Something about Pokémon

I do feel a little silly writing about Pokémon today, on the heels of a coup in Turkey, mass murder in Nice, sniping in Dallas, videos of police killings, bombings in Iraq, and things that happened before July. But when reading about issues of greater weight, I at least am much more interested in reading things by people who actually know what they’re talking about—those with experience in the practical or academic field of international relations, say, or African Americans who can contextualize the phenomenon of Driving While Black, or folks on the ground who can provide live information about a developing situation—but when it comes to popular culture, my bar is set lower. (This? Not necessarily a good thing. Popular culture is a thing that is also studied and commented upon with no small degree of rigor.) And it is certainly possible to read Pokémon GO as public history—and hey, that’s my wheelhouse.1 (Note that I don’t really mind when not-terribly credentialed folks whitter about things that are, to one degree or another, in my wheelhouse. I like to think it’s because when the word “public” is part of the name, and the question of audience definition consistently examined, a certain big tent attitude is baked in. But realistically, privilege/access/silence is still consistently examined because of feelings that the tent isn’t big enough, or maybe shouldn’t even be a tent. And so I suspect unpacking my impulses will reveal a certain degree of personal anxiety, quite probably informed by things like the way gender—balance, critique, etc.—interacts with my work/background and adjacent fields.)

I also wonder if, when we look back on 2016, we’ll decide the ledes were buried. Will the adaptation of a bomb disposal robot as a device to kill a suspect in an active shooting prove more significant than the particular details of the shootings in Dallas? Will the mass popularity of an augmented reality game signal a significant shift in how we interact with our environment?2

Personally, I’m inclined to think those things are significant, though part of their significance derives from the context in which they’re embedded. Nobody violated the First Law of Robotics to build a T-001.3 But the increasingly militarized police, in a country that has increasingly made use of drone technology abroad, did deploy a deadly mechanized device and—even if Dallas in general, and that protest in specific, is doing all right on the race relations front—in 2016 it’s impossible to avoid the question of racialized responses to mass shooting suspects. So this probably isn’t the first step toward RoboCop, but it’s likely a precursor to the domestic deployment of drones designed to kill. Similarly, augmented reality isn’t new, and Pokémon certainly isn’t new. But quick, massive adoption, in a public manner, and occasioning public comment (without requiring think pieces to provide excessive background, because readers are assumed to have passing familiarity with mobile devices, games, and Nintendo)—that makes for a conversation that moves quickly from rolling eyes about kids today and into meatier critiques. We have a lot of conversations in 2016—some are necessary, and some are debatably harmful rehashing of issues that really should’ve been put to bed long since—but the existence of conversation is, itself, a thing. Our words create a record of this time, shape our memories as well as the histories that will be written, and part of that is happening in talking about everything from games to murders. Perhaps there’s more of an evolutionary significance than a revolutionary one in Dallas’s robot and Pokémon Go.4 But there’s still significance.

  1. A random collection of Pokémon GO-as-public-history musings: Alexandra Rasic, Glenn Brasher, Trevor Owens
  2. And does the fact that I am a long-time science fiction fan shape the things I find interesting, and the lens through which I view them? Undoubtedly. And it’s also worth noting that the genre skews male and geeky and…well, the history of science fiction literature, creators, fandom, etc., is way too big for even the most discursive of footnotes.s 
  3. A side note on context: culture matters. In the U.S., we leap from robot to Terminator; in Japan, the knee jerks in a more benevolent direction. Genevieve Bell gave a great lecture on this a couple years ago, “Ducks, Dolls and Robots: Toward a Cartography of Fear and Wonder.” Standard disclaimer that I’m a cis het white Gen X woman in the U.S., so apply handicaps accordingly. 
  4. Evolutionary…because you evolve Pokémon. Ha, ha, see what I did? Though I will also point out that, if we’re talking about the Singularity and using Neuromancer as a seminal example (because you can’t talk about cyberpunk and not talk about Neuromancer, and if you talk about the Singularity without talking about cyberpunk it all starts to sound kind of silly), it’s worth noting that while Wintermute was an evolving A.I. there was also a revolutionary aspect to the whole affair.