As grounds either for having children or for having an irreversible vasectomy, these words from Christopher Hitchens have remained with me a long time: “Nothing can make one so happily exhilarated or so frightened” as fatherhood, he wrote. “[I]t’s a solid lesson in the limitations of self to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else’s body.” Lately, one wonders how the scales are tipped between exhilaration and fright when the body your heart is running around in happens to be playing Pokémon Go.
Never mind the physical risks posed by the game, though these have proven surprisingly plentiful: “Two Men Fall Off Edge of Ocean Bluff While Playing ‘Pokémon Go’” (Los Angeles Times); “Pokémon Go Player Crashes His Car Into a Tree” (USA Today); “Pokémon Go Game Includes Stop at Sex Offender Home” (San Diego Union-Tribune). A widely-reprinted Medium.com essay speculated about specific risks posed to black men who play the game, which more or less requires one to engage in erratic or suspicious behavior.
The media’s fixation on horror stories misses the point. Consider another memorable remark Hitchens made about childrearing: Asked what he wanted for his children’s future, he answered, “Struggle.” He meant that anxiety, uncertainty, and challenges met head-on are what transform children into adults worthy of the name. It is hard to read about adults or kids obsessed with an “augmented-reality” game and not conclude that they’ve inherited a present that has more in common with Brave New World than Christopher Hitchens would have liked.
Struggle and distraction are not, of course, mutually exclusive, and a life without respite from struggle would be intolerable. But as the preferred occupation of materially comfortable Americans, distraction often seems to be winning. It was telling to see a robust discourse on racial justice and police conduct supplanted, seemingly overnight, by a deluge of trend pieces about a game that sounds (and looks) like it was developed to teach gross motor coordination to toddlers.
As a potent symbol of toxic distraction, Pokémon Go is right up there with Homer’s lotus plant or Aldous Huxley’s soma. Granted, it has the nominal advantage over most video games of forcing its players to get up and walk around. But in doing so, it deviously co-opts one of the few occasions one has to be truly receptive to what Matthew Crawford calls “the world beyond your head.” When opportunities for receptivity, for quiet reflection, are made fewer, reality is not augmented; it is impoverished.
In a New York Times essay, Amy Butcher dismisses “the argument—already frequent, predictable and boisterous—that it is a particular brand of tragedy that leads an entire generation of American children into the great outdoors while clutching phones before their faces.” Pokémon Go is a fad, she suggests, and like all fads, will pass. But a heightened sense of connection to one’s community and one’s physical world will persist.
Butcher is similar in her reality-proof techno-optimism to those educators who see ever-climbing rates of illiteracy and innumeracy and think, “The solution here is an iPad for every student.” (No student has ever used the Internet for anything but the Three Ps: pornography, plagiarism, and posting to Yik Yak.) Whatever case can be made for Pokémon Go—and in fairness, Butcher’s is compelling on paper—the fact remains that young people need practice having experiences unmediated by technology.
Nobody wants to be the curmudgeon, the fuddy-duddy, the get-off-my-lawnist. But by encouraging America’s children to go onto strange lawns, Pokémon Go is all but daring us to be. There is a tendency to put the misgivings of an older generation down to the mere fact of their being old, buttoned-up, afraid of change—rather than possessed of superior wisdom. Yet when it comes to getting out and exploring, every generation in history has the current crop of kids beat. They are well worth hearing out.
If Amy Butcher finds that she can use Pokémon Go in a responsible, spiritually enlarging way—rather than, say, playing it at the Holocaust Museum—she should remind herself that it is likely because she grew up before the great Age of Distraction. She already knows how to pay attention, how to seek meaning in even the most trivial-seeming corners of experience. Most children, lacking that ability, need to be steered toward the basics: Reading books, having face-to-face conversations, exploring nature tech-free.
Many adults could stand to be steered back toward those basics, too. No matter how seductive arguments such as Butcher’s may be, most of us sense that there is something wrong with the way our lives are mediated, monitored, and monetized. We want less tech, not “better” tech. We yearn for an adolescence that looks like Stand by Me or The Sandlot. And when we read about the supposedly tragic fates of Pokémon Go players, some part of us smiles and thinks of Mel Brooks: “Tragedy is when I stub my toe. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”