Is Augmented Reality Diminished Reality?

Jul 23, 2016 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Is Augmented Reality Diminished Reality?

image by: Tumisu

It's called augmented reality, and it's coming to a smartphone near you. In fact, with Pokémon GO it has arrived with a bang. But apparently augmentation and reality ain't what they used to be.

Your field of vision is approximately 135 degree vertical by 180 degrees horizontal, but that's not nearly enough to see all there is to see. Whether you're in Yosemite or New York City, there's always more to take in, always more to experience and process. As Walter Pater said a over a century ago, "[I]t is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike."

That, of course, requires the attention of active mind, and it's a lot easier to keep your eyes down and let 14 square inches of smartphone real estate lead you by the nose. And although supplanting real-world experience with that which is filtered by TVs and computer screens is old hat, the dawning of the age of "augmented reality" opens a disturbing new chapter in the story of our willingness—our eagerness—to surrender our ability to self-create.

With its development of Pong, Atari Inc. was a seminal character in the story of getting people to interact with video screens rather than simply look at them. By the 1980s kids across America and beyond were regularly playing video games both in arcades and at home. Because time is a zero-sum commodity, every hour a kid was at home jerking his Atari joystick was a minute he wasn't experiencing the world outside or practicing any beneficial skill.

As video-game technology advanced, gaming culture grew in terms of both societal breadth and how much time and energy individual gamers were giving over to their hobby. Gamers playing for four hours, six hours, even eight hours per day became not especially rare, especially once the World Wide Web injected a social aspect. Nonetheless, unless you were so serious about gaming that you played in tournaments, gaming was something you did sitting at home with a computer. If you were gaming, you were not in the world but in "virtual reality."

But with a single smartphone app, Niantic and Nintendo have combined to produce the biggest success so far in eradicating the boundary. It's called Pokémon GO, and for people who don't play it, it seems too ludicrous to be believed. The idea is to walk hither and thither viewing the whole wide world through your smartphone's camera image so that you can see and "capture" the eponymous animated creatures.

Most of the spin on Pokémon GO thus far has been positive. People are going outside more. Businesses that are locations where Pokémon can be found get more customers. And it's just good, clean fun!

But the down sides are out there, too. Almost as soon as the Pokémon GO was released came reports of people injuring themselves because they were too intent on "catch[ing] them all" (as the catchphrase goes) to be properly aware of their surroundings. And you can take it to the bank that texting while driving will soon be joined by Pokémoning while driving as a cause of death.

Then there's the way Pokémon GO is trivializing the real world, such as how people have been looking for—and finding—Pokémon at the Holocaust Museum. Next stop, Auschwitz? The 9/11 Memorial? Is that a Magmar on the motel balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated?!

The worst problem with Pokémon GO is its contribution to our putting technology between us and our environment. As is clear to most of us over 40, Western culture has become obsessively reliant on smartphones, using them not simply improve our functionality but to replace parts of it. Our critical-thinking skills are suffering. A recent study suggesting that attention spans among the general public are down 33% since 2000 only confirms what is anecdotally apparent. Hell, another study suggests that by their own reckoning half of all American teenagers are addicted to their smartphones. And now comes Pokémon GO, a new lure.

Don't get me wrong: I've got a smartphone, and it's an undeniably useful tool. I use it for telephone, text, GPS, Internet, iTunes, notepad, camera, audio recorder…In short, there's a long list of jobs this pocket-sized wonder handles for me. O brave new world that has such devices in it.

But as Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd fame) observed in a 2014 interview as he bemusedly lamented the number of people who came to see his massive production of The Wall but viewed chunks of it through their smartphone, right now it seems it was Aldous Huxley, rather than George Orwell, who pinned the tail on the donkey when it comes to Western society's means of pacifying the general public. Superficial pleasure is proving a sufficient means of control; brute force is not necessary. And our soma may be (or at least is epitomized by) the smartphone.

The main argument against me here is that it's not one or the other. Playing Pokémon GO at the Grand Canyon does not prevent you from putting your smartphone in your pocket for a while and simply beholding the natural wonder. But that's not the path we're treading. Rather than venturing out into the world with our eyes and minds intent on taking in whatever's really there, we're focusing on what we're told to focus on. No Pokémon here? Let's move on.

There is no question that Pokémon GO is doing some people good by motivating them to get out more, often in groups. Anything that brings people outside together and promotes walking can't be all bad. But in many cases it would be better for the rest of us if some of those people stayed home. Pokémon fans trying to catch them all at the Louvre is definitely going to hurt your art appreciation. In any case, all this good is temporary. Pokémon GO is a fad, and fads don't last. Very few Pokémon GOers are going to develop better habits from this game-playing experience. The fad will die off, and the only lasting effect of all this Pokémon-hunting will be players having gotten a lot of practice deepening their smartphone dependence.

Considering that "augmented reality" is relatively new, the corporations that produce it are only scratching the surface of how they can make money off of you and your smartphone obsession. You do understand that this is the only reason Nintendo/Niantic and those who will follow in their footsteps are propagating this technology, right? Even when the tech is free—maybe especially when it's free—you should still be asking yourself, Cui bono? Who benefits? If the creators of "augmented reality" apps are looking to maximize profit, aren't they going to engineer the experience so it leads users to the businesses that are the highest bidders? (Consider the Pokémon/McDonald's deal that's reportedly just been inked.) Pokémon GO is channeling your attention. Look here. Go here. Spend your money here. Huxley's dystopian vision trumps Orwell's. Who needs to take away your freedom of choice when you'll so enthusiastically give it away?

"Augmented reality" is a cautionary tale. The most superficial pastimes can have deep indications. But if nothing else, even the most passive use of something like Pokémon GO is more likely to diminish your reality than augment it. "A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life," Walter Pater reminds us. "How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life."

For that sort of success, "augmented reality" may be the most ironic of misnomers.


About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

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