mass media MOBILE – from 1998
8th mass media AUGMENTED REALITY – from 2010
- This New York Times article about the acquisition of Instagram by Facebook asks: With the advent and adoption of smartphones, who needs the web?
- Henry Giroux wrote an op-ed for truthout about the war on youth wherein he borrows a phrase from Virilio: “the Suicidal State”.
- The excellent media ecology blog Figure/Ground Communication has posted an interview with media ecologist (and coordinator of the upcoming MEA convention at Manhattan College) Thom Gencarelli. The interview follows Figure/Ground’s recurring format of focusing on the interviewees academic background and thoughts on the tenure system.
- Blog Literary Theory and Anglo-American Culture has a post analyzing Chris Nolan’s film The Prestige through a Baudrillardian lens.
- I came across this blog post of a video intercutting the poster’s commentary with a video by Sut Jhally titled Deconstructing Dreamworlds (btw, Jhally and Mark Crispin Miller appear in Morgan Spurlock’s newest documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It’s worth a watch, and made me want to go to Sao Paulo).
- Sherry Turkle is quoted in this USA Today article that confirms: geek is officially chic. Which I guess means it is no longer cool.
- Finally, I noticed some mentions of old-school theories of media effects in a couple of recent articles. This piece at Arab Media & Society titled Technology Cannot a Revolution Make mentions the “magic bullet” theory in discussing how Western media researchers have analyzed the Arab Spring movements.
The return to the “magic bullet” theory has led many Arab and Western media scholars to focus on the study of the role of social media in developing popular movements. Little or no attention is paid to folk and traditional communication outlets such as Friday sermons, coffeehouse storytellers (“hakawati”), and mourning gatherings of women (“subhieh”). These face-to-face folk communication vehicles play an important role in developing the Arab public sphere as well as in introducing change.
And this piece about a new sex-advice show on MTV mentions the “hypodermic needle” theory:
When you talk about “young viewers” as helpless victims who are targeted by a message and instantly fall prey to it, you are positing a pre-World-War-II era mass communications theory known as the hypodermic model.
This model saw mass media as a giant hypodermic needle that “injected” messages into our brains. And no brains were more susceptible to the injections than those of children.