I sometimes ride my bike late at night, partly for exercise and partly as a way to unwind. Something about the wind in my face and the solitude of normally busy streets can put a stressful day in perspective.
But recently, the solitude has been AWOL. I have had to negotiate late-night pedestrians who crowd intersections, zombie-like and barely aware of their surroundings. I have had to steer clear of cars with passengers hanging phones out of windows. I watched a man jogging with a cell phone in front of his face.
Americans have a penchant for fads. Nearly 100 years ago, some of our ancestors sat atop flagpoles for days while thousands watched below. At various times, we have gathered en mass to throw discs, twirl Hula Hoops, bounce Super Balls or dump buckets of ice over our heads.
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So in many ways, the Pokemon Go phenomenon is just the latest summer craze; a mostly harmless way to while away warm days and pleasant evenings while escaping the daily flood of brutal news and the sludge of politics. It is destined to fade about as quickly as it appeared.
But it also may be a harbinger of a more troubling and long-lasting trend as reality and fantasy worlds begin to collide. The Pokemon game is a breakthrough in the popularity of something called augmented reality. The next step, already in development, is for headsets that make the overlap more seamless. Google Glass, which never quite made it as a fad, may return with this in mind.
Some day, as the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, reality, fantasy and calendar reminders all could co-exist on the end of your nose, which is OK until the end of your nose ends where the oncoming car begins.
The chief executive of one augmented-reality company told the Journal, “We think it (Pokemon Go) is a gateway to the whole new future we’re building.”
A “new future” is quite a step above a fad. While it may take awhile to get there, the pathway needs to include better rules about what is and is not acceptable fantasy behavior.
A friend of mine described the trouble he had last week trying to teach a Sunday School lesson while students surreptitiously tried to “catch ‘em all.” The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, among the more sacred and solemn places in that city, had to issue rules against playing the game inside its walls. CBS.com reported that someone published a photo of a particular Pokemon that shoots poisonous gas lurking near the Helena Rubinstein Auditorium, which features films of Holocaust survivors talking about the horrors of gas chambers. The report said the photo may have been doctored. However, it highlighted how inappropriate the ethically detached intersection of fantasy and reality can become.
Elsewhere, reports have surfaced of players trespassing private property. At some point, digital rights need to become a part of real property rights. But as usual, the “new future” is coming too fast.
As Todd Richmond, the director of the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California told CBS, “This is the problem with technology adoption — we don’t have time to slowly dip our toe in the water.”
Decades ago, playwright Mary Chase wrote a sensational Broadway hit called “Harvey.” It concerned a man, Elwood P. Dowd, who sees a 6-foot-3.5-inch rabbit no one else can see. As the comedy unfolds, other characters suspect Dowd of being either drunk or mentally ill.
For the moment, we are a nation of Dowds chasing phantom creatures across fields, through churches and even into museums. Reality blends with fantasy, insanity and inebriation, and observers may have trouble seeing the difference.
Make no mistake, augmented reality has its nobler side. It could help surgeons work remotely, allow experts to guide homeowners on simple repairs or let you read reviews of a particular restaurant before deciding to enter.
But given how Nintendo’s shares have risen 13 percent since Pokemon Go was introduced, games leading us in search of ghostly treasures are bound to intensify.
It can all be good fun, but who will set the boundaries?