“There’s a Seel in the seal tank!” says my partner Zoë.
Around us, heads turn, knowing smiles hidden behind the smartphone screens a good third of the people waiting in line hold up to their faces. My own shows me three PokéStops encircling the line outside the Boston Aquarium, each enhanced to make more Pokémon appear for everyone. Total strangers strike up conversation on a whim, and a cry goes up every so often as a rare Pokémon appears and everyone scrambles to catch it.
But the quiet joy between the conversations holds the real wonder: all these people, most young, some not, tapping away at their phones, grinning conspiratorially at each other. Those about to enter the aquarium hesitate momentarily, excited to see it but sad to leave the friendly crowd.
When I get to the ticket booth, the attendant gives me that same knowing smile I’ve been seeing for the last ten minutes. “Yeah,” he says, marveling, “it’s been like this all day.” I show him the Squirtle I caught waiting in line. He thumbs the phone-shaped bulge in his pocket. “Can’t wait until my shift is up.”
Welcome to Pokémon Go: part social aid, part high-grade opiate, part fitness app, and part silver-bullet counterargument to every thinkpiece ever written about Millennials.
We’re all too familiar with this kind of article: boilerplate grousing about how young people spend too much time on their phones and computers, and this somehow heralds the downfall of civilization.
It’s true that we’re awfully fond of our tech, and Pokémon Go pushes that fondness into overdrive – but it also challenges the underlying assumption that our addiction to technology represents a withdrawal from the company of others.
As we can see by the giggling, conspiratorial crowds of teens and twentysomethings, Pokemon Go is far from antisocial. It’s hypersocial. If a crowd of complete strangers chatting like good old boys at the Rotary Club isn’t social enough to meet your standards, it’s hard to imagine what is.
But even though Pokémon Go has managed to transmute video games’ spirit of adventure and multiplayer camaraderie into the physical world, it’s not nearly the mind-blowing leap we think of it as. With the aid of technology, media of all kinds have grown radically more social over the last ten years. Like Facebook and Twitter, Pokémon Go is a huge step forward in this trend, but it is part of the trend: with the help of modern technology, people are becoming more connected with each other across greater distances and with greater speed.
That’s why I groan every time I see a headline about young people’s lack of connection to the world around them. It’s patently false, and anyone tech-savvy enough to post an article on the Internet ought to know it. Just because young people’s communication does not take a form you recognize or approve of does not invalidate it. Electronic media allows us to connect more with the world, not less – but the invisible nature of much of that connection has left it vulnerable to a tradition of curmudgeonly grousing that goes back as far as the idea of media itself.
And yes – we’ve been here before. Time magazine has published cover articles on the decadence of narcissism of the young generation…for four generations straight. Television, radio, and telephone all resulted in the same predictable kind of public outcry against new media. Socrates himself thought writing would be the doom of communication.
Pokémon Go answers electronic media’s problem with invisibility. By bringing all the wonders (and occasional horrors) of online communication into the physical realm, it renders the new medium visible to those who would otherwise dismiss it. And if that means getting yelled at by grouchy Baby Boomers on the street, at least they’re not complaining that we stay inside too much.
Now let’s see how long it takes them to grumble about us walking on the grass.