The Pokémon Go craze highlights how digital devices grab hold of our minds—and don’t let go. Images of well-dressed people hunched over smartphones, staggering dangerously along city streets, riveted by the appearance onscreen of imaginary characters set in their visible terrain, epitomize what’s gone wrong with our computer-mediated world.
Sneering at Pokémon Go is misguided. The new gaming experience, while providing only a pale version of augmented reality, suggests that in the future, digital devices will expand our minds and improve our decision making. In a competitive world, tools that make us smarter—and aren’t physically invasive or addictive—will receive a warm welcome, especially because they seem safer than either genetic engineering of our brains or regular ingestion of pharmaceuticals.
Remember the drug “soma” of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? Biochemical compounds are physically addictive, while switching off your smartphone never causes nausea.
Government regulations on drugs mean years, if not decades, of safety studies. Legal barriers to mind-expanding drugs shift only slowly. Meanwhile, digital pathways to cognitive enhancement [pdf] (CE) such as the brain-training site Lumosity and behavior-modification games such as SuperBetter quickly gain market acceptance.
Cynics can dismiss Pokémon Go as a waste of time, but the pursuit of computer-aided intelligence [pdf] is not. The new Pokémon exploits the sweet spot in enhancement technologies: mobility. We think best when we are in motion. Walking, running, even yoga are associated with improved cognition [pdf]. Devices that move with us—and in real time elevate the quality of our decisions, and our grasp of the world around us—suit us well.
Game simulators, however useful, strap down players, cocooning them in an unnatural, digital pod. Minecraft, for instance, helps people learn by rehearsing actions, but it constrains players physically and mentally. In the real world, humans make hard decisions on the fly, creatively responding to ever-shifting environments and social settings. They must analyze and improvise in motion.
The trick is to provide relevant information almost as fast as the human mind probes, searches, and settles on the “right” answers.
Mobile CE works best on the premise that your mind should be freed up to tackle the hardest problems, leaving routine cognitive tasks to computers. Microsoft’s newest version of Word, for instance, promises to find the relevant quotes, citable sources, and images—without your leaving the document. The less time you spend hunting, the more time you have to think creatively. Similarly, Pandora automates the process of choosing music. Evernote helps you recall your to-do list. Google’s timely facts strengthen your arguments. These digital tools help you finish your thoughts, so you become better prepared and more confident in your decisions.
Individuals may differ over digital paths to CE. But if an entire civilization embraces enhancement, the world advances. The visionary H.G. Wells drew on this hope when, in 1937, he envisioned a networked encyclopedia, stored on microfilm, that would act as a “mental clearing house for the mind.”
Wells’s “world brain” was stationary: tethered intelligence. Even he couldn’t imagine tetherless sources of knowledge that easily and instantly support effective decisions. Today’s digital tools, from Google Search to smartphones and sensor data, increasingly provide intelligence on the move.
And because we humans are fundamentally restless minds in motion, we are on the verge of a great leap forward in the quality of our purposeful thought, both individual and collective.
Thank Pokémon Go for helping us get there.
About the Author
G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society.
For nearly 40 years, Zachary has been fascinated by the role of engineers in innovation and their relationship to science, politics, and culture. He is the author of Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century, and Showstopper, about the making of a software program. At Arizona State University, where he is a professor in the university’s school of innovation, he teaches courses on the past, present, and future of technological change. Zachary began his social studies of engineering as a journalist, reporting on Apple and computing for newspapers in San Jose. In 1989, he became the chief Silicon Valley reporter for The Wall Street Journal, where he was senior writer until 2002. He later wrote columns on digital innovation for The New York Times, Technology Review, IEEE Spectrum, and other publications. Zachary’s work grew increasingly international in the 1990s, when he traveled extensively to technology enclaves in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. In 2000, he published The Global Me, a book on multicultural identity and the new world economy; a revised edition, incorporating the crisis engendered by 9/11, was published in 2003 as The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy. Zachary maintains a strong interest in sub-Saharan Africa, and in many of his more than 50 research visits to the region he has concentrated on the relationship of technology and development. He is the author of a memoir, Married to Africa: A Love Story, and a collection of essays, Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape. In 2017, he completed a three-year study of the growth of computer science at universities in Uganda and Kenya, a project funded by the National Science Foundation. Zachary’s writing has been described as “deeply informed and insightful” by The New York Times, and The Atlantic has called him “a serious public intellectual who can combine familiarity with the scholarly literature...and first-hand reporting.” To learn more about Zachary, see www.gpascalzachary.com.