From minefields in Bosnia to military bases in Indonesia, from Holocaust museums to Julian Assange’s embassy, Pokémon seem to be everywhere. As Pokémon Go takes over the world, Saudi clerics have renewed a fatwa against the gaming series and Japan’s authorities have released safety guidelines in preparation for the official launch there. Never before has digital reality become so integrated into our physical world.
It has even become part of the US presidential elections, with Hillary Clinton chiming in that she doesn’t “know who created Pokémon Go, but I’d try to figure out how to get them to have Pokémon go to the polls”. In truth Clinton knows very well who created Pokémon Go. It was her friends in Silicon Valley.
How to explain the success of Pokémon Go? One way is to follow the money, and it might be easier to explain. Augmented reality (AR) is not something new; it has been used for years in the military and for navigation systems. What makes Pokémon Go novel is that AR has gone mainstream for the first time. And it has to be understood as a historical break, which will profoundly change the way we perceive and experience reality. It will change reality itself.
AR is in a way even more interesting than virtual reality (VR), as it doesn’t replace the real world with a simulated one, but is rather a sophisticated combination of both. AR integrates the digital into the real (by using your smartphone camera to transfer the digital Pokémon into the physical world) and the real into the digital (your physical body becomes part of a simulated reality).
Pokémon Go was created by Niantic, whose director John Hanke was one of the founders of Keyhole – a pioneering software development company specialised in geospatial data visualisation that paved the way for Google Maps and Google Earth. Keyhole was acquired by Google in 2004, as was Niantic. Pokémon Go wouldn’t be possible without Google. After Google Glass received massive criticism and legislative action due to privacy and safety concerns, it can even be seen as a first successful commercial step in the direction of enabling Google’s AR dream.
And this is why the faux-naivety of what Hillary Clinton says about this is important. She must know that it is the former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, who is running the digital component of her own campaign, using a startup known as The Groundwork. And she must know that Schmidt recently became head of the Pentagon’s innovation board and that between January 2009 and October 2015, Google’s top executives and representatives gathered at the White House on 427 separate occasions. Obviously there is a symbiotic relationship between the US state department and Silicon Valley. But why should this worry us?
We don’t have to speculate about what Silicon Valley’s ideology is, it is enough to read Peter Thiel’s Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. Thiel, part of the so-called “Paypal mafia” and owner of Palantir, explicitly says that “competition is a relic of history” and that monopoly capitalism is not a pathology or an exception, but the condition of every successful business. Google is one of the best examples: almost all of Google’s “innovations” are a product of acquisition (from Google Maps to Youtube).
Another successful example, mentioned by Thiel himself, is Tesla Motors: “Tesla’s technology is so good that other car companies rely on it: Daimler uses Tesla’s battery packs; Mercedes Benz uses a Tesla powertrain; Toyota uses a Tesla motor. General Motors has even created a taskforce to track Tesla’s next moves. But Tesla’s greatest technological achievement isn’t one single component, but rather its ability to integrate many components into one superior product.”
This is the best description of monopoly capitalism. The success of Silicon Valley is not a result of genius, but purchase – Google, Facebook, Apple or Palantir succeeded in creating such powerful and pervasive monopolies precisely because of such acquisitions.
Pokémon Go marks a further step, because the penetration of Silicon Valley into the most intimate aspects of our lives through social networks and new technology has reached a level in which our physical reality becomes integrated into the digital reality. Soon it will be impossible to distinguish the physical from the digital, realising the idea behind Google Glass.
Pokémon Go should be viewed as an important breakthrough that can’t be defined properly without taking into consideration the total colonisation undertaken by Silicon Valley through the “internet of things” (absolute integration of our vehicles, homes, tools into the network), “smart cities” (acquisition of our cities’ infrastructure by Silicon Valley), social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), Google, transport innovations (drones, Tesla Motors, etc), “big data”, total surveillance, AI, VR, and last but not least, immortality (Silicon Valley’s dream that we will upload our brains and live forever).
All these fields of massive investment and radical innovation transform our reality in such a profound way that every aspect of our lives will soon be integrated into a big global digital “network” which is already, for the first time in human history, enabling the creation of a constantly interconnected global brain.
The problem is not technology or innovation, the problem is monopoly capitalism: the fact that all this power is concentrated in a few companies from Silicon Valley, who openly want to create a brave new world in which technology only serves profit. While we’re all busy playing Pokémon, the companies are following the game’s advice – “Gotta catch ‘em all”. Only, its us being captured in an inescapable web of technological consumerism.
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