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Thursday, July 28, 2016

On Pokémon GO and 'bad' technology.


I had rather an enchanting conversation with a gentleman on Twitter the other night (can't remember who he was, probably no one with any great influence on my life) who posted snarkily asking what Pokémon GO is and why "grownups" should care. I retweeted that it's interesting technology. He smoothly moved the goalposts, saying it doesn't matter because people have gotten hurt playing it. And I scooted the goalposts back, and... well, it all ended in him saying that even though I'm right that people can like what they like, he sees no problem with calling out or judging grownups for playing a children's game.

Normally I'd focus on that last bit, but I was very interested in the goalpost move. Not enough to accept it at the time, but I did think about it later. Generally the attempts to bring down Pokémon GO have gone from mocking it for being childish (because people really don't care) to depicting it as inherently dangerous.

Now, the warnings of security risks, while potentially an issue, don't apply to Androids and are easily circumvented by signing up via Pokémon Club rather than Google (with Niantic currently looking into making it a non-issue). Also, a large number of news stories claiming that people have been run over, stabbed, and/or mugged while playing were fabricated and subsequently debunked.

But even so. Even so. Let's play along for a moment and assume that every negative thing about the game -- every step into traffic, every wander into a 'bad neighbourhood' -- is true. Let's just assume it is. Because to be fair, there are probably instances of it that aren't reported. And let's take into account the very true issues of people getting in trouble for playing during work hours or attempting/succeeding in trespassing.

The argument is that Pokémon GO is making people do these things. Just as smartphones were making people dumber, just as e-readers were somehow destroying the art of reading. (I still haven't figured that one out yet.)

So the argument we're getting is that, without this app, these people would never ever ever have walked into traffic distractedly, wasted time at work to the point of getting caught, or infringed on another human being's privacy.

I call a big pile of bullshit, and the reason is giant robots.

No, I don't mean the reason is giant robots in the way I usually mean the reason is giant robots (which is that everything should involve giant robots). I actually mean it this time. Stick with me here.

Even if you're not an anime fan, you'll likely have heard at least in passing of a show called Gigantor. In Japanese, the show was originally called Tetsujin 28-go (lit. Iron Man #28), and was about a boy detective named Shotaro who used a giant remote-controlled robot named Tetsujin 28 to go around fighting bad guys and saving the day and stuff.

What you lose in the Gigantor adaptation is that this story originally took place in post-WWII Japan... and Tetsujin 28 was actually a bomb designed by Shotaro's late father in retaliation against the bombing of Hiroshima. But rather than using Tetsujin 28 for its intended purpose, Shotaro repurposes it to be an instrument of peace.

The original theme song really drives that theme home: 'Sometimes an ally of justice, sometimes a tool of the devil; good or bad, it depends on the remote control.' And one of the recurring themes in later adaptations is the idea of people trying to steal Tetsujin 28 and use it for its intended purpose. As for the robot? It may have a face, and you may grow to think of it as a character, but it has no inherent personality and no AI. Its morality is the same as that of the person holding the remote control.

This same conceit carried over into Mazinger Z a decade or so later. The robot's name comes from the Japanese characters ma (devil) and jin (god), and our hero is told early on that, with the aid of this robot, he could become a god or a demon. The robot itself has no morality. It just is.

And you'll still see this theme show up in anime quite a bit -- it's quite ingrained in the Japanese cultural consciousness. And it's not difficult to see why.

Now, I'd never assume to speak of life-or-death-causing inventions outside anything but a metaphorical sense, like robots. That's too big and too daunting a soapbox for me. But when it comes to tech -- be it a cartoon monster catching app or what have you -- the same thing applies. There is no inherent morality to Pokémon GO. It simply amplifies what already existed.

And that goes in both directions. I play casually, partly because I work a lot, partly because it's too damn hot to go for long walks right now. But in my casual play, I've had pleasant talks with strangers, entertaining times with friends, and even started disliking my noisy neighbours just a little less. These people were not suddenly made kind by the game any more than people who trespass were suddenly made rude. That is what was already there deep down. The nice people were already nice. The time-wasters were already time-wasters. The brain donors were already brain donors.

In a way, it's the same as the misunderstanding of the purpose of Black Mirror, a show I refuse to shut up about ever because it's the best. Many jump on it gleefully, thinking it's going to be an examination of how technology is making us all dumber. In fact, it's a study in how humans mess themselves (and each other) up with completely benign technology; and if there ever is an AI character, it's usually made an innocent victim in some way. The title of the show, a reference to the reflective blackness of powered-down monitors, says it all -- it's a show about us as seen reflected in technology, not the technology itself.

I truly have no desire to convert the world to playing, liking, or understanding Pokémon GO, just as I don't insist everyone like anything I like. What I do have a desire for is an understanding that the game is not creating poor behaviour in people. Because if we assume that the game is causing completely normal people to be jerks, then we must also assume that the sudden kindness arising from playing is also a product of the game. And, well, that's probably not the case. These behaviours aren't results of the game; they are human reactions given an outlet. And if Pokémon GO didn't exist, the guy at the office who got fired because he left during work hours to catch a Jolteon would probably have gotten fired for something else six months later.

Douglas Adams one said that our perception of technology is influenced by when it was created relative to our age, and that'[a]nything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.' And I'm sure that next year when I hit 36, I'll start getting my share of disgruntledness at newfangled tech. I certainly hope I don't, as it'd be a disservice to my grandfather's efforts to keep me open-minded, but I'm sure it'll happen occasionally.

But it's because of this that I don't begrudge people the right to just not like it. If you're just not interested, that's fine. If you don't have the time, that's fine. If it's not your bag and you're more the Ingress type, that's fine. If you don't know why, guess what, that's fine. There is really nothing wrong with just not wanting to engage with something.

That said... if you don't like it Just Because, at least be honest, and don't act like disliking it makes you more intelligent somehow -- because that's not how this works. Stop blaming poor behaviour on an app unless you're prepared to credit the good behaviour to it as well. Be prepared to check your sources when your news comes out (heck, do that for everything while you're at it). And at the end of the day... if you find it hard to say 'I don't like Pokémon GO existing because I just don't,' then maybe the app isn't the issue.