Remembering Pokémania: Memory, Cognitive Assemblages, and Augmented Reality
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Citation: Grandinetti, Justin and Taylor Abrams-Rollinson. “Remembering Pokémania: Memory, Cognitive Assemblages, and Augmented Reality.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 24, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/024.e05
Abstract: Introduced in July 2016, Pokémon GO is widely considered the killer app for contemporary augmented reality. Popular attention to the game has waned in recent years, but Pokémon GO remains enormously successful in terms of both player base and revenue generation. Whether individuals experienced the game for a short time or remain dedicated hardcore players, Pokémon GO exists as memories of time and place, imbuing familiar sites and routes with new meaning and temporal connection. Attending to these complex interrelationships of place, space, mobility, humans, technologies, infrastructures, environments, and memory, we situate Pokémon GO as what Hayles (2016) calls a cognitive assemblage—sociotechnical systems of interconnectivity in which cognition is an exteriorized process occurring across multiple levels, sites, and boundaries. In turn, we conceptualize cognition (and specifically memory) not as confined within a delimited hominid body, but instead operating through contextual relations, at multiple sites, and in a constant state of becoming. By reflecting on our own experiences as part of the distributed memory of Pokémon GO, we situate memory as momentary convergence of signals made possible by infrastructures, inscribed on servers and silicon, and made part of algorithmic suggestion and learning AI. Additionally, our own memories and experiences serve to highlight the experiential complexity of cognitive assemblages in relation to structures of feeling, as well as new temporal and spatial relations.
Keywords: Pokémon GO, augmented reality, cognitive assemblages, memory, space.
In July 2016 much of the world was introduced to Pokémon GO, now widely considered the killer app for contemporary augmented reality (AR). Due to some combination of the novelty of smartphone AR technology and nostalgic connection to a beloved franchise, Pokémon GO quickly surpassed first week download records on the iOS and Google Play marketplaces (BBC News Magazine, 2016) and was subject of significant news coverage (Grandinetti and Ecenbarger, 2018). Pokémon GO may be the most popular and well-known mobile AR game, but it is certainly not the first. Ingress—also created by parent company Niantic—serves as a scaffold for GO’s map; the player-scanned and nominated landmarks of Ingress’ battleground have been largely adapted into the PokéStop locations of Pokémon GO (Stark, 2016; de Souza e Silva, 2017). Niantic itself was founded as a startup within Google and many of the Niantic’s team members, including chief executive John Hanke, originally worked together on Keyhole, an interactive 3D global mapping technology company that was acquired by Google in 2004 and rebranded as Google Maps (Niantic, n.d.). Before this acquisition, Keyhole received funding from In-Q-Tel investment, a private nonprofit venture founded by the US Central Intelligence Agency, due to Keyhole’s value in supporting US troops in the Iraq War (In-Q-Tel press release, 2003). It is certainly not novel to trace the roots of many of the most ubiquitous (and invisible) technologies that scaffold our everyday life to their military origins, but such tangled political, martial, surveillant and economic precursors to the mapping and augmented reality of Pokémon GO often goes unacknowledged in accounts.
While popular press attention to the app may have waned in the five years since its release, Pokémon GO’s player base remains significant. It’s estimated that more people played the game in May 2018 than at any time since the game’s launch (Phillips, 2018) and the app experienced a record year in 2019 with an estimated $900 million via in-app purchases (Statt, 2020). Even in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic and its attendant impacts on a game reliant on user mobility, as of early 2021 Pokémon GO remains one of the top ten grossing iPhone mobile gaming apps in the US in daily revenue (Clement, 2021). Perhaps Pokémon GO’s 15-minutes of fame (or maybe more accurately one month of fame) in the cultural zeitgeist is over; nevertheless, the app remains critically important to the trajectory of augmented reality.
For those who experienced the summer of Pokémania before deleting or relegating the app to a forgotten corner of their smartphone interface, the augmented reality of Pokémon GO exists as memories of time and place. Those still actively playing the game continually produce new relationships to familiar and everyday places, imbuing familiar sites and routes with new meaning and temporal connection. To this end, Pokémon GO is extremely significant to mobile media literature in emphasizing how “the meaning of place reaches far beyond the geographic location of space” (Campbell, 2019, p. 56). Place is no mere fixed container for human action; place should instead be conceptualized in relation to fluidity, movement, and activity (Sheller & Urry, 2006). Moreover, place is imbued with meaning via sociotechnical interactions—memories, emotional connections, culture, technologies, global-local interconnectivity, etc. (Massey, 2004; Hjorth, 2011; de Souza e Silva and Frith, 2012). Stated differently, place is something interrelational—a product of trajectories and interactions of ongoing becoming between humans and nonhumans. Or, perhaps even more simply, it is impossible to truly disentangle place, space, mobility, humans, technologies, infrastructures, environments, and memory.
