As I flick little balls at a stag-beetle monster called a Pinsir, the fabric of reality does not seem as if it’s under imminent threat. The animated thing jumps and dodges around in front of the masonic hall, finally succumbing to an upward index finger swipe. I’m left with a few stats and a wobbly camera-view of the street. As I meander around my neighbourhood, it’s diverting to have a gameworld overlaid on the familiar grid, but there’s nothing to suggest that Pokémon Go is anything more than a fad, certainly not that it’s an early ripple of a technological wave that could transform human society. And yet …
The idea of augmented reality (AR) has been around for years, and the smartphone is finally allowing developers to make apps that overlay your local street, park and bus stop with extra visuals or information that can enhance or transform them. The company that makes Pokémon offers another game in which players compete to gather “exotic matter”, a sort of auratic excess that leaks into our world from portals around landmarks and famous buildings, a neat visual metaphor for the cultural power of special places.
A little searching offers all sorts of other current AR possibilities. Some are useful – point your phone at a foreign road sign or a menu and get an instant translation. Others sound crass and depressing. Do I want to “convert anything in the real world into an interactive ‘wow’ experience”? Not really, because the real world is already interactive and more full of wonders than anyone who uses the word “wow” as an adjective is likely to understand.
So far, many of the available applications are aimed squarely at advertisers (the “wow experience” app seems to be a tool for making AR ads), and the prospect of navigating a reality that has commercials embedded into its very fabric is not enticing. But consolations occur. The walking tour of your city where you see how it looked 100 years ago. The ramble in the woods where taxonomical information about the trees hovers in the branches …
And yet there’s a deeply ingrained moral reflex that suggests to us that the world ought to be enough. We have cultural traditions intended to inoculate us against the flight into artificial paradises (just say no, kids!), or cutting ourselves off from the social reality of our fellows. Science fiction offers various dystopian visions of isolation in which the everyday turns out to be an illusion, and we are “really” tethered in stalls in some nightmarish factory farm or distracting ourselves as we scrape out a living in a burning, post-apocalyptic wasteland. These stories warn that if the real becomes mutable or untrustworthy, our experience of ourselves (not to mention each other) may become insubstantial, that what makes life meaningful is a certain intractability, a resistance to our desires.
Perhaps the prohibition against artificial paradises was once adaptive: don’t wander off chewing on those weird berries! Stay with your ape band! But as someone who apparently derives greater enjoyment than most from being in my own head, I can’t pretend I’m not taken with the idea of doing a little tweaking, editing my preferences.
Although while I may wish to augment my reality with nerdy explanatory wall texts and elevating historical overlays, there’s no guarantee that my neighbour may not prefer to move through a world overlaid with grotesque violence or extreme pornography, or just exist in some 24/7 Snapchat-esque fever dream in which everyone looks like cartoon dogs. What happens when we’re in the same physical space, but in all other respects, we have ceased to share much of anything at all? And what does it mean if someone elects to screen out certain aspects of their environment? Poverty, for example, or disabled people, or women’s uncovered faces?
This is where the ethics of reality augmentation will begin to intersect with an idea much discussed in political circles, the “filter bubble”, a phrase coined by activist Eli Pariser for our tendency to create an echo chamber around ourselves, to reinforce ideas and perceptions that we appreciate, and mute those we find disturbing or contrary to our prejudices.
Last year a paper was published by computer scientists at the University of Southern California describing the mathematical basis for what they call “the majority illusion”. Because of the structure of our social networks, behaviour or attitudes that are perhaps not common at all globally may appear to us to be “what everybody thinks” or “what everybody’s doing”. Individual choices are strongly influenced by the behaviour of friends and peers, whether that’s getting a new phone, joining a social movement, or chewing weird berries. Contagion is rife, creating menswear fashions or suicide clusters.
Our “self-evident” perceptions of the world – the self-evidence that leads us to believe skinny jeans are cool or sleeping pills are the only solution – may be highly skewed, and have little in common with the perceptions of those enmeshed in networks far away. I’m a fairly heavy user of social media, and like others I know who are aware of their innate tendency towards bias, I take care to follow a number of people whose world views are opposed to my own. I imagine this, no doubt vainly, to be a sort of prophylaxis against the madness of crowds. Did I mention I was playing Pokémon Go?
In the current American election campaign, and indeed in Britain, filter bubbles of extreme constriction and resilience are in evidence on left and right. Social media has allowed people to create hashtag bunkers for themselves. The faux universality of these structures seems to have the curious psychological effect of reducing tolerance of dissenting views. Imagine the augmented version of this, a politics in which all participants inhabit their own highly tailored realities, and are in the process of forgetting that those realities are partially constructed, so “natural” and “intuitive” do they feel. It is unlikely to be an agora of democratic civility. In fact the agora, the shared space of the polis, will be precisely what has vanished.
Like previous technological waves, AR will probably be too useful to resist, even for people who have an instinctive horror of mediation. Though it won’t plunge the people of the world into a solipsistic abyss, it is a development like that of the “internet of things” – something which may appear superficially modish and insubstantial, a froth of gadgets and jargon – but whose possibilities to transform the social world are at least as profound as the internet wave of the last quarter century.
There are what technocrats like to term “challenges” ahead, not least for human freedom and dignity. In the meantime, would you like some of these weird berries? They make you feel strange, but in a good way.
Hari Kunzru is the author of the novels Gods without Men and The Impressionist.