Jorge Luis Borges, famed writer of surreal short fictions, once wrote a story called Del Rigor En La Cienca. If you’ll indulge my amateurish retelling, it goes something like this:
“There once was a kingdom obsessed with cartography, whose citizens wanted to make a perfect map of their domain. Unsatisfied with the exactness of their undertakings, they created map after map, each successive map larger in scale and more exact in detail.
Finally, they made the perfect map.
It was the size of the empire, and replicated the landscape down to its most minute detail. It was like a blanket that draped the entire land.
The cartographers soon realized how useless a 1:1 scale map was, and abandoned the project. To this day, in the western deserts of the kingdom, one can still tatters of the map, clinging to reality.”
With that story in mind, let’s talk about mixed reality.
More specifically, let’s talk about Pokémon Go.
The latest craze to take over the Internet is a game that allows players to catch whimsically named digital creatures, superimposed over familiar landscapes captured by one’s smartphone camera. Real world locations, viewed through the screen of one’s smartphone, become the habitats of these creatures.
There are other nuances to the game mechanics – like Pokéstops and Pokégyms and Pokéballs – but if you play the game, you already know all the details (and if you hate it, these details aren’t likely to convert you into a fan).
I haven’t played much Pokémon Go myself, beyond downloading it to try to understand – on a rudimentary level – how it’s supposed to work. What I find far more interesting than the game itself are the technologies that underlie it, and how they affect the way we interact with the world, and each other.
Augmented reality is a confluence of representation and technology.
Words – perhaps the most primitive of these representations – require a collaboration between the writer and the reader to create a fiction of reality. We tend to take the act of reading for granted, but it is quite a remarkable thing, even for such an ancient technology.
Imagine that you’re in a meadow, standing by a cold stream. Imagine an apple bobbing past in the clear water. Imagine that you’ve fished the apple out of the stream, and, with the paring knife that you’re holding in your hand, you’ve started to peel the apple’s skin, only to find dense, metal circuitry beneath.
Voila: Images from the ether, conjured up from black scribbles on a screen. A clockwork apple.
Words are the most obvious of representations; it’s easy to see the gears ticking. After all, words only work if the signifier (the word ‘apple’) lead you, dear reader, to imagine the signified (a real apple).
But what about a photograph, or a YouTube video, or an augmented reality game? In those cases, the lines start to blur. As technology progresses, representations become more explicit, more life-like, more difficult to separate from reality.
There has always been a distrust of technological advancements, in the same way that there’s always been an ambivalence towards symbols, images and representations of reality.
In my part of the world, some of the elderly will beat you over the head with a blunt apparatus if you try to take a photo of them: They believe that a camera sucks out a little bit of a person’s soul in the process of creating the photograph.
One of the first films showed a train pulling into a train station. According to urban legend, the audience members were so overwhelmed by the moving picture that they screamed and fled their seats.
As far back as the Classical Greek era, artists, actors and poets have been decried for creating facsimile copies of the real world. Plato labelled art as mimetic, and, in The Republic, condemns poetry for being mere imitation of reality.
It perhaps explain how divisive the sentiments towards augmented reality games like Pokémon Go have been. Technology blurs the lines between the real and the imaginary.
The map is not the territory. The virtual is not the real. But each new development makes it harder and harder for us to make that distinction.
I don’t find anything disturbing about Pokémon Go in itself.
I found myself chuckling when I read Werner Herzog’s surreal response to a question about Pokémon Go in a recent interview with The Verge: “When two persons in search of a Pokémon clash at the corner of Sunset and San Vicente is there violence? Is there murder? Do they bite each other’s hands? Do they punch each other?”
I found myself laughing, and then I found myself thinking.
We expend real effort and time to catch digital critters, superimposed over photo-realistic representations of the real world. We become more familiar with our urban environments, but only in the context of the game’s mechanics: Park benches and public fountains only have significance as Pokéstops and Pokégyms.
How much more engrossed in the unreal would we be, if the representations we saw were no longer bound by the tyranny of two dimensional screens?
Have you watched The Matrix? It’s a science-fiction film that borrows both from Jean Baudrillard and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In the world of the The Matrix, humans are farmed for their energy by machines. Their bodies lie dormant in giant vats, while their minds are plugged into a virtual representation of the world, the titular Matrix of the film. After all, what is a sense experience but brain chemicals and the firing of neurons?
In The Matrix, unlike Borges’ story, the map has supplanted reality. It is the tatters of the real world that cling to the map.
I first saw The Treachery Of Images (pictured in this article’s header) in The Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2011. I’m a little slow on the uptake, and I can barely parlez the francaise, so I stood there staring at the painting for a few seconds, feeling flummoxed. Duh, of course that’s a pipe.
And then it dawned on me.
Right. It’s a painting.
The meaning behind The Treachery Of Images seems almost comically obvious when spelled out, but it’s a timely reminder for our generation. We live in an era where, more than ever, technology has allowed symbols to be divorced from the constraints of what they represent.
We see representations of suffering on our news feed, but we do not truly experience the depth of that suffering. We think we understand the atrocities of war when it is broadcast on our TV screens. We imagine that we know what Sunset Boulevard looks like, because we’ve binge watched torrented seasons of Californication on our computer screens.
We have to remind ourselves that these are symbols, not the things themselves.
This is not a pipe. The map is not the territory. There is no spoon.
Confucius says that man who stands on toilet is high on pot.
Fine, maybe not that last bit.
When I’m down with bad cases of writer’s block, I tend to take long, rambling walks through my city. Some writers are fortunate enough to generate ideas internally, but I’m a greedy little magpie of a writer, who needs external stimuli to come up with new ideas.
This is, of course, purely anecdotal, but I’ve started to entertain myself during these walks by trying to identify Pokémon Go players on the streets. There seems to be an abundance of them.
I can, perhaps, understand the allure behind the game’s premise: the dopamine rush of catching a rare Pokémon; the environmental randomness that the game imposes on players by encouraging them to explore their surroundings.
I’ve seen heartwarming scenes of parents playing with their kids, and disturbingly zombie-eyed individuals staring at their phones. I’ve had a cabbie twice my age complain to me about an infestation of Ratattas (which, I hope, is less distressing to him than a plague of real rodents).
Technology can provide a bridge for us to connect with each other; representations of reality can touch us, ennoble us, make us think. The problem lies not in the medium, but in the way we apprehend and employ it. Do we use it to enhance our understanding of the world, or as an opiate to dull our appreciation of reality?
Life is the great game, and its rewards are not high scores or digital monsters, but the moments that truly move us. And here’s the best part: So myriad and fleeting are these moments, that no individual will be able to catch them all.