Attending to these complex interrelationships between space, place, mobility, and memory, it’s perhaps trite to state our sense of being in the world—or however we are able to grasp the temporary human-centric unity of existence—is complicated. Decades of scholarship have proffered more elegant accounts of such a relational ontology via actor-networks (Latour, 1987), material-discursive apparatuses (Barad, 2007), and cyborgs (Haraway, 1985), along with vital materialist (Bennett, 2010) and affective relations (Seigworth and Gregg, 2010). Writing in a venue that emerged as a sister publication of Rhizomes, we would be remiss to not specifically highlight Deleuze and Guattari’s (1980) concept of the assemblage. Without wading too deeply into the nuances of Deleuze and Guattari’s monist materialist philosophy, assemblages allow consideration into the ongoing becoming of heterogenous relations and contingent connections of matter. Assemblages are multiplicity, machinic compositions of desiring-production; assemblages exist and become through connection with other assemblages, constituted by rates of flow, relative slowness and viscosity, acceleration and rupture (Deleuze and Guattari; 1972 ; 1980). Put more directly, while the assemblage has become a bit of a scholarly buzzword, attention to material compositions of humans and nonhumans allows for an ontology of connection, transformation, and becoming. And such an approach certainly has relevance to an enduring, international, transmedia, and commodified franchise like Pokémon. As noted by Heckman (2002), how individuals engage with the myriad forms of Pokémon games, cards, media, toys, merchandise, and artifacts has always necessitated examination of the shifting and ongoing material arrangements of which the player/trainer/collector is a part.
In adapting the concept of the assemblage for the contemporary computational and data-driven era, Hayles (2016) highlights sociotechnical compositions like self-driving vehicles, facial recognition systems, and autonomous weapons of war as cognitive assemblages—sociotechnical systems of interconnectivity in which cognition is an exteriorized process occurring across multiple levels, sites, and boundaries. Here, cognitive assemblages are interconnections between humans and technical systems that “emphasizes cognition as the common element among parts and as the functionality by which parts connect” (Hayles, 2016, p. 32). Specific to Pokémon GO, Giddings (2017) characterizes the game as a form of distributed cognition, in which cognitive activity functions through complicated technosocial systems, distributed in a cognitive ecology of humans, computers, systems, and protocols (p. 61). As a critical supplement to Hayles’ and Giddings’ accounts, we highlight Pokémon GO as cognitive assemblage—with specific attention to the cognitive function of memory. Explained by Lee (2018), “In theories of posthuman, individual’s memory practices and digital remembering of data are not two separated entities, but it is an amalgam and a heterogeneous assemblage, becoming posthuman subjectivity itself.” Consequently, it is possible to conceptualize cognition (as well as memory) not as confined within a delimited hominid body, but instead operating through contextual relations, at multiple sites, and in a constant state of becoming. Put another way, memory, then, is something that exists as much through neurotransmitters and synaptic pathways as it does through magnetic and silicon inscription on servers, or as transmitted via bandwidths and microwave signals.
Hayles (2016) writes that “cognitive assemblages transform the contexts and conditions under which human cognition operates, ultimately affecting what it means to be human in developed societies” (p. 35). The stakes of such theoretical accounts are high. There is, however, at times a chiasmus between theoretical accounts and everyday experience. That is, while it’s possible to analyze examples of how cognitive assemblages function, the embodied reality of what it feels like to be the hominid component of these compositions is something else entirely. In the following article, we attempt to bridge the divide between theory and experience through autoethnographic accounts, which serve as basis for our analysis of Pokémon GO as cognitive assemblage of memory. By reflecting on our own experiences as part of the distributed memory of Pokémon GO, we, in turn, situate memory as momentary convergence of signals made possible by infrastructures, inscribed on servers and silicon, and made part of algorithmic suggestion and learning AI. Additionally, our own memories and experiences serve to highlight the experiential complexity of cognitive assemblages in relation to structures of feeling, as well as new temporal and spatial relations.
An autoethnography of augmented reality
Ethnography is, most generally, a qualitative method of observation used to gain a stronger understanding of cultural phenomena through embedded research. Ethnographic methods have scholarly roots in the fields of anthropology and sociology, and typically denote at least a year of uninterrupted data collection (Knoblauch, 2005). The possibilities of ethnography allow for exciting and enlightening research through immersion, but these scholarly investigations are not without limitations. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for those pursuing ethnographic research are the expectations of the neoliberal university—the increased pressures of publication, teaching, service, and competition for grants and funding are not conducive to a year of embedded fieldwork. In spite of these challenges, there is still much to be gained by ethnographically-inspired research—what it looks, feels, sounds, tastes, and smells like to be a small component of a space and time is extremely relevant to our own examination of cognitive assemblages. Such an experiential approach absolutely aligns with assessment of cognitive assemblages. For example, the technical apparatus of Ingress versus that of Pokémon GO is incredibly similar; yet, one game is immensely more popular than the other. The success of Pokémon GO, then, is about more than mere technological integration of cross media apparatuses—Pokémon GO’s immerse popularity comes, in large part, from tapping into something more recognizable, visceral, and nostalgic. That is to say, autoethnography allows consideration of how such machinic assemblages function as desiring machines, which, in turn, requires acknowledgement that technical efficiency depends just as much on a capture of desire as it does upon engineering.
