The Internet is eating the world: Pokemon Go and digital’s disrespect for the physical world

As a person whose life is consumed by the digital world, this feels an exceptionally strange piece to write. I spend the vast majority of my day on a device, whether that’s a computer for work (I’m a web developer, no escaping it) or a phone/computer/tablet for whatever (likely cat-related) thing I happen to be internetting in my free time.

So you can understand my internal consternation when confronted with a situation that makes me lean toward limiting technology. I’m more than a little worried about technology, both for the reaction it’s drawing as well as its actual impact it’s having on society as a whole — and not just because three out of every four stories on every single news site is about Pokemon Go.

But we’ll get there. First, let’s start with something more mainstream.

Disrupting meatspace

Technology (and, more specifically, apps/the internet) are famous for disruption. Tesla’s disrupting the auto industry. So’s Uber. AirBnB “disrupted” the hotel industry by allowing people to rent out rooms (or entire houses) to perfect strangers. The disruption in question (for hotels) was that they no longer were the combination of easiest/cheapest way to stay in a place away from home. But there was also “disruption” in terms of laws/regulation, a fight AirBnB is currently waging in several different locations.

Some of these fights revolve around leases — many landlords do not allow subleasing, which is what some people do on AirBnB: Rent out a space they rent from someone else for a period of time. AirBnB asks that people confirm they have the legal right to rent out the space they’re listing, but there’s no enforcement or verification of any kind on AirBnB’s part. AirBnB thus, at least in some non-small number of cases, is profiting off of at best a breach of contract, if not outright illegality. Then there’s the fact that anyone, be they murderer, sex offender or what have you, can rent out their space and the person renting the room may be none the wiser.

And maybe these things are OK! Maybe it should be caveat emptor, and the people who ultimately lose out (the actual lessees) are the ones primarily being harmed. But that ignores the people who were just trying to rent from AirBnB and had to deal with an irate landowner, or the property owner who has to deal with the fallout/repercussions of the person breaking the lease.

The clichéd technical model of “move fast and break things” should have some limits, and situations where people are dying need more foresight than “we’ll figure it out as we go along.” Otherwise, how do we determine the appropriate death toll for a new tech service before it needs to ask permission rather than forgiveness? And before you dismiss that question as overbearing/hysterical, remember that actual human beings have already died.

The right to not exist, digitally speaking

But not everything is so doom and gloom! Why, Pokemon Go is bringing nerds outside, causing people to congregate and interact with one another. It’s legitimately fun! Finally my inner 10-year-old can traipse around the park looking for wild Pikachu to capture. Using augmented reality, the game takes your physical location and overlays the game on top of it. As you walk around with your phone, it uses your GPS location to pop up various Pokemon for you to capture. There are also Pokestops, which are preset locations that provide you with in-game items, located in numerous places (usually around monuments and “places of cultural interest”). There are also gyms in similarly “random” places where you can battle your Pokemon to control the gym.

And no deaths! (Yet, probably.) But just because no one is dying doesn’t mean there aren’t still problems. Taste-wise, what about the Pokestop at Ground Zero (or this list of weird stops)? Business-wise, what about the Pokestop near my house that’s in a funeral home parking lot? You legally can’t go there after-hours … but Pokemon Go itself says that some Pokemon only come out at night. What happens during a funeral? There’s no place where businesses can go to ask to be removed as a Pokestop (and frankly, I can imagine places like comic book stores and such that would pay for the privilege). And who has the right to ask that the 9/11 Memorial Pool be removed? Victims’ families? There’s an appropriation of physical space going on that’s not being addressed with the seriousness it should. Just because in the Pokemon game world you can catch Pokemon anywhere doesn’t mean, for example, that you should necessarily allow have them popping up at the Holocaust Museum.

I would like to preempt arguments about “it’s just an algorithm” or “we crowd-sourced” the information by pointing out that those things are useful in their way, but they are not excuses nor are they reasons. If you decide to crowd-source information, you’d better make sure that the information you’re looking for has the right level of impact (such as the names of boats, or in Pokemon Go’s case, the locations of Pokestops). Some of these things can be fixed after the fact, some of them require you to put systems in place to prevent problems from ever occurring.

Who's to blame? Who cares?

In this case, you can cast blame on the players for not respecting the law/common sense/decency, and while you’d be right, it shifts the blame away from the companies that are making money off this. What inherent right do companies have to induce people to trespass? Going further, for some reason doing something on “the internet” suddenly cedes rights completely unthinkable in any other context. Remember the “Yelp for people” that was all but an app designed to encourage libel, or the geo-mapping firm that set the default location for any IP address in the US to some Kansan’s front yard. These were not malicious, or even intentional acts. But they had very real affects on people that took far too long to solve, all because the companies in question didn’t bother (or didn’t care) about the real effects of their decisions.

At some point, there’s at the very least a moral — and should be legal, though I’m not necessarily advocating for strict liability — compulsion to consider and fix problems before they happen, rather than waiting until it’s too late. The proper standard probably lies somewhere around where journalists have to consider libel — journalists have a responsibility to only report things they reasonably believe to be accurate. Deadlines and amount of work are not defenses, meaning that the truth must take priority over all. For places where the internet intersects with the real world (which is increasingly becoming “most internet things”), perhaps a similar standard that defers to the reasonably foreseeable potential negative impact should apply.

Technology is only going to grow ever-more entrenched in our lives, and as its function moves closer to an appendage and away from external utility, it’s incumbent upon actors (both governmental and corporate) to consider the very real effects of their products. It (here meaning “life,” “work” or any number of quasi-existential crises) has to be about more than just making money, or the newest thing.