Roland Barthes Plays Pokémon Go: On the Algorithmicized Futures of Everyday Life

Pokémon GO app © iphonedigital, Flickr.
David Capener reads Henri Lefebvre’s The Right to the City as a useful conceptual framework for understanding and acting in the archive of everyday life—the production of space by new digital technologies.
1968: Henri Lefebvre and Roland Barthes order a bottle of good wine

On the evening of May 3, 1968, in a restaurant in the Saint-Germain district of Paris, Henri Lefebvre and Roland Barthes had dinner together. Less than a kilometre away in the Latin Quarter surrounding Sorbonne University, students clashed violently with police. In search of the beach, the first paving stone of the ‘68 riots was lifted and thrown. More than one hundred were injured; twenty seriously; hundreds more arrested; the Sorbonne closed. Lefebvre — a mentor to many of the key activists — ordered a bottle of good wine.1Michael Kelly, “A Dialogue Between Barthes and Lefebvre,” Yale French Studies 98 (2000): 79–97. Over the next two months, the protests would escalate, Barthes would distance himself from the events — the possibility of a utopian realm was not to be found in urban revolt but in text that could exist outside of the realm of power.2Ibid. While others sifted through the remains of what would quickly be seen as a failed revolution, Lefebvre held on to the possibility that change was still possible and to be so it must be urban. As the forces of capitalism knew all too well, it must lay claim to space, to the routines, practices, and rhythms of everyday life — what in his recently written text he called “the right to the city.”3 Henri Lefebvre, Writings On Cities, trans. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008). The mechanics of this kind of revolt he would come to articulate, less succinctly but perhaps most presciently in his rambling, difficult to understand and often contradictory but now famed text The Production of Space. 4Henri Lefebvre, The Production Of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2016). His thesis: shifts in modes of production, which are not just technological but ontological revolutions, produce new ways of being in the world which produce new kinds of space. And, if the right to the city is, as he would later write, the right to the production of space then the right to the city is, before it is anything else, the right to ways of being in the world. Ideologically Barthes had left the “city,” but Lefebvre, a prophet of asphalt culture, had not, and in The Production of Space he takes Barthes (along with Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger) for a walk in the city and in doing so told a story as relevant today as it was then.5 Ernst Bloch, On Karl Marx, trans. John Maxwell (London: Verso, 2018), 24.

2018: On the occasion of the fifty-year anniversary of ‘May 68’ and the publication The Right to the City, Roland — who managed to dodge the laundry van — and a resurrected Henri, return to the same restaurant, now a McDonald’s, and eat a Happy Meal.

Henri wanted to talk about the right to the production of space. Was the revolutionary concept of citizenship of which he wrote possible? The modes of production had radically changed. Technology had begun to penetrate everyday life in new and ever more invasive ways. New problems were being created —  surveillance, privacy, location tracking — especially in the city. 6Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity, Twelve Preludes, September 1959-May 1961, trans. John Moore (London: Verso, 1995), 123. The contemporary technological condition concerned Henri, as it always had done, for shifts in technological epochs always produced new kinds of space. 7 Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 46. The question of the right to the city and the revolutionary potential of everyday life was perhaps more relevant now than ever. Contrary to Marx, Henri knew that a distinction could never be made between work, leisure and play — this was the kind of dead-end dialectics of dead-end Marxism that led the revolution into dead-end cul-de-sacs. What concerned Henri now was that a distinction could no longer be made between the factory and the everyday. In the contemporary technological period, all of everyday life had become a factory. To play is to work. To live, to labor. The fruits of this labor? Behavioral surplus — where you go, what you do, think, might think, or could be made to think, archived, processed, and deployed. The currency of this new economy: Attention.8 On Behavioral surplus see Shoshana Zuboff, The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism (London: Profile Books, 2019), 63 – 96. On digital capitalism as an attentional economy see Yves Citton, The Ecology of Attention (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017). The vaporous romantic metaphors that manifest as “the cloud” worried Henri. Behind them hides the defining impulse of everyday life — the will to archive. A will to power which manifests as the impulse “to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters.” To be, therefore, is to archive — tweet, click, 🤪, like, share,❤️, #, 🤯, Insta, 👍 . To be is to be archived, whether one chooses to or not. To not archive, if such a thing is possible, is not to be — to be dead (or so we are told) and so we, knowingly or not, are all archivists now. On Facebook alone every 60 seconds, 510,000 comments are posted, 293,000 statuses are updated, 4 million posts are liked, and 136,000 photos are uploaded. That’s about a million gigabytes of data that gets archived in what Facebook calls the Hive, a 300 petabyte “data warehouse” for the storage, analysis, and use of data. The dominant mode of production is now the archiving of everyday life, and, if the shifts in the modes of production produce new kinds of space then the archive produces space. Something troubled Henri, a series of questions that he’d asked nearly fifty years ago in The Production of Space: Who produces this space? What is it that is being produced? How is it being produced? Why is it being produced? For whom is it being produced? And ultimately, what does it mean to have a right to the production of space? Roland was only partially paying attention — Henri had a tendency to go on a bit — he was there to catch Pokémon.