Similarly, the temporality of traditional ethnography might seem antithetical to the short-term play of a mobile augmented reality game like Pokémon GO; but the experiential component of playing augmented reality games is critical to understanding how we are made part of cognitive assemblages. Moreover, scholars have, for some time, adapted ethnography for use across different temporalities and research sites such as video games. Pink and Morgan (2013) explain how ethnography should not be viewed as property of its anthropological and sociological origins, and can involve intensive shorter-term engagements. Knoblauch (2005) categorizes such shorter forms of ethnography as focused, highlighting how temporally condensed ethnographic approaches can “focus on small elements of one own’s society” (paragraph 11). Though it’s arguable that Pokémon GO is anything but small, it is necessary to consider how ethnographic immersion into playing augmented reality games differs temporally, spatially, and experientially from more traditional fieldwork. To this end, Taylor and Ingraham (2020) offer connective ethnography, which allows examination into “things never so easily contained as the conventional anthropological construct of ‘the field site’ would have us believe” in focusing on how people, organizations, and ideas appear across multiple connected online and offline sites (p. 8). Taylor and Ingraham employ connective ethnography in examining the playful, constructive, and digital-physical hybrid that is contemporary LEGOs, but such an approach offers potential for study of games like Pokémon GO as well. After all, augmented reality isn’t a demarcated field site, but a sociotechnical process in which individuals navigate familiar and unfamiliar spaces with attention to a digital overlay, mapping, and game mechanics made possible by mobile devices, infrastructures, wireless networks, servers, programmers, etc. Further, mobile games most often function through what Chess (2018) terms interstitial time, or small spaces of time that function as gaps in between other activities. Many mobile games, accordingly, are designed to fill the cracks between other activities instead of providing the kind of hours-on-end immersive gameplay typically associated with video games. And, as noted by Chess (2018) mobile games often utilize temporal mechanics that push the player away and then pull them back. For example, limits on how quickly a player can return to a PokéStop to accrue more essential items means that one either must wait in real time in a certain location or return to play the game later (or perhaps fall into the third common mobile game option of simply paying money for time-locked items). Taken together, it is perhaps put best by Pink and Morgan (2013) in that “rather than conceptualizing shorter time-scales as ‘limitations’ it is more fruitful to see them a part of wider project ecologies whereby ethnography takes on particular temporal and spatial characteristics as well as specific qualities” (Pink & Morgan, 2013, p. 359). Or, stated differently, short-term ethnography can be as much a benefit as a hinderance (and perhaps even a necessity when applying ethnography to a host of different contemporary practices).
In addition to addressing temporal challenges, scholars have also noted the alterations necessary to apply ethnography to digital media environments. Explained by Pink et al. (2016) “ethnographers – in expanding the focus from only the content and audience of digital media – must attend to how these devices affect our sensory embodied experience of the world.” (p. 135). One such prominent example is video games, which often facilitate communal environments of play. Giddings (2009) elucidates that “Video games are at once computer software with procedural agencies and autonomous operations, computer hardware, and media text with screen images, sounds, environments, and dramas” (p. 147). In turn, Giddings (2009) proposes microethnography—a small-scale ethnography of games, play, and players—that provides synthesis between analytical and ethnographic methods. Microethnography is attentive to the temporal challenges and brief moments of sociotechnical activity via gameplay, allowing for moments of improvised and opportunistic recording. While digital media is often viewed as communication environment or container for connectivity, the reality is quite a bit more complex. The various forms of new media are entangled and intertwined with the physical through a multiplying number of devices and infrastructures of connectivity. Whether considered hybrid spaces, where virtual communities migrate to physical spaces via mobile technologies (de Souza e Silva, 2006) or digital wayfaring, in which users oscillate between online/offline co-present spaces in everyday life through mobile technologies (Hjorth and Pink, 2014), it is clear that hardline binary distinctions between the physical and digital are increasingly outmoded. The boundaries of the traditional ethnographic field site must be rethought in an always-on era of mobile and digital connectivity. To wit, applying ethnographically-inspired methodology to Pokémon GO requires acknowledgment of something that is at once digital media, an augmented reality game, and a new spatial relationship.
