Cold Takes: Pokémon Go

Editor’s Note: In keeping with my chosen mode of journalism — slow — I’m starting a new feature called Cold Takes in which I’ll revisit a person, place, thing or issue that was at some point the subject of multiple media “hot takes” but has since vanished from the headlines. The idea struck me this weekend as I was listening to a podcast and learned something I hadn’t known about the subject of this first Cold Take, Pokémon Go.

 

I should begin by noting that the subject of this piece — the augmented reality (AR) mobile game Pokémon Go — hasn’t itself disappeared. In fact, last year The Pokémon Company grossed over $3 billion worldwide. But it’s no longer generating endless news stories  and tweets like it did when it was first unleashed on the world in 2016:

I had zero interest in the game at the time and didn’t really pay any attention to the details (although I do remember realizing one morning that the young men wandering up and down my street holding their phones in front of them were not lost Mormons but Pokémon hunters). In fact, so little attention did I pay to the phenomenon that I have to resort to Wikipedia to explain it to you now:

[Pokémon Go]uses the mobile device GPS to locate, capture, battle, and train virtual creatures, called Pokémon, which appear as if they are in the player’s real-world location. The game is free to play; it uses a freemium business model and supports in-app purchases for additional in-game items. The game launched with around 150 species of Pokémon, which had increased to over 420 by late 2018.

What I mostly remember is stories about people risking life and limb to capture imaginary monsters:

 

Among the many things I missed about  Pokémon was the link between the imaginary monsters and real-world businesses, although it was reported openly at the time. Here’s the CBC’s Colleen Jones in July 2016:

Now that Canadians can download the Pokemon Go app, the Pokemon pandemonium is on as thousands of fans pursue mythical monsters in the hot augmented reality game.

Halifax small businesses are embracing the influx of people out hunting for Pokemon, because fans are spending money.

Jones first speaks to the Ball family who “made the trek from Hammonds Plains into the city” (side note: does traveling 20km from Hammonds Plains into Halifax actually qualify as a “trek?”) to hunt for Pokémon monsters and who acknowledged that, while in town, they would likely “buy ice cream and have a coffee.”

Then Jones speaks to the owner of a Halifax card game store, The Deck Box, who explains that it is possible to “buy lures” to bring Pokémon hunters into your store:

A lure, which brings Pokemon around your business for 30 minutes, costs 80 Pokemon coins, which sell for $1.39 for 100.

This is the aspect of the game that brought it back into my consciousness this weekend.

I was listening to an interview with Shoshana Zuboff, the author of a new book entitled, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

Zuboff, a professor emerita of Harvard Business School, is everywhere right now. (I found not one but three reviews of her book in the New York Times this month, which means my Cold Take has accidentally turned into a Hot Take, but this won’t necessarily be the case every time.)

I haven’t read the book (although I can’t wait to) but I’ve read about it and listened to a couple of interviews with Zuboff and since the first piece of business for the reviewer or interviewer is always defining “surveillance capitalism,” I feel I am beginning to understand the concept. Here’s how Zuboff described it in an interview with NPR’s OnPoint:

Surveillance capitalism is an unprecedented approach to making money, for lack of a better word, capital accumulation, and here’s how it works: it unilaterally claims private, human experience as its own commodity that can be translated into behavioral data which can be then sold and purchased in a new kind of marketplace that trades exclusively in predictions of our future behavior. What we will do now, soon and later.

Zuboff calls these markets “futures markets” and says they represent a shift in the “whole premise of exchange”:

We are no longer the…customers of capitalism, we are its free source of raw materials…

Zuboff says surveillance capitalism was “discovered, invented, elaborated at Google” between 2000-2002, before migrating to Facebook (courtesy of Cheryl Sandburg whom Zuboff dubs the “Typhoid Mary” of surveillance capitalism) and becoming “the default option” for Silicon Valley startups and apps. Now, she says, it is everywhere. A reality she illustrates with the disturbing example of medical apps.

In 2002, before anyone knew anything about surveillance capital (“because Google kept it quite a secret”), data scientists conducted a review of what was then called “tele-medicine.” Says Zuboff:

[T]he review includes a diagram for a proposed digital architecture of tele-medicine. And that diagram is a simple, closed loop. It includes three nodes: one is the patient in her home; one is her physician; and the other is the hospital where the server is located.

And so the whole idea here is that a person’s health data — all the information about their body, what they’re doing, how they’re feeling — that is the essential, elemental property of the person. My body, my information and it’s mine to decide how it’s used, what it means, all of that. And I can use that to enhance my relationship with my doctor – that’s as far as it goes.

Zuboff then fast fowards to 2016, and a study of Android-based diabetes apps (just some of the over 100,000 “mobile health apps” we can now download to our smartphones) that appeared in The American Journal of Medicine. The researchers examined 211 apps, choosing about 70 of them for “deep-dive analysis.”

What they found was, just by downloading the app, it automatically authorized the collection and even the modification of sensitive personal information on your phone.

And then they figured out that 64% of the apps secretly modify or delete your information; 31% secretly read your phone status and identity; 27% secretly get their location data…Another 12% take advantage to view your WiFi connection so they can get a lot of information from that and then there’s actually 11% that go ahead and activate your camera so that they can access your photos and your videos.

Finally, they found that between 4 and 6% went even further – they read your contact list, they called phone numbers on your phone, they modified your contacts, they read your call logs, some of them even activated your microphone to record your speech.

 

As creepy as that is, things were about to get even creepier as developers, says Zuboff, realized that just capturing data and using it to predict behavior paled in comparison to “actually intervening in people’s behavior” to “gently shape” that behavior “toward the commercial outcomes” they sought. What Zuboff said next inspired this Cold Take:

So, there have been massive, scaled experiments in this implementation of a global means of behavior modification, which is what we’re getting at here…For example, something as simple and innocent, apparently innocent, as the game Pokémon Go that enthralled people all over the world in the summer of 2016.

Well, it turns out that Pokémon Go was running its own behavioral futures markets. So, there were restaurants and pizza shops and…auto service centers and bars and so forth that were paying to play in these new futures markets. So they would have Pokémon creatures in their establishment or they would become a certified gem for the Pokémon activity and then the game itself would…give you incentives and tune you and nudge you and tune you up so that you would finally end up in these specific establishments which had paid [Pokémon inventor] Niantic Labs, originally part of Google… for the privilege of getting your body in the door.

…The idea here is the more that we can actually shape people’s behavior toward the commercial outcomes that we seek, the more lucrative our predictions, the more money we can make in these futures markets, the happier our business customers are.

Far from being a “Google prank,” Pokémon Go was an experiment in behavior modification. How could I have missed that? Perhaps because I’m me and not Shoshona Zuboff, an academic and author (her previous book was In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power) who has spent six years considering the phenomenon of surveillance capital.

As one reviewer put it, Zuboff’s latest book is like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century in that “it opens one’s eyes to things we ought to have noticed, but hadn’t.” There’s nothing in Zuboff’s description of Pokémon Go that wasn’t in Colleen Jones’ CBC article in the summer of 2016, but Jones didn’t consider any of the deeper or negative implications of a game that herded customers into local businesses. (And I don’t mean to pick on Jones, I don’t remember any mainstream media uproar about privacy and surveillance that summer).

It takes someone like Zuboff to connect those dots.

 

 

 

 

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