August 25, 2016

Always Already Augmented

I saw the news this week that Pokemon Go is losing some of its popularity and noticed it’s fallen from conversation more generally. A perfect time to type up some thoughts! (And in general, we hope to use this Dispatches space as a place for Real Life editors to write about topics on our minds, and to encourage contributions from readers who may want to build on or diverge from what’s being said.)

It was entirely predictable that Pokemon Go would go from shocking and over-discussed to something very normalized and almost uninteresting. It’s partly because it’s a game, and games, for some, can quickly go from new and exciting to tedious. But it’s also because “augmented reality” isn’t as novel as the click-chasing coverage made it out to be. Much of the coverage described Pokemon Go as a watershed moment, where a science-fiction premise burst into everyday life. An app was stealing people from reality, and the purity of nature was being debased by herds of monster-chasing zombies. But what was being heralded as the first big explosion of “augmented reality” in fact had a lot in common with the sorts of augmentations of reality we are already used to, and as such, the game quickly became ordinary.

Yet that moment Pokemon Go first arrived was instructive and telling, an opportunity to not merely poke fun at viral media but to ask why those stories found an audience and traveled so far. People did feel something significant happened. Augmented reality violates long-held collective assumptions about the nature of reality around us. It was a moment of real epistemic and/or ontological uncertainty and portends future “augmented reality”–based insecurities to come. The packs of people looking at their phones and trampling public space can seem like something alien and ominous, especially for those who don’t play the game. It can read as a sure sign that common sense has been violated.

Pokemon Go takes space as we know it — what we mistakenly but understandably call the “real world” — and visually layers into it interactive digital objects. It takes what we have understood to be shared space and makes it part of a game, at least for those with a phone and the app. So part of the worry around Pokemon Go is that it creates a knowledge of and experience with the world that isn’t shared by everyone present. This is also part of the game’s appeal: to be in on an otherwise hidden layer of the space around you, to be in the know about what can now be seen as the full reality of a space, unlocked by an app.

This new, unlocked reality presents itself as an opportunity for fun for some, but it can also create discomfort for those who now feel excluded, newly missing out on something pleasurable or important. Suddenly they aren’t witnessing all of this space. For some without the app, space might feel a little less shared and public, and a little more exclusionary and fractured. (Not that the definition of a shared space, and who it makes feel at home within it, is ever egalitarian or even agreed upon, as, for example, curbs without a ramp cut out make clear. Pokemon Go would be just a new, lower-stakes instance.)

We can’t share a social experience with the people around us unless we have similar definitions of our collective situation, the same basic understanding of reality, the shape of things, and who and what is present. This shared understanding is part of what makes social interaction possible — and social. To come to this shared understanding, we have developed norms and social habits that articulate the contours of what social space is, what is possible and permissible. These habits — from how loud you speak, to how much personal space you afford, to countless other culturally contingent norms — essentially narrow what everyone present understands as being possible within a particular space. The extent we agree on all this is the extent we share social space.

Augmenting reality does largely the opposite: It’s about changing what is possible for some and not others. And by creating this new definition of reality, we might also lose some of the stable sense of self or community derived from the mutual recognition of shared public space. We come to know reality and ourselves through interacting with others, so to be unaware of another’s reality is to be unaware of reality itself. And perhaps our selves, too.

If I don’t have the Pokemon Go app open, the players around me are in a radically different social context, seeing, navigating, and accomplishing the world differently. Players aren’t just having a private gaming experience in a privately augmented reality; they are hanging in groups, talking to strangers, mysteriously enjoying themselves. You aren’t missing out on just a potential individual experience, but also on something social. The people occupying a seemingly different reality that you don’t have access to are sharing something, building their own definition of what is real in the space, building their own public. Being amid a mass of people participating in another reality you don’t have access to can can spark paranoia, and provoke the same feeling of seeing co-workers all together and whispering without including you.

The different definitions of the mutual situation might mean that people can’t fully relate as much as before. Nonusers might react by asserting that the gamers are at a deficit because they aren’t appreciating the space for its own sake, catching monsters instead of smelling the flowers. The players, by playing, clearly feel differently.

This tension is among the reasons this high-profile instantiation of augmented reality came across as shocking, offensive, and pleasurable all at once. But it is also why it has faded into the normal so quickly. We are already used to struggling with contested definitions of space and reality. Augmenting reality is in this way far more familiar than novel. But Pokemon Go foregrounds with a concrete example how we continually work to sustain shared definitions of reality.

As a sociologist, I like it when new technologies make explicit the social processes that are a hard sell for sociologists talking to non-sociologists. It’s not so hard to sell the idea of performed identity now in an era of such explicit self-construction on screens. It isn’t hard, either, to sell the idea that everyday tastes and micro-interactions are deeply hierarchical and status driven, given the ubiquity of status metrics slathered across our social platforms as hearts and likes and clicks and follower counts and so on.

When social technologies “disrupt,” they shake our social configurations around and sometimes reveal processes that were partly hidden. The earthquake of what we call “augmented reality” has revealed some basic ideas about “reality” itself: how it is constructed by infinite vectors of information and understood in competing ways. “What is the shape of this reality around me?” is a stoner (or grad school) question that a silly game like Pokemon Go made mainstream. If nothing else, the popularity of Pokemon Go in the streets and in our collective imagination made it suddenly obvious that the definition of space is collaborative, contested, and able to be remade.

Some will use this understanding for progressive purposes, some for reactionary purposes. But the game makes explicit the fact that what we think of as reality has always been socially constructed; more, that reality within, away from, and through the screen has always been augmented — and “augmentations” have always presented new limitations. “Reality” and “real world” have always needed scare quotes, but Pokemon Go has made that more obvious now.

Reality is made and remade and “augmented” continuously, as sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann point out in their foundational 1966 text, The Social Construction of Reality. They might have approached today’s augmented-reality technologies by arguing that the basic unit of sociological analysis is a reality that is constructed and contested by people, groups, and structures, and one that is augmented and remixed by information and communication technologies. Understanding social reality is, in part, the project of articulating how reality always has been and continues to be constructed and changed.

When encountering Pokemon Go’s game-simulation of reality, some people asked what Jean Baudrillard, the philosopher of simulation, would say. We do know what he thought of obvious simulations, like Disneyland: They obscure the fact that everything else is a fake. People have used the existence of Pokemon Go to sell the fiction that not playing is more “real.” For example, a New York Times op-ed argued that augmented reality, like Pokemon Go, is about ditching the “real world” for the “screen world.”

But it is misleading to oppose the real to the augmented. Wandering through town we encounter a deeply augmented reality even if we are not playing Pokemon Go, not carrying a screen with us. From billboards overhead to the sounds of music from passing cars to the architecture of surrounding buildings to the city planning it all rests on, reality is augmented everywhere at every moment. And that’s not even considering the deeper augmentations of cultural norms, or the structures of language itself. Language is built on “augmenting” what is “here and now” with a record of ideas and people and actions that transcend time and space and presence.

That a phone app overlays a cartoon monster on an onscreen map is one small augmentation in a far larger process. The cartoon monster hasn’t taken anyone out of the natural world into a virtual dimension; it is instead just a slightly different augmentation. It’s just that when we get used to an augmentation of reality, we stop thinking of it as augmentation and see it simply as reality.