We are inspired by these short-term, connective, and microethnographic approaches in our own examination of Pokémon GO as cognitive assemblage of memory. As users of the Pokémon GO app, we have the opportunity to highlight observations relative to our topic by using personal accounts. Through examination of photos from interactions on Pokémon GO, we aim to show the lucid connections between Pokémon GO and user memory. Doing so we reach back through the span of five years since the introduction of Pokémon GO in July 2016. Some of our accounts are embedded throughout the article, along with our reflections on Pokémon GO and memory as structures of feeling, as well as new temporal and spatial relations.
Theorizing memory and structures of feeling
Memory is a conceptually and theoretically diverse concept—explanations of what memory is and how memory functions vary across and within academic disciplines. As a biological process, neurons, or nerve cells in the brain, communicate through synaptic connections by passing a signal between neurons through neurotransmitter chemicals (Texas A&M University, 2016). The persistent strengthening of neural connections allows for the formation of long-term memory. Maintaining the strength of connections explains why some memories are more vivid than others, as the pathway between neurons performs at a faster pace (Texas A&M University, 2016). To this end, memory involves the functions of encoding, storage, and retrieval—terminology that has been adapted for use in technological processes as well.
Memory, however, can be both conscious and unconscious. Known as dual-process theory, System 1 memory is fast, automatic, unconscious, and everyday, whereas System 2 memory is slow, conscious, effortful, and analytical (Kaufmann, 2011; Osman, 2004). From a philosophical perspective, Henri Bergson (2004 ) similarly distinguishes between what he calls habit memory and recollection memory. Bergson (2004 ) contends that only recollection memory is proper memory— “[recollection memory] appears to be memory par excellence. The second [habit memory], that generally studied by psychologists, is habit interpreted by memory rather than memory itself” (p. 95). For example, after learning a skill like kicking a ball, recalling individual memories ranging from the first to most recent instance of kicking a ball is not necessary to repeat the action—instead the lesson as habit exists as “decomposition and then recomposition of a whole action” (Bergson, 2004 , pp. 89–90). Said differently, habit memory is not tied directly to one instance of recollection, but instead to an array of repeated actions and activities disconnected from the particulars of a single temporal event. Regardless of characterization as conscious and unconscious, memories are essential to how individuals sense, experience, and move through the world based on the knowledges and techniques acquired over time.
The concept of memory is associated with storage and recollection, which inevitably involves a relationship between the past and the present. For Bergson, “we do not experience time as discrete instants, but rather as an interpenetrating progression – a continuity, otherwise known as a heterogeneous multiplicity” that makes whole or continuous “the interconnection between the past, the present and that which is emerging” (Lundy, 2018, pp. 99-100). Put another way, the past and present are separate but inexorably connected, especially in regard to memory. Or, if the past is being, then the present is becoming (Lundy, 2018). Time is critical to memory, as, for Bergson (2004 ), memories are contractions of a number of external temporal moments into a single internal moment. Memory is actualized and takes on a psychological existence as the individual “leaps into the past”; however, how one leaps into the past is influenced by the needs and requirements of the present situation (Deleuze, 1991 , p. 62). But our recollections are part of a qualitative whole, which means to extract a memory is also to change its nature through a contraction of a region or plane of the past with the present (Lundy, 2018). Stated differently, memory involves a temporal relationship between the past and the present, actualized through a contraction of past memories and being with present becoming.
This temporal contraction is apparent in different forms via our own reflections of playing Pokémon GO. In some instances, the habits of playing the game demonstrates how automatic and banal memory can be. For example, in returning to the game after multiple-year hiatus, the embedded muscle memory of throwing Poké Balls at potential catches was near automatic for one author. Some of the Pokémon GO’s features had changed, but it was not difficult to rearticulate a connection to the cognitive assemblage of the AR title. In other instances, the process of autoethnographic reflection brought up vivid and emotional memories. It’s not revelatory to claim that memories are tied to structures of feeling; to this end, many of our autoethnographic memories fostered a temporary contraction between the present and emotional events in the past. This process, of course, can cut multiple ways—for instance, playing the game as a distraction from tense medical news about a loved one versus playing the game at a time of relaxation, vacation, or personal triumph. Not only does the contraction of the past and the present through memory allow us to relive and “dig up” structures of feeling from the past, but this contraction can also alter how we view events that have previously transpired. One author recalls some boredom from playing the game intensely during the first month of its release during the summer between the first and second year of his PhD program. Now such recollections elicit at least a hint of envy for a summer with far fewer scholarly pressures. Perhaps even more complex are how pleasant memories can be viewed differently over time. Five years since the game’s release, the relationship we had with friends or loved ones may have changed. A positive memory of playing the game with a former significant might now elicit mixed feelings. As time changes, so does our relationship to memories.