Henri tells Roland about Google Maps

The reason why he suggested this particular McDonald’s had nothing to do with nostalgia for that night in ‘68, he was well over that. He’d seen on his Twitter timeline, @Jetman1980, that Pokémon GO players had been finding ultra-rare legendary Pokémon in Happy Meal boxes. This interested Henri: he knew the story of Pokémon GO, he’d just finished reading an early draft of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff.9Ibid. He knew that the app creators Niantic Labs was founded, with $30 million of Google’s money, by John Hanke, who was also the product vice president of Google Maps and the head of Street View. Hanke had also founded Keyhole, the CIA-funded satellite mapping company, which would later become Google Earth. Google Maps interested Lefebvre. He was interested in the way that it — as well as apps like Instagram and TikTok — could shift perceptions about space, produce certain “representations of space,” and ultimately produce new kinds of “lived space.”10David Harvey suggests that Lefebvre is indebted to — although typically does not reference — Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944). He thought that when he opened something like a digital mapping application his perception of the world was being subtly conditioned by information that was being presented to him for interested reasons, yet that interest was not being disclosed.11 Adam Greenfield, Radical Technologies (London: Verso, 2017), 63. The information on his screen — a representation of space — may be different from the information that Roland would see on his screen because (depending on various privacy settings) that information had gone through a process of algorithmic sorting based on his web search history, other apps that he had installed, things he had said and places that he had visited.  

iOS Pokémon GO Map View © Pokémon GO

Henri thought that our perception of space was being represented in different ways as digital technologies like Google Maps produce — what Roland, in his 1962 text The Imagination of the Sign, called paradigmatic shifts in meaning.12Roland Barthes, “The Imagination and the Sign,” in A Roland Barthes Reader, ed. Susan Sontag (London: Vintage, 2000), 211 – 217. However, what Roland failed to see was that these semiotic shifts were not just ways that meaning about the world is produced but, are how the world is produced — the production of space. Spaces produced by daily routines are becoming increasingly influenced by personal digital technologies like Google Maps, or as Henri, again speaking in Barthesian tongues, liked to call them, syntagmatic spaces — a system of rules informing how we “practice” everyday life. For Henri, the capitalist production of space had entered a new epoch. According to Google, “four out of every five consumers use the map application to make local searches”; half of those end up “visiting a store within twenty-four hours, and one out of every five of these searches results in a ‘conversion,’ or sale.”13Greenfield, Radical Technologies, 63. Similarly, the suspension of previously understood social rules and behaviors creating new social systems and new ways of being in the world brought about by various forms of social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram were producing new ways of being in the world which produce new kinds of space. An epochal shift had occurred. These new archival technologies were producing an interruption in the “way things are” — a shift in how the world was previously known was taking place and new forms of spatial practice were being produced, which in turn were producing new kinds of space. If this was true of Google Maps it was even more true of Pokémon GO. As Hanke explained, “The game relies on a lot of modern cell phone and data technology to power the augmented reality, but that traffic generated by the game also changes what happens in the real world.”14Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, 315.

Roland catches legendary Fire-type Pokémon Charmander

There, on Roland’s screen, sitting in his Happy Meal box on top of the fries was legendary fire-type Pokémon Charmander. “Yes! 🙌 Finally found Charmander! 🤩 🥳 #PokemonGO.”15@Jetman1980 The McDonald’s that they were in had become a Pokémon GO “sponsored location,” and was paying — in the same way the companies pay per click for Google Ads — per visitor, to become a “virtual” location within the game.16Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, 316. Roland would not have been there otherwise. Niantic Labs had discovered the powerful new behaviour-inducing and space-producing tool of gamification — challenges, rewards, progression, winning, stickability. Not only can the game drive people to a certain location where they would spend money, generating profit both for the location as well as themselves, but they can do so while accumulating data about how people play the game, where they go when they do, who else was there, and how long they stayed, ultimately producing a highly detailed archive of location-based behavioural surveillance. An archive that in real-time is able to capture, store, analyse, and present the everyday by instantly processing the present at such a speed that an array of possible futures — for those with ‘eyes’ to see — becomes perceptible: the algorithmicized futures of everyday life. This, contended Henri, was why the right to the city as the right to the production of space was perhaps now more relevant than ever. He’d never liked David Harvey’s interpretation of the right to the city. Harvey had failed to understand the right to the city as the right to the production of space, which must also be the right to ways of being in the world. He especially didn’t like how it had become one of the dominant interpretations. Like Harvey, Henri understood the right to the city to be no less than the material right that a certain group might exercise to a geographic locale, a neighbourhood, a building, or a right to the basic necessities such as water, food, shelter, education. But unlike Harvey’s interpretation, Henri understood it to be so much more. If the right to the city is the right to modes of being in the world then it must be a semiotic right to the production of meanings in and about space — the right to the signifier. It must also be an epistemological right, the right to the production of knowledge, an epistemic right — the right to discursive strategies were repressed and silenced ways of being known or knowing are contested. It must also be a phenomenological right — the right to perceptual regimes, the right to be perceived in space as bodies or ways of being that might otherwise be made invisible.

