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The Mythology of Pokémon Go: Surveillance, Big Data, and a Pretty Sweet Game

Pokémon Go is lulling the world in to a humungous augmented distraction. A distraction that is covering up some pretty intense politics. It is almost as if we stepped into Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One—where distraction through virtual reality meets the war between anonymity and surveillance.

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Artist: Dani Diez. You can find more of Dani’s work at www.instagram.com/mrdanidiez/

It has been well publicized that this new app, of which is fueling a Pokemania (a nostalgic resurgence of interest in Pokémon every time a new rendition of the game is released), has some rather arbitrary and invasive access to your mobile phones data—particularly, unhinged access to your Google account and other features of your mobile device.

What is Pokémon Go? This almost seems pointless now, seeing the popularity of the game—but for those of you who have not tuned in to the pokemania. Pokémon was a TV show released in the late 90s, which became dream fuel for a generation of children and young adults. It featured a young boy, Ash Ketchum, who embarked on a Journey to capture Pokémon in a technology known as the “pokeball” through the direction of the Professor (A man who studies Pokémon). After the Pokémon is caught, the young boy (and the thousands of other Pokémon trainers) would aspire to train it to battle other Pokémon.

Shortly after the show caught on, Nintendo released Pokémon Red and Blue for the Gameboy Colour. These games became an absolute hit. I remember walking to school with my eyes glued to my little pixelated screen—traversing over roads and dodging cars while battling with Pokémon and trading them with my other schoolyard peers. The games slogan repeating through my cranial, “Gotta Catch Them All”.

Nintendo continued to release Pokémon games designed for their various game platforms up until present. Each successive game included an obsessive and nostalgic excitement that took over the gaming community. Or anyone who had grown up playing Pokemon Red and Blue, as well as collecting the Pokemon cards.

Pokémon Go is a game that can be played on a mobile smart phone that uses geolocational data and mapping technologies that turn the phone into a lens peering into the Pokémon world.  Through the interface of your mobile device, you can catch Pokémon wandering the “real” world, battle through gyms, and find items that will aid your journey. It augments the world around the user so that everything and everywhere becomes a part of the game.

Just like its predessor, a game known as Ingress, many of the geo features in the game were set up around important places: art exhibits, cultural or historical sites, and parks. Following the maps would lead you through a productive tour of a cities geographical culture.

I want to explore the obsessive and nostalgic excitement through a techno-socio-cultural lens. I will unpack this critique into three parts: (1) the sociology of privacy, (2) Big data and algorithmic surveillance, and (3) the culture of nostalgia and the digital sublime.

Before I continue with this post—I want to assert that it is not an all-in-all terrible, megalomaniac, Big Brother type game. Pokémon Go is enabling new ways for people to engage in the social world. Check out this sociological blog post exploring just that. However, it would be silly to not apply a critical perspective to this.

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Taken from Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/wokemon/?fref=ts

There are some restrictions I’d like to apply to my analysis: (1) Pokémon Go is not an immature or irrelevant activity, millions of people of all ages and cultural backgrounds are playing it—meaning it has a ton of significance. As well as, (2) The people playing Pokémon Go are not zombies or passive consumers, they are very intentional and unpredictable social actors that have the ability to understand their situation.

Sociology of Privacy

One thing that boggles the minds of surveillance studies scholars is how the vast population of people using social media and mobile applications do not care about invasive surveillance embedded in everything they use.

In my own interviews of Facebook users in 2014, many of my participants claimed, “I have nothing to hide”. A pervasive mentality that enables big corporate and governmental entities to gain access and control to large swaths of data. This nonchalant attitude towards surveillance allows for massive ground in the dismantling of our rights to privacy. Though such an attitude is not surprising, as the entire ecosystem of social media is set up to surveil.

David Lyon, in his book “Surveillance After Snowden”, asserts that privacy is generally seen as a natural and democratic right that should be afforded to all citizens—but admits that a problem lay in that informational privacy is not as valued as bodily or territorial privacy. Even if information, data, and metadata are much more revealing than the both bodily and territorial surveillance.

Lyon notes three important points about privacy that are all very relevant to the current epidemic of pokemania: 1) the collecting of information has now been directly connected to risk mitigation and national security, implying that we are not safe unless we are surveilled. 2) Everyone is now a target of mass surveillance, not just the criminal. 3) Data collected through mass surveillance is made to create profiles of people—these may be completely inaccurate depending on the data collected, but you will never know the difference.

I would like to add a fourth. How can the data be used to swing massive profits? The corporation Niantic, creators of Ingress and Pokémon Go, use their privacy policies to legitimate “sharing” (sic: selling) of data with governments and third party groups. Government surveillance is often the focus of criticism. However, capitalist corporations are not often held accountable to ethical practices. Who is selling this data? Who is buying this data? And what is this monetized data being used for?