As the reflections on our memories associated with Pokémon GO make clear, memory viscerally invokes something that is personal, lived, and emotional. Our most cherished memories offer comfort and reassurance, while traumatic memories can fester like an open wound. Further, memory is selective and often strongest around notable events. For example, one might vividly remember where they were during the events of September 11th, 2001, but be unable to recall what happened the previous or following day. Memory is also imperfect, as individuals experiencing the same event can often remember what transpired quite differently. Fond memories are often a double-edged sword—invoking simultaneous joy in events that transpired with an unresolvable longing to return to the past. “Nostalgia” was first used by Johannes Hofer in 1688, referring to a state of moral decay that occurs “when an individual is torn from the social and geographic environment of his childhood and youth” (Fuentenebro de Diego & Ots, 2014, p. 405). While nostalgia is, in a contemporary sense, understood as a sentimental and unrecoverable longing for the past, doctors in the 18th and 19th centuries attempted to locate nostalgia in the body as a “pathological bone” (Boym, 2001, p. 48). Predating Hofer’s nomenclature, Spanish soldiers serving in the Netherlands with no hope of returning to home were diagnosed with mal de corazón (Fuentenebro & Valiente, 2014). That a longing for the past was considered heart sickness is unsurprising considering the extensive history of connection and conflation between the heart and the brain via what’s known as the cardiocentric hypothesis, with origins in ancient Egypt and taken up later in the classical period in Greece. For example, Aristotle believed that processes of perception took place in the main organ—the arché or heart—and that the brain functioned to cool and keep stable heat in the heart (Oleksowicz, 2018). While such outdated biologies seem crude compared to complex neuroimaging techniques, the Romantic Era of the 18th and 19th century continued and perhaps cemented an association with memories as matters of the heart. The “head vs. heart” dialectic persists today as aphorism for lovesick individuals weighing logic against emotion.
Of course, such temporal contractions between the past and the present, between being and becoming, exist in many forms. Memories can be invoked by something as simple as a smell, or by flipping through photos on one’s phone, or by a “time-machine” reminder prompt on social media platforms, or through the logs on a game like Pokémon GO. Memories are personal, shared, cultural, human, and technological all at once. How exactly these structures of feeling are made part of cognitive assemblages requires specific attention to memory as sociotechnical constellation.
Augmented reality as cognitive assemblage
While human memory is stored corporeally in the brain and not the heart, it would be myopic to claim that memory is confined entirely within a delimited human organism. Research into the relation between games and learning demonstrates how game mechanisms can influence hippocampal activation, drawing associations between new and old information (Prena, Reed, Weaver, and Newman, 2018). Games involve a haptic aspect present in all forms of physical activities, and building a muscle memory through motor learning is key to the ongoing development of the body’s extended nervous system. To wit, our bodies and brains are inexorably intertwined. Massumi (1995) examines this mind-body complexity from the perspective of affect, in that neurological experiments show how the brain and skin form a resonating vessel. The body is not a closed system but instead “radically open”, capable of “absorbing impulses quicker than they can be perceived.” (p. 89). That is to say, if affective intensities are experienced preconsciously, then there is a type of memory at play that operates as much in the mind as in the extended nervous system. Habituation may be a type of bodily memory, and, specific to Pokémon GO, Richardson, Hjorth, and Piera-Jimenez (2020) explain that the game itself has become mundane, sedimented and unremarkable—made part of daily routines of body, mind, and social interaction.
To this end, memory is also sociotechnical, intertwined with cultures and technologies. In what Landsberg (2004) calls prosthetic memory, there exists public cultural memory that emerges at an interface between individuals, historical narratives, and an experiential site (Landsberg, 2004). Prosthetic memory has the ability to shape subjectivity and politics, and allows individuals to take on a deeply felt memory of the past they did not live (Landsberg, 2004). Similarly, examinations of cultural memory are concerned with how the past and present interrelate in socio-cultural contexts in order to form shared cultural phenomena (Erll, 2008; 2011). Concepts of cultural and prosthetic memory further highlight the importance of technology to memory. Nostalgia, for instance, became associated with modernity and the rise of mass culture, further complicating memory something fundamentally human. The contemporary era of Western popular culture is littered with remakes and reboots, designed to capture and channel desire into machines of commodification. Such invocation of fond memories is certainly relevant to a 25-year-old franchise like Pokémon, and it’s been theorized that a nostalgic connection to the brand is a major reason why Pokémon GO became the killer app for augmented reality whereas predecessor AR games failed to generate a fraction of the userbase (Keogh, 2017). That memory is something inexorably cultural (and also related to experiential sites) represents the elide between interior neurological processes and external referent.
