What might the world’s first mobile phone call, made on this day 50 years ago, have to do with irreversible climate change? asks author and artist John Mack, founder of Life Calling. When Martin Cooper made the world’s first mobile phone call while on Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan on 3rd April 1973, he would never have imagined that several decades later, there would be a human stampede just a few blocks north of where he was standing, made possible solely because of the device in his hand.
The prototype Motorola phone which Cooper used to place that historic call looked very different to the highly advanced smartphones clutched by hundreds of people all those years later, who were dashing into Central Park in hot pursuit of a virtual creature known as a Pokémon, but a line can be drawn directly between the two events.
There’s no question that mobile technology has become a dominant force in our lives for the last half century, ensuring we are connected 24/7 with our friends, family and colleagues from wherever we are in the world, not to mention the overwhelming amount of information always at our fingertips. But has it, in the ultimate irony, disconnected us at the same time?
In some cases, the answer is a resounding “Yes”. Pokémon Go was brought to the world by Niantic Labs in 2016 and rapidly became the most popular mobile game of all time. Within just one month of its release, it was awarded no less than five Guinness World Records and later earned over a billion dollars in revenue.
Pokémon Go uses augmented reality (AR) and location-based technology to project digital graphics over the real world. This allows the app to overlay its imaginary Pokémon creatures at real geographic locations, prompting its users to follow the app’s famous motto: “Get up, get out, and explore” because “You gotta catch ‘em all.” The stampede into Central Park in New York was one of many: there were similar scenes in Santa Monica, California and Taipei, Taiwan and around the world.
The sight of thousands of people racing in pursuit of an imaginary creature might, on the surface, have little to do with humanity’s impact on the environment, but observed closely, it explains everything. By focusing on our screens, we are neglecting our ‘real’ surroundings, and the effect on our nature will ultimately be catastrophic.
Mobile phone technology may have evolved into a ‘smart’ device, but the same cannot be said for human evolution. To chase a Pokémon is to be in pursuit of a virtual construct—a figment of a mobile device’s imagination. Perhaps the most startling element of the posted stampede videos is neither the mass-mobilization of like-minded users, nor their frenzied fanaticism putting daily life on hold, but rather the slapstick comedy of ‘intelligent’ life frantically chasing nothing.
Sometimes it takes a scene like this to open our eyes. Indeed, a higher awareness can quickly transform hilarity into grave concern. The behavior of the people running through the streets of New York or Taipei is as unnatural as the goal they are running to attain. Their entire modus operandi in that moment is, in actuality, not their own natural state but rather a virtual, programmed one. The common denominator among participants is their shared program—some strange validation of self, of accomplishment, of shared purpose, of boredom avoidance, of “vital living” as prescribed by a virtual construct. The prize is perceived to be in the natural world, but is in fact a virtual construct of an illusory realm.
The psychological hunt for illusory trophies reveals itself in the same manner. Self-validating collectables, such as success, power and beauty, are just a few of the many internal, virtual prizes (equivalents to Pokémon) projected over the real world—values which are, at the end of the day, merely figments of our psychological device’s imagination. Social media, the most “connecting” of mobile-app content, works to augment false ideas of our own self-worth—a further pollution of perception—and the attainment of its virtual remedies unfortunately justifies the means; in the pursuit to “catch ‘em all,” our nature has become even more of a sideshow.
The more we are immersed in virtual constructs, the more we ignore nature’s essence. Attention to the virtual is always one-directional, for a departure from the natural is—simultaneously—an entry into the artificial. With the rising tide of virtual universes in the Digital Age, it becomes clear the human is currently on a mass-migration from the natural to the artificial, from the real to the virtual, from man to machine. This can have a catastrophic effect. Might the climate tipping point run analogous to a tipping point for our very humanity?
When nature is no longer part of the equation, it comes as no surprise that the natural world is treated without respect or care. Nature becomes the garbage receptacle of our virtual ambitions. From capturing Pokémon to capturing selfies to the present-day TikTok dance crazes in areas of outstanding beauty, binging on virtual diets in our natural world is as the discarding of plastic bottles in the Pacific Ocean: Both reveal our widening divorce from nature and the pollution that comes to fill it.
At the end of the day, one’s relationship to nature, or to anything for that matter—to friends, to family, to community, to the earth itself—can only be as good as one’s relationship to oneself. Indeed, our outer divorce from the natural world is merely a reflection of the same divorce within. The outer climate crises are evidence of our inner climate crises.
At the crux of the problem is not the pollution itself, but rather the disregard that permits such pollution. And there is no greater disregard than swapping the natural world for its virtual replacement—nature “screened out” of sight. Make no mistake, a tipping point is on the horizon. The choice—while we still have one—is ours: Heads down in devices, or heads up in awareness?
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