“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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What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.