A couple of weeks ago I was asked to participate in a discussion at the Architecture Association in London. Because my own work is on video games and mobile phone entertainment, and no doubt because it sounds a bit quirky, the talk was given the title ‘Angry Birds and Architecture.’ During the debate, another of the four participants, a practicing architect, made a comment directed partly at me and partly at the organizing committee of the event. His claim was simple: architecture and Angry Birds have no place in the same conversation. Expanding briefly, he commented that whilst things like Angry Birds are fairly mindless and conformist symptoms of capitalism, architecture is much more than this because of its ability to radically transform and govern our experience of life in the city. In any case, this is how I understood the argument. Here I want to make a point that is both simple and very complex: for anyone familiar with Niantic’s mobile phone phenomenon Ingress, this argument immediately collapses. Ingress shows that architecture and mobile phone applications really cannot be kept apart.
Ingress is an ‘augmented-reality massively multiplayer online location-based game’, though it also claims not to be a ‘game’ since it is about ‘real life’. For those not familiar, the premise is that the player moves around the actual lived environment capturing ‘portals’ which are represented by landmarks, monuments and public art, as well as other less-famous features of the city (and countryside, as some rural players have noted). The player has to be within physical range of the ‘portal’ to capture it, so the game constantly tracks the player via GPS. It’s a bit like the evil modern equivalent of Geocaching, a precursor that introduced the internet as a force that governs our walks, paths, and experience of the environment.
In 1981 French theorist Guy Debord wrote of the ‘psychogeographical contours’ of the city which govern the routes we take, even when we might feel we are wandering freely around the physical space. For a certain type of walking, a kind of stroll that involves ‘going with the flow’ of the city, Debord coins the term ‘dérive’:
In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view, cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.
I wonder what Debord would have thought of Ingress. Architecture, in 1981, was the principle force which controlled and governed these invisible contours of the city. Architecture was the city’s unconscious, which dictated the paths we took, and the zones we ingress (enter) and egress (exit). Today, this regulatory job is carried out by the mobile phone.
Ingress sends people to locations of its choosing, though there is (real and illusory) player-agency involved in the choices too. It’s a bit of an ethical minefield, and aside from its constant monitoring of the individuals movement, academic studies have already been dedicated to the implications of Ingress when it sends single young men and women (the age limit for the game was recently reduced from 18 to 13) into dangerous neighborhoods and unlit city parks at 3am in the morning.
Yet Ingress is not so much a unique application as it is the final embodiment of our relationship to our mobile devices and the city today. Google Maps plays a not dissimilar role, allowing the user some choice when they search ‘bars’ or ‘Japanese restaurants’ for example, but then taking over to direct the user to bars and restaurants chosen and endorsed, and listed in order, by the algorithms of Google. The destination and the route is mapped for the user by their device, which in more cases than not, the user follows to the tee. Uber functions similarly, mapping the route the driver ought to take between locations. Google Maps is even working on new technology which will not only respond to your search terms but predict what you are likely to search and where you will want to go, showing that its aim is not just to give us what we want but eventually to determine our very desires and ensure that we keep to repetitious patterns in our movements. Ingress, and these other applications, look forward to what is referred to as a ‘smart city,’ defined accurately by Wikipedia as ‘an urban development vision to integrate multiple information and communication technology (ICT) solutions in a secure fashion to manage a city’s assets.’ In short, this means controlling the actions and paths of people to best produce profit for the city.
The smart city is a vision for the future, but whose vision is it? In short, it is the vision of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other more invisible acquisition-driven companies looking to ensure that all aspects of the city and our movements within it can be securely controlled and regulated by and for these corporations. Thus, replacing the role of architectural limits and designated paths and zones is the mobile phone. Ingress, then, should be thought of as a kind of training device transforming us into the perfect citizens of the Smart City. We could have guessed that Niantic, while referred to as a ‘start-up’, started out as a subsidiary of Google itself.
What of Angry Birds in the matter? Whilst it might have more to do with distraction than active control, it still has a role to play in the Smart City. Such games keep us glued to our smartphones while we traverse the techno–psycho–geographical contours of the city, preventing us from engaging with our environment in any way other than that prescribed by its counterpart applications. Ingress should ultimately be seen as a warning, a warning that a lot of mobile phone entertainment and many applications might appear like harmless or mindless fun or convenient assistance, but are in fact training devices to turn people into citizens of the new city. Like in Ingress, there is no clear distinction between the physical built environment designated by the term ‘architecture’ and the electronic world of the mobile device when both cities and phones are designed with each other in mind, working together to govern our experience of them.
This article was originally published at Existential Gamer.