“The City & the City & the Squirtle”: What can China Miéville teach us about Pokemon Go?

Pokemon Go outside the White House. Image: Getty.

An elderly woman was walking slowly away from me in a shambling sway. She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion, and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of talking, of holding herself, and looking.

With a hard start, I realised that she was not on Gunter-Strasz at all, and that I should not have seen her.

In China Miéville’sThe City & the City the cities of Besźel and UlQoma are cities with a strange attachment. The two places are intermingled; one street in Besźel and the next in UlQoma, with “crosshatched” areas where the two cities exist right on top of each other. In the crosshatch one building might be in a different city to the next, and people mingle in the streets “unseeing” their neighbours that belong somewhere else.

The book introduces us to unificationists who insist that there was no real difference, as well as nationalists of both stripes who want to annex the other side. But far more numerous than any of these are the ordinary citizens of both cities who do the work of keeping the cities separate every day, in their thousand unseeings of people and places right in front of the them, but in a foreign land.

This book works so well because of a sense that this conceit literalises something that is true of every city. There are places that are home, places that are not – and places where people walk past each other, ignoring lives that are right next door but might as well be in another country.

I bring this up because, when we talk about augmented reality games as a new way of interacting with The City, hidden inside our discussion is the idea that there is only one City to augment.

Pokemon Go in Melbourne. Image: Getty

At its most sci-fi, augmented reality can be seen in technology like Google Glass, which superimposes information over your vision to add context to the world you’re seeing. But this is just a high tech version of an old idea. A tour guide walking with you through a city’s streets is itself a form of “augmented reality”, revealing hidden histories and stories that change how you see a place. And what is a ghost tour but an AR fantasy experience, exploring a different world with different rules, hidden right beneath our own?

What makes AR games different is you can interact with this other place: your actions can change it. Niantic’s Pokémon Go is essentially a re-skin of their other game Ingress. But Ingress’ game mechanics were built around a sci-fi conspiracy story, with unseen alien intrusions into the real world, Pokémon Go has a far more appealing angle. There is a world that overlaps this one, and it’s your childhood. It’s back! In app form!

Niantic released access to a whole alternate world overnight. This action created both a distinction between players and non-players (why are all these people here and staring at their phones?), and a different set of rules on how players should interact in public spaces. And as the game requires physical presence at certain places, it brings people together in an unusual way: people walk with their phone out, a shibboleth of their membership of the new community.

Like a power cut that disrupts the normal flow of life and brings people out on the streets, Pokémon Go temporarily disrupts the idea that you don’t have things in common with these strangers. These are people who grew up to find themselves living different lives, but Pokémon Go creates a new space on top of all the different cities, based around a touchstone they all have in common.

Pokemon Go in Kuwait City. Image: Getty

But the every day world can’t be easily pushed aside with an app. In recent Pokémon games, you can set your gender and skin tone, without that setting some areas or interactions out of bounds. Dropping game rules that don’t see physical features as significant onto the real world leads to clashes between game rules and social ones. Walking back and forth on random streets looking for Pokémon might be a different experience, with real world risks, depending on the colour of your skin.

Alternatively, game rules can be manipulated for real world advantage. Players can use a lure to bring more Pokémon to an area, which in turn lures other players – great if you’re looking for people to rob.

One of things The City & the City does well is take the reader from thinking the situation is absurd – it’s all clearly one place – to believing that there is value in seeing Besźel and UlQoma as separate; that something is lost in the idea of unification. This isn’t to say that our divisions are inherently Good and Proper (which takes us quickly to “people should just know their place” and “separate but equal”): it’s simply to recognise that cities with millions of people are too big to have just one culture. The real benefit of healthy cities is constructive cross-hatching, where people exist in multiple identities at once.

Pokémon Go might not change break down social rules, or last longer than a year – but augmented reality, where people can share the same experience of a different place, will have an impact on the cities of the future. Whether this is a good thing or not will likely depend on the audience size. Will these new realities bring people together, or make the world more insular? What kind of cross-hatching does your app create?

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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