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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Old Fashioned, Old Faithful

geyser in Yellowstone

geyser in Yellowstone

Augmenting reality

Irina Raicu

This is an old-fashioned snapshot of Old Faithful. So old fashioned, in fact, that it’s a mental snapshot. Imagine, if you will, the slight hillock in Yellowstone National Park from which the geyser spouts (at intervals of 35-120 minutes), surrounded by concentric rows of benches. It’s a hot evening in June 2016. People have consulted their phones, which have told them that the next eruption will be at 7:32. As the time has grown closer, the benches have nearly filled. Hundreds of people from around the world are now seated together, waiting for a natural phenomenon that some of them have traveled thousands of miles to see. As you look around (this is a panoramic mental snapshot), you see those hundreds of people holding their phones in front of their faces. They are ready to watch Old Faithful through their screens.

Two of those people are my sons. My husband (whom my sons, when they were younger, used to scold for slowing us down by taking too many pictures) is the one who points out the concentric, almost unbroken rows of screens pointed at the (for now) fuming hole in the ground. Time passes; Old Faithful fails to go off at 7:32. Arms must be getting tired. My sons, amused, talk about the Google and Apple servers, which must experience a similarly regular geyser of photographs of Old Faithful eruptions automatically uploaded each day.

Faithful users of social media, and many social media scholars, would point out that the taking of photographs which are then shared on social media is itself a social act—that the people holding up their phones are not trying to avoid interacting with the humans around them, but making an effort to interact with friends/family/correspondents far away (those who will see the pictures on various social platforms and react to them in various ways). Rather than just watching the eruption on their own, and maybe exchanging a comment or a smile with a stranger seated on a nearby bench, they are choosing to share that experience with their friends or followers. They are not being antisocial.

And yet, there in Yellowstone, on a hot summer evening, listening to the ravens unafraid of the intermittent hot spurts of water and steam, looking around, what you see are rows of screens, lifted in between the faces and Old Faithful. As the geyser does erupt, 7 or 8 minutes late, the screens don’t go down; now video is as easy to capture and store as pictures, so why not film the eruption?

Some of the people do talk, to companions and to strangers—at first joking about the delay, then exclaiming at the natural display, even cheering at the end. So, is anything lost? And, if something is, are the gains (videos to look at later, photographs to share with loved—or liked—ones who could not be there, scientific data, evidence of one’s presence at a particular place) greater than whatever is lost?

This week, the hottest thing to do outside is to play Pokémon Go—a game of “augmented reality” that users play on their phones, in which Pokémon characters are superimposed on real-life settings and players are prompted to catch those characters (or hatch them, or battle them, etc.) The game is hugely popular. Numerous articles have pointed out that it gives players “the opportunity to… explore the beauty of the world.” In old fashioned Yellowstone, reality was already augmented with fuming fumaroles, thundering waterfalls, multicolored pools of geothermally-heated boiling water, vast icy lakes, bison walking deliberately along roads, and many, many natural geysers. Is it old fashioned to hope, wistfully, that Old Faithful is not, right now, a Pokestop or gym, and that visitors are not catching Pokémon around its surrounding benches while waiting for it to go off?

(And, yes, the irony of illustrating this blog post with a photo of Old Faithful...)

Photo by tarheelz337, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

Jul 12, 2016

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