Centre for Internet & Society

America’s head start on the augmented reality game Pokémon Go shows that the interweb is not an egalitarian space.

The article was published in the Indian Express on July 17, 2016

I was busy, writing, when a Telegram message trickled in. It was a friend who asked me if I had looked at the new Pokémon Go game which has been getting more attention than national elections and global warfare in the USA lately. A location-based augmented reality game that involves the users moving around their physical environments “collecting” pokemon characters that appear hiding in different locations has a large part of the American population in a frenzy, leading to aching soles, traffic accidents, and involuntary bumping into things and people as the players move around, their eyes glued to their screens. The global release of the game is still in the pipeline, and so the rest of us will have to make do with the videos and screen grabs of the game.

While a big Pikachu fan myself, I don’t see myself going crazy over this game as and when my geography allows me for it, but the friend who had written to me about it is perturbed. An avid gamer and a self-proclaimed Pokémon fan, he is devastated that the users in privileged geography are going to get a head start in the global leader boards that he can never catch up with. The interwebz is already abuzz with players sharing hacks, cracks, bugs, cheat codes, and tips to collect more Pokémon, discover hidden powers, and rise quickly in the ranks as they drive, walk, run and jog around their neighbourhoods, in the quest of catching those delightful monsters on their phones. While my friend is aware that this cloud-based game will have multiple servers for different geographies, and so there will be relative rankings and customised interfaces for each community of players, he was feeling cheated about living in India and not having access to the first release of the game that has all the attention on the social web right now.

‘It almost makes me want to leave India and move to the USA,’ he said in mock frustration. It made me think about the privilege of geography when it comes to the presumed flatness of the digital world. One of the imaginations of the peer-to-peer architectures of the internet is its promise of flatness. With a series of non-discriminatory principles like #NetNeutrality and #ZeroRating enshrined as the fundamental attributes of the digital internet, we are often led to believe that when we are online, we are equal. This idea is so prevalent that in most of our technology-based development practices and policies, we think of access as the “be all”, if not the “end all”, of our activities. The rhetoric promises that if we get everybody online, we will have an egalitarian society where everybody will have equal access to resources, and equity by participating in the decision-making processes.

Despite overwhelming evidence that the digital world is anecdotally and systemically a space of exclusion, contestation, and intimidation, we continue to propagate the idea that these are “human” problems. Humans, fragile, frail and foolish in their being, contaminate the digital space. Humans, mired in the analogue systems of hatred and abuse, appropriate technologies to perpetuate these older forms of discrimination. The technological structures are imagined as pure, sterile, and committed to constructing parameters of equality through their neutral promises of universal access and seamless connectivity. Technology is clean, the human being is impure. Technology is robust, the human frail. Technology is flat, human hierarchical. These narratives of a neutral and egalitarian technology consequently lead us to put more importance and faith in algorithmic decisions and data-driven governance and policing. We have come to believe that because technologies are neutral, they will do a better job of regulating us than we do ourselves.

Pokémon Go, and its obvious geographical privilege reminds us that the digital is not flat. It is oriented towards a very obvious logic of geopolitical, economic, racial, and identity privileging that continues to promote some parts of the world as favoured standards of first access. The exclusive release of Pokémon Go reminds us that the digital is as subject to Euro-American centrism which treat these erstwhile imperial geographies as the beginning points of all digital activities, slowly expanding their fold to other regions through a trickle-down politics and economics. Whether you are waiting impatiently to join the global bandwagon of Pokémon collection, or are ready to shrug this off as another thing that people do on the web, this differential, preferential, and variable access of the internet is something we definitely want to consider as we continue to push for the digital as the solution to human problems.

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