But culture has always been technological and technologies are integral to and intertwined with culture (Slack & Wise, 2015). Scholars have long noted how technologies and techniques contribute to the exteriorization of memory (Stiegler, 1998). Despite Plato’s (in)famous contention that writing is merely an invention for jogging the memory and would lead to a degradation of remembering, technologies of storage are integral to an ever-growing list of everyday activities. Writing allows the preservation of a certain kind of memory, and further materialist examinations of technology conceptualize media as extensions of human senses (McLuhan, 1964). But writing in the polis is quite different from our contemporary data-driven sociotechnical landscape. That is, our modern conception of life as technological is fundamentally intertwined with global economic apparatuses that frame our understanding of technology as key to “the good life.” Fredrich Kittler (1999 ) specifically highlights the phonograph as a critical moment of change for storage technologies—within this new grammatology, the senses can be stored outside the body, enabling a movement forward and backward in time with these media technologies. In turn, storage technologies offer a “different kind of ‘archive,’ not cultural-historical but cultural-technological, a different kind of information about the real” (Ernst, 2011, p. 250). Despite a proclivity toward focus on content and transmission, particularly when it comes to mass media, materialist accounts of media offer insight into the primacy of data collection, storage, and processing (Packer, 2013). The application of such materialist studies of storage media to the computational era include emphasis on digital memory practices (Mayer-Schönberger, 2011; Ernst, 2013; Chun, 2011) and memory as ecology (Garde-Hansen et al., 2009). Taken together, technologies of storage demonstrate that studying memory entails attention to relationships between the human and nonhuman in how data is collected, stored, processed, and recollected.
Augmented reality is not often considered a technology of storage and memory. The origins of augmented reality are often traced to an industrial head-mounted digital display designed in 1990 by Boeing researchers Tom Caudell and David Mizell (Berryman, 2012). This industrial vision of augmented reality, nonetheless, is preceded by various attempts to overlay information onto the “real world.” For example, antecedent technologies include the British military’s World War II Mark VII Airborne Interception Radar Gunsighting project, which displayed radar information on the windshield of a fighter plane to help delineate between friend and foe in combat situations (Berryman, 2012; Vaughn-Nichols, 2009). Others trace the origins of AR to the “sword of Damocles”, a device built by computer scientist Ivan Sutherland and his graduate students in the 1960s (Arth et al., 2015; Berryman, 2012), or to cinematographer Morton Heilig’s immersive Sensorama, conceived of in the 1950s and built in 1962 (Berryman, 2012). It is important, however, to challenge neat linear narratives and eureka moments of technological invention. That is, more contemporary forms of mobile AR may cling to the discursive roots of augmenting reality via digital overlay, but are, in fact, quite different technologically. Contemporary mobile forms of augmented reality like Pokémon GO are reliant on a number of interlocking technological affordances to function that include global positioning system (GPS), mobile web infrastructure, maps, geographical classification and climate information, clocks, cameras, and accelerometers. Not only does Pokémon GO utilize Ingress’ catalogue of player-submitted noteworthy locations, but the game also incorporates geographic map markers. These include bodies of water, climate, vegetation, soil, and rock types (Bogle, 2016). In this way, Pokémon GO functions as sort of an annotation system, in that a variety of interlocking data-driven processes work together to trigger events in game. Accordingly, the augmented reality of Pokémon GO is best thought of as an articulation of signals, storage, and waves that constructs a kind of digital memory through layers of technology.
When writing this article, both authors accessed memories in a myriad of ways. Some memories of Pokémon GO are vivid—it’s easy to remember major events that occurred in gameplay (some examples: the first time playing the game; the experience of catching that elusive Pokémon; or the joy of evolving a Pokémon after grinding out the in-game requirements). Memories like the aforementioned playing the game as a distraction from family tragedy are also easily recollected, for better or worse. The details of memory, though, often fade over time, as do some of the prosaic and everyday details of events. But being part of a cognitive assemblages like Pokémon GO changes how we access memories, as well as details of memory. For example, one author searched her social media timeline to dig up images she shared of the game. The other author went back to the photo files saved on his laptop to view the timestamps, date, and geolocation data of some of his early screenshots of the game. In addition, both authors perused in-game logs, which have only gotten more detailed over time, an unsurprising development in a data-driven era. Our lives are measured, catalogued, and quantified in both accessible and inaccessible forms. Critical in all of these instances is the complexity of being a human component in a cognitive assemblage.