As Lyon asserts, Privacy is not about individual concerns—it is important socially and politically for a well-balanced democracy. Edward Snowden has been known to say, “It’s not really about surveillance, it’s about democracy”. While we continue to allow powerful groups to chip away at our privacy for entertainment, we literally give up our ability to criticize and challenge injustice.

Snowden reminds us that when we give up our democracy to the control room—there is zero accountability, zero transparency, and decisions are made without any democratic process.

So while we are distracted trying to catch a Snorlax at the park, we are giving away more and more of our lives to mysterious and complicated groups that want nothing but large profits and control. For a much more scathing review of this, see this blog post on surveillance and Pokémon.

Big Data and Algorithms

So what about the data. What is big data? First off, it’s all the craze right now. As data scientists, social scientists, policy makers, and business gurus scramble to understand how to use, abuse, and criticise such a thing. Big data is consistent of two large disciplines—statistics and computer science. It is the collection and analysis of unthinkably large amounts of aggregated data that is collected and analyzed largely by computer software and algorithms.

Boyd and Crawford (2012) offer a much more precise definition. They assert that Big Data is a “cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon” that can be broken into three interconnected features:

  1. Technology – Computer science, large servers, and complicated algorithms.
  2. Analysis – Using large data-sets compiled from technological techniques to create social, political, cultural and legal claims.
  3. Mythology – Widespread belief of the power of Big Data to offer a superior knowledge that carries immense predictive value.

The big problem that remains is how to find, generate, and collect all of this data? In terms of social media and video games much of this has to do with offering a “free” service to consumers who take the role of the “prosumer”. The prosumer is a social actor that both produces and consumes the commodity they are “paying” for.

In terms of social media (like Facebook), while users interact with each other, they are producing affective or emotional data through liking things, sharing things, and discussing things, that are then collected by algorithms and fed back into the system through targeting advertisements. The user is implicit in both the production and consumption of that data.

The user is given free access to the social media platform, however, they pay for it through giving the platform a transparent window into their lives that is than monetized and sold for large profits. People’s reactions to this form of surveillance are variant: some people offer scathing criticisms, others don’t give two shits, and some act a little more cautious.

Why is this important for Pokémon Go? Because you trade your data and privacy for access to what Pokémon Go has to offer. It is incredibly clever of think tanks in Niantic—using the nostalgic Pokemania to usher users into consenting to ridiculous surveillance techniques.

It gets worse. As Ashley Feinberg from Gawker identified, the people responsible for Niantic have some shady connections to the international intelligence community. Causing some in the surveillance studies field to fear that Pokémon might just be an international intelligence conspiracy (It sounds crazy—but it makes complete sense).

David Murakami Wood coined to the concept of “vanishing surveillance”. This is a phenomenon, intentional and unintentional, that allows surveillance capacities in devices to fade into the background. Resulting in users not being aware, or at least completely aware, that they are being watched. Pokémon Go, an innocent video game that is enabling new ways of being social in public, becomes an invisible surveillance device that may have international and interpersonal consequences. And it is the Pokémon themselves that allow for the surveillance to vanish from sight and mind.

A Culture of Nostalgia

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So what drives people to consent to all of this? What kinds of cultural patterns allow and shape us to an almost fanatical state when a Pokémon game is released?

The first factor within the culture of Pokémon is its appeal to nostalgia. Jared Miracle, in a blog post on The Geek Anthropologist, talks about the power of nostalgia. It taps into the childhoods of an entire generation—it even moves outside the obscure boundaries of gamer culture into the larger pop cultural context. It wasn’t only geeks that played Pokémon. It was just about everyone. This might provide an explanation to why so many people are wandering around with their cell phones before them (I’ve seen them wandering around Queen’s campus today, while I was also wandering around).

However, it is not all about nostalgia. I believe that the nostalgia plays a role in a bigger process of the digital sublime and the mythologizing of the power of media.

What is a mythology? According to Vincent Mosco, in his book The Digital Sublime, defines myth as, “stories that animate individuals and societies by providing paths to transcendence that lift people out of the banality of everyday life”. This is a form of reality that represent how people see the world from the every-day-life perspective.

Myths are also implicit in power. “’Myth’ is not merely an anthropological term that one might equate with human values. It is also a political term that inflects human values with ideology… Myths sustain themselves when they are embraced by power, as when legitimate figures… tell them and, in doing so, keep them alive”.

These myths, along with nostalgia for Pokémon paraphernalia, generate the digital sublime. A phenomenon that has us go head over heals for new technology. The mythologies that support it can be positive or negative.

Positive mythologies might sound a little like this: “Pokémon Go is allowing us to leave our homes and experience the world! We meet new people and we are empowered by new ways of interacting with each other. Hurrah!”.

