Gotta #Tag ‘em All

What the Pokedex Teaches About Online Sharing

In a great piece at Rhizome, artist Molly Crabapple writes about her project Glass Gaze, in which she donned Google Glass while drawing her friend (and famed porn star) Stoya. As Crabapple drew, Glass recorded what she saw—“The model. The paper. The ink. The whole 19th-century practice of life drawing commodified and separated from me.”—broadcasting the entire process to an online audience.

Crabapple writes about the “corporate gaze,” in which our interactions and experiences (or in the case of Glass, a literal gaze) are willfully uploaded, archived, commodified and capitalized upon, becoming corporate property. Glass, future wearable tech and smartphones “are private, trackable, monetizable distraction engines that you need never take off.”

And she’s right: in our social Web, we’re encouraged to share our experiences throughout the day: what we’ve read, plan to accomplish, had for breakfast and more. We render our lives into data by using the technology that’s available; it’s often fun to check the Google Ad Profile built from your search history to see how the data trail you leave behind measures up against the person you know yourself to be. And thanks to #hashtags, we’ve even become savvy as to how we choose to organize the statuses, photos, videos and more that we consciously share to our networks.

I’m interested in this idea of individuals’ experiences becoming data for uses that may be to their detriment—more specifically, how the way we share our day-to-day bears a resemblance to something we’ve been doing since the early 90s: catching Pokemon.

Pokemon games are often structured on a template in which you travel the world, defeat eight significant “battles” in gyms, and then take on the Pokemon League—the ultimate challenge of one’s strength as a Pokemon trainer. But that description forgets the first goal that the player is tasked with: the completion of the Pokedex, an encyclopedia of information on all the Pokemon species that the player must go on a journey to fill. This is requested before taking on the first gym battle (after which you’re encouraged to take on the seven others and compete in the League), and the original goal presented in the game—even if the “post-game” is unlocked after defeating the League.

Simply running into a wild Pokemon will add some data of the species to the Pokedex, like how it looks and where it can be found. But to get more data, such as height, weight and the sound of its cry, the player must catch the Pokemon. By trading with friends, you can complete your encyclopedia of Pokemon for the professor.

But what does any of this have to do with the corporate gaze, or Internet technology?

The Pokemon you catch, once you’ve caught more than the maximum allowed in your party, are deposited into a PC, essentially become data. In the early games for Gameboy and Gameboy Color, when making an in-game trade with an NPC (non-player character), the player is met with an animation of the trade ocurring through the link cable required to hook up two systems together for multiplayer functions. In fact, the overworld sprites of these characters hold Gameboys of their own, as if your trade with them—happening inside the game—occurs just like a trade with a friend IRL: of data (the Pokemon) being transferred between two pieces of hardware.

The reason for this is probably because Game Freak wanted to mask the game’s artifice by paradoxically drawing attention to the hardware used to play the game: trades within the gameworld occur just as trades between two players do, so one method of getting new Pokemon need not seem “inside” or “outside” of the game’s universe; whether with a friend or an NPS, all trading can be seen as equally “real” and authentic—because the process is exactly the same for both, even if it breaks the fourth wall.

Still, the takeaway is that organisms in the world are caught and turned into data: either in the form of knowledge contained in the Pokedex encyclopedia, or copied and transferred code between characters in the game world or organized in the PC. The point of the games—or at least the primary goal granted to the player—is to dominate and extract data from every species there is, to languish inside computers for the sake of trading, copying, hacking in “the metagame or what have you. And the game isn’t truly, really won until you have done so.

Some people criticize the Pokemon franchise by likening it to cockfighting and slavery, but I haven’t seen anyone portray Pokemon as a world in which all living organisms are captured and abstracted into data that is then stored indefinitely inside computers to be used (or not used), saved for eternity—it almost sounds like what happens to us once cookies are stored on our computers and phones the moment we visit a website. Certainly, I exist in the physical world or “meat-space”—but another me, the me reconstructed by metadata, lives forever, spread out among the servers that belong to a great many large corporations from usage of various devices.

Often, social media and devices are criticized as ruining the authenticity or serendipity in daily life experiences: someone Instagramming a sunset is distracted by the experience of enjoying the scene by instead focusing on documenting it. I’m not going to spend much time theorizing why that line of thinking is incorrect—others have done excellent jobs doing just that—but will simply suggest that these services and tools in fact encourage us to seek and enjoy experiences that we may document (see: the “Facebook Eye”). If our lives are akin to reality shows for friends and strangers to observe, we might want to seek content to fill them with. As a writer, I spend a great deal of the day seeking meaning and inspiration from the mundane, and because current technology turns everyone into content creators, nearly everyone is encouraged to examine their lives and—in a kind of reverse-vicarious way, anticipating what the audience might find interesting—pay closer attention to the significant moments they experience.

While Pokemon’s early slogan “Gotta Catch ‘em All” (reprised just before the release of the newest generation of games) encouraged fans to find and capture—or, abstract into data and stats—organisms, pandering to our followers and Klout scores perhaps instills a kind of consumerist frenzy to collect data. IRL, you may idealize yourself with fashion or other props you may buy; you can do exactly the same while composing an Instagram photo, but it will mean nothing without hoarding a sizable collection of #hashtags—metadata—with which to code the update, to let it better be received. I search Instagram for “#desk” and find a photo containing not only a desk, but also, apparently, exemplifying:

#animal #animals #wildlife #nature #courtin#instalife #dayshots #couple #wild #apple #natgeohub#igs #instanature #awesome_shots #nature_shooters#vida #fauna #animalsofinstagram #animali #naturaleza#natura #macbook #instanaturelover

Perhaps at some point someone seeks not the image itself, but rather the data set that it’s categorized with: the tags that lead to other photos like it, which can be compiled and studied in bulk for pattern recognition and all sorts of purposes.

In being the author of a status, video or photo that I tag, maybe I’ve already had a tag in mind to contribute to before recording; perhaps, sometimes, the desire to collect a #hashtag—and reach an audience through the manipulation of data—precedes the experience to be recorded. Perhaps not; everyone uses social media differently. But why else would some tags that encourage someone to partake in an activity solely for the sake of sharing (reminisce through old photos for #tbt) become popularized like a fad?

Pokemon encourages players to catch ‘em all, and make the most of what the game makes available to them by catching and trading with others; similarly, our iDevices encourage us to set out on our own daily journeys to experience all that life has to offer by sharing those experiences and fostering data. But in the end, as we reproduce and abstract everything around us, that data of ourselves is deposited into someone’s PC, somewhere…