Hayles (2016) provides multiple examples of cognitive assemblages in self-driving vehicles, facial recognition systems, and autonomous weapons of war. It’s certainly possible that due to the realities of how data is culled, most US adults are part of cognitive assemblages of facial recognition systems. However, this is not usually something we actively experience, as the accretion of surveillance capitalism most often operates with or without individual consent and acknowledgement. Self-driving cars and autonomous weapons are similarly cognitive assemblages that individuals are often removed from experiencing. Cognitive assemblages of memory like Pokémon GO are, by contrast, something far more personal and embedded. Users can flip through game logs like the journal, buddy history, and Pokédex to remember key details of the game. Screenshots taken on smartphones stamp a host of details to events, making memories accessible, visual, and semiotic. These screenshots can then be shared to social media platforms, where memories are not only engaged with by other platform users, but also become part of various automated processes like Facebook’s “On This Day” and “Memories You May Have Missed.” Our memories are increasingly distributed and intertwined with technologies, infrastructures, servers, hard drives, and platforms. For example, data is used as part of learning artificial intelligence process embedded on these platforms—our own input is used to identify relations, detect patterns, classify information, recommend content, flag and moderate, and deliver targeted advertisement. Through these embedded and largely invisible data-driven assemblages, our cognition is prosthetically augmented in ways we are often unaware of. What’s more, our datasets are made often made a commodity, as they are repackaged and sold to and by databrokers (Crain, 2018), which, in turn, extends their reach even more.
Consequently, these experiences of Pokémon GO highlight the experiential complexity of cognitive assemblages of memory. As previously noted, assemblages refer to rhizomatic and contingent connections, to multiplicity, to heterogeneous relations between humans and nonhumans, and to ongoing becoming. Our memories of Pokémon GO demonstrate just how expansive and distributed a cognitive assemblage is—existing at once as accessed via our brain, our smartphones, Niantic’s servers, through wireless infrastructures, on social media platforms and servers, and as part of automated processes. To this end, memory may feel quite personal to us, but is, in practice, something as much human as nonhuman. While memory has been externalized in various forms through pre-electrical technologies, contemporary cognitive assemblages show the complexities in which memories are collected, stored, processed, and accessed. And with these processes come new temporal and spatial relationships, as well as strategies of monetization. Pokémon GO certainly captures and channels desire toward ends of direct monetization through in-app purchases, but also through our data. Ingress players nominated key landmarks that eventually became Pokémon GO’s PokéStops—the data memory of past play becoming what’s next. Not only does location and player data from Pokémon GO do the same, but so does the photos, posts, shares, and interactivity surrounding the game on a host of other social media platforms and search engines. Consequently, data collected and modeled by one platform is fed back to us and distributed to a host of other companies as part of flows of new media monetization processes. Our memories are made to desire production.
Memory, cognitive assemblages, and new spatial relations
In an explanation of augmented reality history, Berryman (2012) highlights the way that augmented reality differs from virtual reality primarily because of the primary component of the physical—augmented reality integrates the digital with the real (p. 213; 215). In a more general sense, screens and computational technologies are part of changing relationships in terms of how individuals sense, experience, and move through space. This is what Manovich (2006) terms augmented space, in which physical space is overlaid with dynamic, changing, and rich multimedia information (Manovich, 2006). Of course, the era of the contemporary smartphone only accelerated the logics of spatial augmentation. Noted by Campbell (2019), “mobile media can be used to enrich public places by integrating them with digital content” (p. 55). One such way this occurs in Pokémon GO is through the mapped interface of the game. Described by Licoppe (2017), Pokémon GO’s interface is “‘hyper-realistic’, even if it is still a bit crude in phenomenological terms” (p. 25). That is, while the player is able to situate themselves in a realistic map of an area, the map itself is two-dimensional and relatively non-interactive save for the player avatar, Pokémon, and various highlighted spatial locations like PokéStops and gyms. Players can also view Pokémon in everyday spaces through augmented reality using the smartphone camera. As clarified by Hjroth and Richardson (2017), “Through this augmented layering of the digital onto place, banal and familiar surroundings are transformed to become significant game loci” (p. 4). All of this to say that the cognitive assemblage of Pokémon Go functions, in part, to connect meaning to space and place.
Both authors experienced new connections to space and place as part of the cognitive assemblage of Pokémon GO. One author was with a group of friends who wanted to play the game in a cemetery despite her objections. She found the shift in the meaning of place quite jarring; however, her group was far from the only people playing the game in what is normally considered hallowed grounds. For the other author, playing GO meant leaving familiar trail routes near his apartment complex to find small surprises he didn’t know existed so close to his normal paths. The cognitive assemblage of Pokémon GO also contributed to new measures of familiar spaces. One author noted the distance of his walk from the parking garage to his university office space for the purposes of hatching eggs in game. This stretch of space was something the author previously considered in a temporal sense—for example “a ten-minute walk” or “a walk that feels like eternity in July North Carolina heat.” Through Pokémon GO the familiar was quantified through mapping, GPS, and in-game measurements.