Negative Mythologies are also important: “Pokémon Go is creating a generation of zombies. People are wasting their time catching those stupid Pokémon. They are blindly and dangerously wandering around, falling off cliffs, and invading private property. Damn those immature assholes”.

Both of these mythologies cross over each other to colour the experiences of those who play and those who watch.

We need to be careful of generating mythologies about the capacity for games to facilitate freedom, creativity, and sociality. We also need to be careful not to apply to much criticism. Such mythologies not only create a basic, overly simplistic way of understanding gaming, surveillance, and human culture, it also blinds us to nuance and detail that may be important in its broad understanding.

So while people dangerously block a highway to catch rare Pokémon, walk over cliffs because they aren’t paying attention, or disrespectfully attempting to catch Pokémon in Auschwitz, there are also people who are leaving their houses to engage with the world, using Pokémon to fight depression and other mental illnesses, and creating super cool maps of rare Pokémon spots.

Drawing things together—A Political Economy of Pokémon

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Don’t be so paranoid.

Taking a techno-socio-cultural perspective allows us to engage with Pokémon Go with a nuanced understanding of its positive and negative characteristics. It is possible to look at how this media creates a complex ecosystem of social concerns, political controversies, and cultural engagements with nostalgia, mythologizing, and capitalist enterprise.

Pokémon Go is indeed enabling a ton of new ways of interacting and helping people with mental illness get out of their homes to experience the world—however, we can’t forget that it is also an advance technology developed by those who have interest in money and power.

Regardless of the benefits that are emerging from use of this application, there are still important questions about privacy and the collection and use of Big Data.

So Pokemon Go isn’t just enabling new ways of being social with the larger world. It is enabling new ways of engaging with issues of surveillance, neo-liberal capitalism, and social control through the least expected avenues.

After all of these problematics become more and more public—will we still trade off our freedom for entertainment?

The #poliecon of Social Media and Surveillance: They are watching you watch others.

 

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Layered surveillance through mass media. GIF created by Kotutohum. Find their tumblr blog here: http://kotutohum.com/

I suppose I should begin with a (very) brief introduction to the study of political economy (from the novice perspective) and then draw out its many connections to how we exchange and produce (big)data through our use of social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.). As far as the development of poliecon in the social sciences is concerned—we begin with Hegel and Marx/Engels. So prepare your head for a quick review of the history of humanity. Ready? Go!

Hegel developed the philosophical concept of dialectics in history. He idealized history as the production of knowledge (thesis) that was then challenged by another form of knowledge (antithesis) and through conflict and debate formed a new body of knowledge (thesis). Dialectics would continue to cycle like this in a back and forth tension between bodies of knowledge until we reached the pinnacle of all knowledge—the perfect society. The notion of a “perfect society” is very well challenged in our era of academic thought. However, this inspired Karl Marx to (dialectically) approach the development of historical materialist methodology which featured dialectic thought in a more empirical fashion (the development of these thoughts led to a fissure in academic thought between the idealists (Hegelian) and the materialists (Marxist).

Karl Marx grounded his research into the development and history of capital (and capitalism). Through his empirical studies he theorized that the mode of production was the foundation of (just about) everything in society. This was the material base from which the superstructure arises. The superstructure is the heterogeneous masses of ideological thought (politics, law, social relations, etc.). It is from the superstructure, which is coordinated by the mode of production (and some argue, mode of exchange), that we get the (unstable and constantly changing) understanding of value. Furthermore, if the mode of production were to change (as it is certainly done in this case), the superstructure would change, along with the meaning of social relations and formations.  It is from this conception of value, as understood by political economy, that I want to spring from to understand how we exchange (big)data through the use of social media. I will use Facebook as the overarching example, because at this point, we all have an intimate knowledge of Facebook. Also, Facebook owns other social media platforms (such as Instagram). It is certainly the current largest social network site.

In order for the entire architecture (both physically and digitally) of Facebook (and other forms of social media) to exist there needs to be value generated for information (big data). Facebook is a capitalistic enterprise that seeks to generate profit from such information. Because of this, Facebook works to proliferate and expand its user base.  The more Facebook’s user base proliferates, the more data they have to draw from.  I am going to highlight that Facebook achieves all of this through two fundamental forms of surveillance: participatory surveillance and capital surveillance.

First value must be generated. Value is generated for big data through its production and consumption. Before we can understand how value is created we need to talk about the prosumer. In the context of Facebook, the user produces and consumes the user-generated content and metadata that is then used as big data in aggregate. So essentially, producer and consumer are collapsed into the user prosumer (Cohen 2008:7). Value is generated because the fruits of the prosumer—data through biography, interaction, and Internet usage—are sold to advertisers who then feed it back into the system as targeted advertisements. According to Fuchs (2012), the prosumer is packaged, commodified and sold (146).

