Why Pokémon Go isn't the dream come true you think it is

Pokémon Go requires the user to give permission to several privacy intrusions: location services, camera usage and data, time zone, and so on. It’s not surprising people are already questioning what Pokémon creator Nintendo will do with this data

Lauren Puckett
Monday 11 July 2016 16:56 BST
(Getty Images)

Pokémon Go is everything I ever wanted as a kid. In fact, it’s almost too good to be true.

Yes, I was the kid who went to the video game store on the release date of a new Pokémon game. Yes, I watched the cartoons and the terrible films. Yes, fine, I’ll admit it - I carried my GameBoy around in my backpack at school and I took enormous pride in beating my brother in battle. What can I say? The silly creatures that bark their own names make for one hell of an afternoon’s entertainment.

That statement is likely echoed by thousands of people who have already downloaded the new augmented reality app. The game is so popular it’s about to surpass Twitter in number of daily active users on Android. It’s yet to be officially released in the UK, but it’s already generating a storm of activity in the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Pokémon Go takes an ordinary mobile phone and converts it into a window to a fictional world. By turning on their camera, “trainers” can see creatures pop up on their screens, appearing in patches of grass, hospital rooms, table counters, bathtubs, and even frying pans, all depending on where the user walks. Trainers can travel around their city of choice, pausing at sculptures and skyscrapers and storefronts that pose as Pokémon gyms, where they can then fight for the title of The Very Best That No One Ever Was.

The game is already being heralded as a landmark achievement. It’s encouraging people to get outside, to explore their neighborhood! It’s a weight loss device! It’s helping people deal with mental illness! It’s almost as if it’s a miracle - and, in some ways, it really is. It may not be a fantastic game (it’s pretty simplistic, really), but its implications are far-reaching.

That’s because Pokémon Go is only the beginning. Technology is changing - and it’s changing fast.

We might like to joke about augmented reality and self-driving cars and Big Brother-like phone surveillance, but the truth is that these technologies exist. Before long they’ll shape the world as we know it. Remember that the internet started as a government weapon in the Cold War and that some of the first mobile phones were ugly manila-coloured bricks the size of Chipotle burritos. Now practically everyone has a sleek touchscreen device tucked into their pocket. Our whole lives operate around those little buggers.

The more technology changes, and the faster it changes, the more we need to be aware - and ready - for what comes next. I’m not saying prepare for the birth of Skynet, or start puzzling over whether you’ll take the red pill or the blue pill. But do be serious about this simple fact: technology is just as wonderful as it is dangerous.

So, yes, Pokémon Go is my 12-year-old wonderland. But it’s also a very real invention, a very real money-making device, and a very real picture of what questions we should be asking about our tech.

Pokémon Go turns man's house into a gym, causes huge problems

The first is already a raging debate: how important is our right to privacy? Do we have one in the technological world – and can we expect to?

Pokémon Go requires the user to give permission to several privacy intrusions: location services, camera usage and data, time zone, and so on. It’s not surprising people are already questioning what Pokémon creator Nintendo will do with this data, and whether it’s smart to allow companies so much access into our whereabouts and daily patterns. This debate is already hotly contested in the area of crime surveillance, wiretapping and personalised advertising. How much should technology be allowed to know about you? Where is the line between “a little bit creepy” and “downright dangerous”?

But location data isn’t the only concern. Perhaps by now you’ve heard of the poor man whose house has been tagged as a Pokémon Gym. The result? Dozens of people stopping outside his house to sit there, phone in hand, and battle with virtual monsters.

Sure, we can all laugh about this, and it seems the man himself is taking the sudden influx of visitors as something of a joke. But he also pointed out the other implications - that the game could encourage trespassing on private property, and that the question should be asked: do we have rights when it comes to virtual locations? It may be a game, but the location - the home - is real. As virtual locations in the real world become more popular (and they undoubtedly will), do we have any ability to maintain our privacy when those two places intersect?

If that doesn’t worry you, then what about safety? The opening screen of the Pokémon Go app warns players to be aware of their surroundings - and sure, accidentally bumping into a pole while searching for an Eevee isn’t going to cause any political upheaval. But what about car crashes due to users playing the game while driving? What about armed robbers using location services to locate wandering trainers? What about hackers taking over people’s phones?

Of course these are only isolated incidents, and there’s no reason to fear playing Pokémon Go. Don’t go running about in a moral panic about how fluffy computer critters are going to destroy your social security, please. I promise you’re safe from the Pikachu down the block.

The point I’m making is this: Pokémon Go is a window to the future. It’s a future where self-driving cars and virtual reality headsets and artificial intelligence give us a very different idea of what is “real,” of what is “private,” of what is lawful and of what is safe.

Technology is moving so quickly it can be hard to see what direction it’s headed in. Pokémon Go is an incredible step towards a more adventurous digitised world - but it’s also the first peek into the dangers we might discover if we don’t take technology seriously.

So get out there and catch ‘em all - but remember to look both ways before crossing the street.

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