Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Catching Em All at the Holocaust Museum: Pokemon GO and Shared Spaces

People are rather obsessed with Pokemon GO, and it seems the internet is obsessed with talking about people being obsessed with it. One of the most interesting stories involving the augmented reality game concerns the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Many news outlets are reporting the Museum's frustration with Pokemon GO players hunting and catching Pokemon in the Museum itself. A spokesperson for the Museum said that the "game falls outside of our educational and memorial mission."

It's not difficult to understand where the folks at the Holocaust Museum (or Arlington or Auschwitz) are coming from. These are places of contemplation that ask their visitors to inhabit spaces of reverence. What this little moment in our technological history reminds me, however, is that so much of our supposed moral issues with digital life are actually issues of etiquette. A scholar of information systems recently gave me a helpful analogy on this point: when ATMs were first introduced, no one knew where to stand as they waited. Eventually, society sorted it out and now we know to stand a few feet back from the person using the ATM before us. If social pressures are strong enough, collective habits change. This includes our technological habits.

More than etiquette, however, I believe the conversation about Pokemon in the Holocaust Museum can help us think about the spaces we create and inhabit. I think of museums as "virtual" in their own right, as they seek to bring present what is absent, either because of history or location. Even for art museums, the spaces are virtual insofar as they are spaces of encountering the other through media. I am not an expert in museum studies, but it seems to me that curators and directors are always feeling the tension between cultivating spaces and cultivating particular experiences. That is, these professionals work hard to facilitate and encourage particular kinds of experiences for visitors, but without the ability or even desire to force that experience upon them.

What strikes me as somewhat frustrating about the Pokemon in the Holocaust Museum story, then, is that both the Museum and people writing about the phenomenon are convinced that there is only one way (or maybe a few ways) to experience that space. Museums have the right and prerogative to ask certain things of their visitors so as to aim for the experience they want them to have. They do not, it seems to me, have the right to tell people how to experience that which they have created. Some will jump in here with several critiques, which I attempt to address below:

Pokemon GO and other games are distracting for both the visitor using them and those around them! As for the individual playing the game, it seems difficult to ascertain "distraction" barring some sort of interrogation process. Furthermore, it seems to me that our problem is with the means of distraction and not distraction itself, as I would be hard-pressed to think of a time when I was truly not distracted even by my own thoughts. As the distraction of others, isn't this just what happens when humans get together for any shared experience?

On both these points, allow me to provide a small anecdote. I recently went to Cleveland's incredible Museum of Art. I was "distracted" from the experience personally because my dog had died the day before. Sometimes I would linger on a painting, almost looking through the art itself and find myself immersed in my own loss and grief. One could easily say that I was not experiencing the museum how its curators might want me to. If someone were to judge my grief as frivolous and pointless, they could just as easily make a claim against me as those making a claim against Pokemon GO. I was also distracted by a group of middle school students. The first distraction came from their docent who was spewing some popular but historically dubious "facts" about the "Dark Ages." The second came when the students dispersed, walking quickly through each room to check off pieces of art on the list given them by their teacher. Is this how the museum was meant to be experienced? Who am I to say?

Places like the Holocaust Museum demand reverence and games on your phone are not reverent! Reverence seems to me a theological category, and the resources for defining its nature in secular spaces are scarce after a strict division of sacred and secular. Furthermore, although spaces may attempt to demand reverence, they cannot force it. Anyone who has been to churches and other holy sites that are also tourist destinations knows well the tension I describe here. As a devout Catholic, I experience people inhabiting churches as complicated spaces of spectacle, curiosity, antipathy, and sometimes, reverence.

To claim that games on phones are not "reverent," one would need to be very clear about what reverence in a secular space looks like. I am not, of course, saying that the horrors of the Holocaust and the memories of its victims do not demand reverence. But as the middle schoolers in the art museum remind us, spaces can only be shaped and cultivated, and visitors can only be asked and encouraged. Short of disallowing phones in the Holocaust Museum, therefore, the directors cannot force people to have a certain kind of experience.

Pokemon GO is just a small part of technological advances that change our experiences of space. These technologies will challenge us and frustrate us. Most of all, they will expose the assumptions we have about shared spaces in particular, and force us to come to terms with what has remained unsaid between us as sharers in those spaces.