Charmander © Pokémon GO

Henri didn’t see Roland again, however the question of the right to the city and its continued usefulness amongst the complexities of our contemporary technological condition would continue to trouble him. This was especially so after he found out about #OhmHours.

#OhmHours was the connection that he had been looking for between Pokémon GO’s gamification of everyday life in the urban and what he detected was a shift in strategy for Google / Alphabet toward a more subtle deployment of various data-gathering technologies in the urban and more specifically in the home. For a while now Google / Alphabet had been forming strategic partnerships with city authorities through what they called their “urban innovation” company Sidewalk Labs. It was Sidewalk Labs’ vision that concerned Henri. In 2016 the company’s CEO Dan Doctoroff, speaking about their now-cancelled project in Toronto, articulated the company’s purpose as being about the replication of “the digital experience in physical space” through various data-gathering AI, machine learning and sensing technologies,“ including cameras and location data as well as other kinds of specialized sensors.” These would be funded “through a very novel advertising model….We can actually then target ads to people in proximity, and then obviously over time track them through things like beacons and location services as well as their browsing activity.”17Ibid., 230-231. After significant local opposition — which Henri liked to think of as Torontonians enacting the spirit of the right to the city — the project was cancelled. In a blog post announcing the cancellation of the project, Doctoroff emphasised the company’s continuation of the deployment of its technologies in the urban realm including a “digital master-planning tool” called Delve. Using a machine learning archive Delve generates millions of planning scenarios for a given site while evaluating the impact of each scenario. The outcome, according to Sidewalk Labs Senior Project Manager Violet Whitney, is “a set of options that best reflects a community’s priorities.” “Who gets to define what a community’s priorities are?” thought Henri. This sounded close to the production of what he called “abstract space” — space that “relies on the repetitive, on exchange and interchangeability, on reproducibility,” reducing differences to “induced differences: that is to differences internally acceptable to a set of ‘systems’ which are planned as such, prefabricated as such — and which as such are completely redundant.”18Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 396. What concerned Henri was the possibility that Delve could easily be used as a way to encourage developers to understand not only the basic effects of their proposals — massing, density, light — but also the possibility of including Sidewalk Labs’ data gathering technologies in their schemes. Technologies like OhmConnect.

Founded in 2014, OhmConnect aims to reduce energy use during times of peak demand. In December 2020, OhmConnect announced that it had received $100 million from Google / Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners for smart thermostats and sensors monitor energy use in the home. When energy demand peaks you receive a notification via SMS text or email. To save energy you turn off your lights, switch off the thermostat or turn off the electricity. This is what the company calls #OhmHours. Based on the same gamification principle used in Pokémon GO, customers are incentivised to reduce energy consumption for one to two hours a week. In return, points are earned which can be exchanged for cash via PayPal. Customers are further incentivised by something called a Prize #Ohmhour. Instead of earning points Prize #Ohmhours give you the chance to win a prize: “Energy star appliances, your energy bill paid for a year, and an energy efficient bathroom makeover!” Which according to OhmConnect is “Wow!”

#OhmHours points graph © OhmConnect

There are four ways to win a prize. Achieve Gold, Platinum or Diamond status by saving energy, beat your Prize #OhmHour goal, refer someone to OhmConnect who goes on to actively participate in #OhmHours, or connect your first-ever smart device, like a Google Nest Thermostat, Nest Mini, or a smart plug. This is what got Henri’s attention. To automate energy saving during #OhmHours, or earn more points and prizes, OhmConnect needs to be connected to a smart home device. In a recent blog post offering free Google Home Mini devices to new customers, the company implied that the service would not work properly otherwise: “Connecting your utility account enables us to see how much energy you reduce during #OhmHours …. Without this data, this would not be possible.” But what do they mean by “this data?” By connecting OhmConnect (a Google / Alphabet funded company) to a Google Smart Home device the definition of “this data” radically changes. Hidden within the terms and conditions of a single nest thermostat, which researchers at the University of London said is equivalent to reviewing nearly a thousand “contacts”, are privacy clauses that unless agreed to dramatically reduce the functionality of the device — privacy clauses that allow the product to be “always listening,” watching, sensing and detecting — the gamified incentivisation of data extraction and the production of domestic space.

Henri reflects

Is there hope for the right to the city in our contemporary technological condition, thought Henri. To what extent is the right to city possible in an age where everyday life has become the factory? What possibility for genuinely democratic epistemic, perceptual, semiotic, and material rights? What hope for the production of spaces of difference rather than abstract space in the archive of everyday life? He wasn’t sure that he had the answers yet but he maintained that:

A revolution that does not produce a new space has not realized its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions, or political apparatuses. A social transformation, to be truly revolutionary in character, must manifest a creative capacity in its effects on daily life, on language and on space.19Ibid., 54.

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