Such reflections are exemplar of how the constellations of Pokémon GO function as a deterritorialization and reterritorialization, a breaking down and remaking of space. GO can be thought of as a ludification of space in transforming nonentertainment areas into spaces of play (Mäyrä, 2017). Gamification can have multiple outcomes, however. For example, it’s possible that the game can bring together socially in new ways, or perhaps function to pull them apart (Humphreys, 2017). Additionally, it’s important to consider the underlying logics Pokémon GO assemblages. After all, the purpose of the game for parent company Niantic is to make money, and much has been written about how Pokémon GO contributes to a commodification of space (de Souza e Silva, 2017; Frith, 2017). This relationship between Pokémon GO and a commodification of space is complex and layered. Jin (2017) notes how GO operates as a commodification of free player labor through personal data—practices that have only intensified over time as Niantic rolled out features to allow players to scan PokéStops for 3D eventual in-game 3D renderings (Niantic, n.d.). Existing locations of note are most often clustered around commercial urban spaces and shopping malls (Grandinetti and Ecenbarger, 2018), and analysis of PokéStop s found strong evidence of socio-economic bias in location selection (Juhász and Hochmair, 2017). This is joined by the fact that businesses can pay Niantic to sponsor a location as a PokéStop in hopes of advertising and drawing in customers. In short, not all locations in Pokémon GO are equal, and there is a pervasive underlying logic of commodification in the game.
Both authors experienced elements of socialization and commodification in their experiences playing GO. For one author, her visit to the Grand Canyon was shaped, in part, by the experience of her hotel room’s location over a PokéStop. Nevertheless, instead of pushing her toward commodified locales in the area, the proximity of the PokéStop encouraged a slower morning of game play in the hotel room. The other author has vivid recollections of playing Pokémon GO at coffee shops periodically in between writing. Many of these coffee shops were located on or near a PokéStop, and some even advertised this fact on signs outside the storefront. In these instances, memory becomes inexorably intertwined with commodification of space. The constellations of Pokémon GO might be very different in these instances in terms of player and location, but function toward the same capitalistic logics. Perhaps this fact is not inherently positive nor negative, but instead demonstrates how dimensions of corporate forces are mapped and inscribed memories of hybrid spaces through AR technologies.
The future of cognitive assemblages
Pokémon GO—or however we wish to delimit the sprawling constellation of human, technical, and infrastructural processes required to make what appears to be a simple game work—is an interconnected system where cognitive processes occur across levels, sites, and boundaries, what Hayles calls a cognitive assemblage. The game is reliant on flows of data, money, and a host of signals provided by satellite and wireless infrastructures. The actions players take are logged and recorded. Through maps, logs, screenshots, and salient locations, the assemblage of Pokémon GO both breaks down and remakes the familiar. And through the ongoing becoming of these cognitive assemblages, new relationships form between place, space, mobility, humans, technologies, infrastructures, environments, and memory. Pokémon GO may be synonymous with augmented reality, but is not often considered a technology of memory. But we make the case that memory is of critical importance to the game. Not only does GO invoke a cultural nostalgia for players who have an attachment to now 25-year-old franchise of Pokémon, but the game also cultivates structures of feeling, along with new temporal and spatial relationships through gameplay.
Elucidated by Stiegler (1998), what it means to be human is indebted to specific historical time periods: a question of how our tools and techniques serve as a collective material memory. Such a characterization tracks posthuman theories of assemblages, which allow for a decentering of the human as one element in larger material constellations of ongoing becoming. Nevertheless, there is an implicit challenge in reconciling theory with everyday experience. Seaver (2017) highlights a similarly difficult task regarding the subject of algorithms, noting that corporate and state uses of mega-algorithms are often discussed in vague fashion by critical accounts. While the subject of how algorithms are embedded in everyday life has both overlap and deviations from the subject of augmented reality, what’s relevant is Server’s solution to the problem of assessing these systems: the use of ethnographic accounts to evaluate algorithms as multiple, as unstable objects, and as enacted through various everyday practices. Our own work in this article takes a similar approach inspired by various forms of short-term, micro, and connected ethnography to the subject of cognitive assemblages of memory via the example of Pokémon GO. That is, while it’s possible to understand Pokémon GO in a theoretical sense, we endeavor to add accounts where “the rubber meets the road” of theory and experience in terms of what it means to be a human component in complex cognitive assemblages of memory.
Our autoethnographic memories offer some insights into what it looks, feels, sounds, tastes, and smells like to be a small component of an assemblage of space and time. Nevertheless, assemblages are always recomposing—a challenge for academic articles that must be “complete” at the time of publication. In the spirit of considering the complexity and ongoing becoming of posthuman constellations of memory, we have crafted this article to display a randomized sequences of embedded autoethnographic moments each time someone visits the page. Our memories, by extension, continue a process of sociotechnical becoming, as part of new assemblages of human and nonhuman components through your own temporary articulation to this article.
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