Fuchs observes,

“Facebook prosumers are double objects of commodification. They are first commodified by corporate platform operators, who sell them to advertising clients, and this results, second, in an intensified exposure to commodity logic. They are permanently exposed to commodity propaganda presented by advertisements while they are online. Most online time is advertisement time” (146).

This is obviously problematic. I think it is also pretty important that we acknowledge that the role of prosumer positions the Facebook user as a free labour commodity. Cohen (2008) asserts, “Web 2.0 models depend on the audience producing the content, thus requiring an approach that can account for the labour involved in the production of 2.0 content, which can be understood as information, social networks, relationships, and affect” (8). In this process of production, Facebook repackages user-generated content and sells the data to generate intense profits (in the billions range). The user prosumer remains unpaid in this exchange. Interestingly enough, through my own work in qualitative research, those who participated in my research believed that use of Facebook’s services qualified as a fair exchange for their data. I think an apt thread of thinking that could resolve these problems, van Djick (2012) observes, “Connectivity is premised on a double logic of empowerment and exploitation” (144). With this noted, I would like to focus on the production, consumption and monetization of user-generated content.

The content produced and consumed by the user prosumer is organized through two layers of surveillance. The first layer of surveillance, is participatory surveillance. Albrechtslund (2008), in trying to address the overwhelming dystopic metaphors implicit in the discourse and study of surveillance, he explains that use of hierarchical models of surveillance (like the big brother and panopticon) obscures important sociological processes that occur through the mediation of social media (8).  Furthermore, it treats users as passive agents, unable to resist the oppressive and repressive forces of the Big Brother.  He attempts to frame surveillance as a mutual, horizontal process that empowers users through the sharing of information and creation of elaborate autobiographies. Albrechtslund elaborates that social media offer, “new ways of constructing identity, meeting friends and colleagues, as well as socializing with strangers” (8). In this understanding of social media, the subject is not a passive agent under the oppressive gaze of big brother, but an active subject pursuing empowerment. Furthermore, Albrechtslund frames user-generated content specifically as sharing, not trading. However, in doing this, he ignores that these social media platforms are constructed, shaped and owned by capitalist corporations seeking profit. This is where the second layer of surveillance becomes important—capital surveillance.

During the process of the user prosumer engaging in participatory surveillance, or in other words producing and consuming user-generated content that they share with others, the capitalist captures that data and repackages it to be sold to advertisers. They do this through complicated algorithmic computer software which than stores the data in a large architecture of computer hardware, optic wires, and servers. The fruits that become available through participatory surveillance are commodified (along with the prosumers) and then traded to produce capital. This layer, the hierarchical and oppressive model of surveillance, organizes and shapes how user prosumers generate content. Thus van Djick’s concept of the double logic of connectivity is realized. What is problematic here is that much of capital surveillance is rendered opaque or invisible to the user—who only sees the participatory aspects and the advertisements (repackaged user-generated content).  Also problematic, is that this entire process is automated–though this note will not be taken up in this article.

It is important to note that participatory surveillance is not typically a capitalist endeavour. Cohen writes, “The labour performed on sites like Facebook is not produced by capitalism in any direct, cause and effect fashion… (it is) simply an answer to the economic needs of capital” (17). So where the user prosumer “shares” their production of user-generated content, the capitalist “trades” it. These are two interconnected, though fundamentally different, processes. We, the user prosumers, don’t often recognized the capital forms of surveillance occurring, because we are so intimately involved in the participatory forms of surveillance. This, I believe, is the root to our apathy about the surveillance issues surrounding social media like Facebook. What needs to be devised next is how we can package these theories in a popular form and export them to those who are shaped by these forms of exploitative commodification. It is the work of social scientists to understand, and then to shape, the world around them.

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Big brother is watching you watch others. GIF created by Kotutohum. Find their tumblr blog here: http://kotutohum.com/

Post-script:

Another lesson we should take from this is that not all surveillance is evil.  We do not live in an inescapable dystopian society.  To say this, we obscure a lot of actual practices of surveillance that are beneficial.  We also render the notion of resistance as a practice in futility.  Surveillance is a neutral phenomenon that is used for better or worse by a plethora of different corporations, governments, non-governmental organizations, activists, and regular everyday people.  But in saying this, we can’t ignore the potential abuse and exploitation that may come from the use of surveillance practices to increase the flow of Capital.


REFERENCES:

Albrechtslund, Anders. 2008. “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance.” First Monday 13(3). Retrieved Oct 9, 2015 (http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2142/1949).

Cohen, Nicole S. 2008. “The Valorization of Surveillance: Towards a Political Economy of Facebook.” Democratic Communique 22(1):5-22.

van Dijck, José. 2012. “Facebook and the engineering of connectivity: A multi-layered approach to social media platforms.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19(2):141-155.

Fuchs, Christian. 2012. “The Political Economy of Privacy on Facebook”. Television & New Media 13(2):139-159.