Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Try explaining Pokemon Go to kids in war-torn areas

Technology can help bridge societies, but it also sharpens divides. For many war-torn societies, virtual games are irrelevant to the point of being insulting
By Farish A Noor, Published The Straits Times, 6 Sep 2016

Among the many alluring promises of modern technology is the claim - repeated often enough - that it can bring the world closer together and create a new globalised world where human beings can feel and see themselves as members of the same family.

There is some truth to this claim, and it cannot be denied that the modern communicative architecture that we see today has indeed brought individuals and communities closer together in more ways than one.

We live in a world where people across the globe can play games together at the same time - think of Pokemon Go or Candy Crush - as they enter a common virtual world that connects people who have never met face-to-face, or even know what their voices sound like.

But the unstated assumption behind all this is that we all live in a world that is somehow flatter than it actually is, and that there is some kind of universal standard of normality that we all enjoy.

Sadly, that is not the case for millions of people the world over, where normality is understood and framed in terms that are starkly different to what we may be used to.

Imagine, for instance, a child born in Iraq in the late 1990s. Such a child would have, by now, lived through almost two decades of incessant bombings, civil conflict and religio-ethnic unrest.

Normality for such a child would certainly be different from what many of us have grown accustomed to, and it would be a normality predicated on routine violence and bloodshed, almost on a daily basis.

The very idea of being able to enjoy several weeks of peace would seem like a distant pipe dream, something one sees only on TV or at the cinema.

But that, unfortunately, is what the daily lived realities for millions of people in the world today is like.


This gulf between states and societies that experience radically different and contrasting norms is one of the salient features of globalisation as we know it today.

Despite the advances we have made in terms of technological and scientific development, the benefits of such progress have never been shared equally.

This is true today as it was in the past; and it could be argued that in the not-too-distant past, that technological gap was put to use to ensure that the gap remained: The history of colonialism in the 19th century is a record of how advanced societies used whatever technological advantages they had to stay above and ahead of other societies, which were, in turn, colonised and dominated using the most advanced methods of conquest, appropriation, domination and social engineering available at the time.

Today's cutting-edge technology is also reflective of the great divide that continues to cleave a gulf between societies the world over, for among the conditions of possibility that allow technological advances to occur are peace and stability.

It is not an accident that the innovations we see today - from the Internet to online popular games like Pokemon Go - emanate from societies that have reached not only a certain point of economic-industrial advancement, but also of peace and stability where innovation can take place unmolested by radically contingent variables.

This, in effect, means that that innovation remains a First World prerogative and entitlement, while in other parts of the world that have been laid low by war and strife, it remains a luxury beyond reach.

Many of these innovations also do not take into account the basic - and brutal - fact that some of these First World innovations would seem irrelevant to people living in a state of war or who have to struggle on a daily basis to secure drinkable water and shelter for themselves.

If we look at how the phenomenon of Pokemon Go has developed, and how it has spread across the planet, we can clearly map out the countries that can be regarded as "First World" and those that are not.

It would be a cruel joke indeed to suggest that kids in war-torn Syria go playing around the rubble of their homes while looking for virtual creatures that do not exist, while avoiding mines and dodging snipers' bullets.

Some of the more popular games and apps that we see today on our phones and computers may seem innocent enough, but they do not take into account the painful reality that the world is not an innocent place to begin with.

Those who enjoy the privilege of peace and prosperity may yearn for what we now call "augmented reality", but there remain many who simply wish that their daily reality could change for the better.


The charm of the virtual world today is, therefore, something that perhaps ought to be taken with a heavy pinch of salt.

Constantly, we are being sold new apps and tools that are meant to make our lives more pleasant and liveable.

But such a promise holds true only if there was already a pre-existing reality of a life deemed normal as defined by the Internet.

We should never forget, however, that this virtual world to which we are being dragged into is also a cocoon and a bubble that isolates us from the goings-on in other parts of the world, where a teenager's "crisis" may not be that his or her learning material has not been uploaded on the website fast enough, but that his school has been bombed and his teachers killed.

My own concern lies in the perception that the Internet can and does divide the world as much as it unites it, and what we are seeing today are really two contradictory forces at work at the same time.

On the one hand, there is the virtual world of people - kids and adults alike - who live in the safe zones of the planet where sharing recipes for pasta or organic salads can be done instantaneously with a click of a button, between people who live thousands of miles apart but who reside in safe and stable countries with markets that are stable, political systems that are operative and public domains that remain open.

On the other hand, there are also millions of our fellow human beings who do not possess such luxuries, and for whom the prospect of whiling away a few hours playing computer games - even if they happen to be free to download - seems like adding insult to injury.

That gulf is real, and made all the more evident to us all, thanks to communications technology that connects us together without bringing us any closer in a meaningful sense.

To ram the point home, imagine what it might feel like for a child living as a refugee in a war zone to see children in other parts of the world happily playing their video games in a safe space that they can never be in themselves.

Technology needs to connect us again, meaningfully.

Technology itself is not, and has never been, the root cause of the world's problems; and in many instances, it can be put to humanitarian uses, such as in the fields of medicine or disaster relief.

My own pessimism, however, stems from a realist reading of the realities on the ground.

In the years to come, the gap between the First World and the unsafe world is not likely to become narrower just because some whiz-kid has invented another game that will get us to go running around looking for virtual mutant worms in trees or swimming pools.

But technology can still redeem us if it takes into account the very real inequalities and injustices that pervade the world today, and if it discards the notion that humanity exists in some universal happy state the world over.

We need to recognise that the globalised world is not flat, that power differentials and economic inequalities exist, and that humankind's condition is not one of homogeneity.

And in the future, the only kind of app that I look forward to is one that helps us connect with our fellow human beings, some of whom happen to be suffering tremendously, in a meaningful way.

Painful though the face of human suffering may appear, it is at least a human face that connects us to our own humanity - more than a virtual cartoon monster that isn't even there in the first place.

Dr Farish A. Noor is associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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