Legislative Council elections 2016

Pokemon Go and politics: beware those who augment reality in the pursuit of power

Alice Wu says while the mobile game may be distracting and potentially a risk to personal safety, candidates using fear to advance their own agendas are a real danger to the masses

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 July, 2016, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 July, 2016, 5:14pm

By now, I’ve lost count of how many times Pokemon Go-ers have slammed into me and others. It’s taken the world by storm. Some, such as film director Oliver Stone, say it’s totalitarianism. Some, like religious fundamentalists, are raising hell over these virtual pocket monsters, calling for players to repent or face the wrath of the Almighty for inadvertently worshipping idols.

Some are in awe of the technology, but it’s nothing new and has been used for military and navigation purposes for years.

I’m not so sure that God hates Pokemon. If He were to strike down anyone with great vengeance and furious anger, there are more likely candidates than Pokemon. Some people have fallen off cliffs and run into moving vehicles, but the devil didn’t make them do it. Businesses and criminals have profited from it, but it doesn’t make it a nefarious app.

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However you feel about Pokemon, the act of augmenting reality has been around for longer than any one of us has been. Technology has only made it available on our smartphones. Pokemon Go doesn’t profoundly change the way “reality” is perceived. Meitu has done it, and before Meitu, Photoshop. In “real life”, plastic surgeons have been augmenting for a long time. We have been augmenting reality – or our versions of reality – probably from the beginning of our existence. Why communicate if we don’t have the need to articulate our perceptions of reality? And if we have different perceptions, we have different interpretations of reality. And in trying to persuade another to see things our way, we impose our versions on others’.

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In politics, augmenting reality takes up a lot of its business. Achieving a collective goal requires a collective following that offers collective support. And as we have seen from the US presidential campaigns, tongues have been wagging to paint their versions of reality and to align them with their voters. The Republican nominee offered an augmented political reality that paints the US as a fatalistic, fearful, frail and failing country, while the Democrats countered that with an uplifting, reassuring and optimistic reading of the country.

While Pokemon Go injects virtual pocket monsters onto our smartphone screens, politicians amplify emotions – both positive and negative – for their political pursuits. Playing Pokemon Go is distracting and presents a risk to personal safety. In politics, the danger lies in how politicians play with our emotions and perceptions. Fear and anger can morph into unadulterated hate. History is filled with the misuse of human tendencies to advance evil. Exploiting prejudices, evil-doers were able to amplify the darker side of human nature and suppress empathy and compassion to commit mass murders and inflict wounds that last generations.

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In the wrong hands, Pokemon Go can be life-threatening. In the wrong hands, positions of power can be lead people down a path of annihilation. Pokemon Go can, at its best, get people to congregate, to interact. Politics, at its best, can give humanity the impetus to advance, towards a freer and more inclusive society. And it can morph contesting realities into compromises that benefit all.

As this city’s politicians face off in three elections in the next eight months, we must be alert to candidates’ messages and the realities they augment. Are they feeding off of our insecurities, exploiting fears, and imposing fantasies of divisiveness, supremacy, and hate into our political future? We decide whether campaigns are used to appeal to the better or the worst of our natures.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA