What Pokémon Go teaches us about society

508800-pokemon-go-1

Jan Blommaert 

The summer of 2016 was full of sports. There was the European football championship, almost instantly followed by an epic Tour de France and then spilling over into the Olympic Games. All of these were global competitive events. But the competition that wove itself through all of this, and was equally global, was entirely different. It consisted of millions of people all over the world going out in the streets with their smartphones ready, hunting for Pokémon cartoon creatures. Thé mega-event of the summer of 2016 was Pokémon Go.

Pokémon started as a game in 1995 and became very popular when it became a manga-style children’s TV series around the turn of the century. In my house, you will still find dozens of Pokémon merchandising items from that era, as my then-small children were greatly knowledgeable about nearly every aspect of the strange world of creatures, trainers and battles. Now in their early twenties, they took to the streets this summer to hunt and collect the same creatures. A comatose fantasy world had been brought back to life; Nintendo shares went crazy on the stock market.

The thing was considered weird by many. Flocks of people, staring at their smartphone screens, would walk and congregate, apparently aimlessly, in streets, parks, shopping malls, pubs, museums and private backyards; when overheard, they produced a cryptic jargon that could trigger smiles, jealous faces, and shrieks of amazement from others; at times they would stop, point their device in some direction – where I didn’t see a thing – and subsequently groaned “yessss!”. The news brought reports of traffic accidents caused by Pokémon enthusiasts, and YouTube showed clips (“epic fail” style) of people crashing into obstacles while concentrating on the events on their smartphone screens. Mayors and Police chiefs contacted Nintendo and called for restrictions on the placing of Pokémons in certain zones, and Brussels Airport politely requested the company to disable Pokémons on the airport tarmac and in the security screening area. The hype was seen by many as disruptive, silly, pointless and irritating. Like any hype, one supposes.

Pokémon go was disruptive. This new-generation, “enhanced” version of the two decades old video- and card game broke down the boundaries of the space within which so many contemporary forms of hi-tech popular culture are being practiced and within which they are contained. This space is that of the “virtual” world – more concretely, a screen. People engage with such forms of culture while sitting behind a screen in long uninterrupted bursts of activity, quietly and often invisible for all others who do not participate in it. Such forms of culture are, thus, spatiotemporally quite effectively niched. Parents would complain that their children spend long hours doing “something” behind that screen, while the nature of the practices their children are involved in is poorly understood, or indeed greatly unknown to them.

What the little smartphone app enabling Pokémon Go did, was to take such practices out of their usual spatiotemporal niches and bring them elsewhere, into the “real”, offline world, the public spaces where participants now mingle with nonparticipants – members of one culture encountering members of another culture, in a terrain now claimed by both. Going offline does not mean that the game is now shared by all; the boundary crossed is just that of the spatiotemporal seclusion typical of such forms of culture. But as I said, participants point their smartphones to something which remains invisible for nonparticipants, and get very excited by the presence of creatures that do not exist in the world of those who did not download the Pokémon Go app.

So here is the sociological and anthropological significance of Pokémon Go: it makes visible – a rare occasion – and offers a glimpse of a cultural world that coexists with other cultural worlds, and which usually remains out of the gaze of the unengaged bystander. This cultural world, I said it, is often called “virtual”. I consider that an epic misnomer, and Pokémon Go demonstrates it:  there is nothing “virtual” about millions of people all over the world performing cultural practices by means of a small hi-tech item, in public spaces not designed for such practices. It is a lesson in the complex cultural arrangements that characterize our world. Those who preferred to remain in denial – those who call it “virtual” – received an in-your-face warning that our society contains numerous communities, some small, some very large, of people engaging in practices not “normally” part of the cultural-canonical repertoire. We know these people, but we didn’t know the cultural registers they practiced. Or we believed they were not really, really real.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, Pikachu and Bulbasaur are really really, real. So if you meet them, have some courtesy.

 

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Commentary: Mobility, contexts, and the chronotope

kpopheart

Jan Blommaert

(Commentary to a special issue of Language in Society on “Metapragmatics of Mobility”, eds. Adrienne Lo & Joseph Park)

I must emphatically thank Adrienne Lo and Joseph Park for inviting me to comment on the exceptionally insightful collection of essays presented in this volume. The essays, I believe, mark and instantiate the increasing maturity of what has become a sociolinguistics of globalization in which the various, highly complex challenges caused by mobility are being productively addressed.

Of these challenges, perhaps that to our established notions of “context” might be one of the most pressing ones. Rigorous and disciplined attention to context is what separates social and cultural approaches to language from formal linguistics; it is the thing that defines disciplines such as sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, pragmatics and discourse analysis. And an increasing awareness of mobility as a crucial ontological feature of “language” – or more broadly, meaning making – in today’s world goes hand in hand with an awareness that something is wrong with our well-weathered mainstream conceptualizations of “context”: they are too simple and fail to do justice to the complexities we observe. All papers in this volume can be read as illustrations and expressions of that unease. I propose to explore Bakhtin’s concept of “chronotope” as a possibly fertile and certainly more precise tool for addressing these challenges (cf. Blommaert 2015a).

Let me first define the scope of the issue; two preliminary remarks may be useful for what follows.

  • One: in a sociolinguistic approach to meaning making, context cannot ontologically be separated from language (or other semiotic modalities), for it is a fundamental part of the meanings constructed in language; context is what turns language in a “social fact” (to quote Durkheim).
  • Two: notions of context are built on, and invoke, imaginations of the social world and of the place of social actors and activities therein. So context is always more than just an operational-analytical category: it involves an ideological a priori (which, as we shall see, is always a moral a priori).

From that perspective, two things can be observed – and I regret that space restrictions prevent me from entering into detail here. One, context remains quite poorly integrated in several branches of the social and cultural study of language (Silverstein 1992; see for a review Blommaert 2005, chapter 3). And two, the social imagination underlying many forms of usage of context appears to be “sedentary”: context is local, stable, static and given. Obviously, a notion of context adjusted to mobility needs to transcend this and stress its continuously evolving, multiscalar and dynamic aspects, as well as the intrinsic unity of context and action.

There are several available building blocks. John Gumperz (1982) never stopped reminding us that context is always contextualization, and Aaron Cicourel (1967; 1992) insisted that context was always multifiliar, overlapping and scaled. In addition, the union between context and action,we now realize, is metapragmatics: language-ideologically ordered indexicals are at the core of the dialectics of contextualized meaning making (Silverstein 2003; Agha 2007; also Blommaert 2005). The papers in this volume have all drawn extensively on these sources. The complication offered by mobility as a given has been well phrased by Lo and Park in their introduction (this volume): in an era of physical and technological mobility, people need to navigate multiple worlds. They cannot any longer be viewed as sedentary members of a (single) closed, integrated and stable Parsonian community and are subject to the normative judgments in vigor in very different places among very different people – simultaneously.

This is where the chronotope might come in handy. Recall that Bakhtin (1981) defined the chronotope as a timespace configuration – an “objective” bit of context, one could say – which was characterized, and joined, by ideological, “subjective” features. Specific times and places placed conditions on who could act, how such actions would be normatively structured, and how they would be normatively perceived by others. A knight in a medieval legend, for example, is expected to be chivalric and inspired by the noblest of motives, and his concrete actions would be expected to emanate such characteristics; if not, he’s not a “real” knight. Bakhtin, thus, offered us a heuristic unit in which timespace configurations are simultaneously orders of indexicalities, and in which the multiplicity of such units is a given of the dialogical and heteroglossic reality of social life. Chronotope, thus, is a “mobile” context enabling not just precise ethnographic description but explanatory potential as well.

We begin to see, for instance, how physical and social mobility operate synergetically – moving across timespace configurations involves a reshuffling of the social and cultural capital required for identity construction, prestige and power, through what Hymes called “functional relativity” (1996: 44-45). It explains, thus, why forms of speech indexically anchored in one timespace configuration – that of the colonial past, for instance – can be re-entextualized into another, in ways that involve entirely different indexical valuations. We can observe this in the essays by Vigouroux and Collins, where the indexical valuations of the speech forms deemed emblematic of the colonial (racialized) past dance up and down once they are moved into different timespace configurations. A descriptive stance – observing a particular accent in students’ speech (Collins), or a grammatical pattern perceived as “substandard” (Vigouroux) – is turned into a racialized-historical stereotype in ways described by Agha (2007) whenever such an accent is produced “elsewhere”. Mobility, we can see, involves indexical re-ordering, or to be more precise, indexical restratification.

Observe that such restratifications have an outspokenly moral character. The ideological load attributed to specific forms of social action turns them into moralized behavioral scripts normatively attached to specific timespace configurations. The essays in this volume are replete with examples in which judgments of speech are formulated in terms of locally articulated claims to legitimacy, i.e. in terms of a projection of behavioral features onto “the right to do X, Y or Z here and now”. Chun’s analysis of perceived mispronunciations of Korean names by “foreign” fans illustrates this: such fans are “not from here”, and their actions are therefore subject to normative judgments “from here”. Being “(not) from here” becomes an absolute normative benchmark: a non-negotiable one that offers no bail. Ideologies of correctness and standardization, we can see, are chronotopically organized (cf. Silverstein 1996). They require a distinction between “from here” and “not from here” that can be activated as a chronotope of normalcy: here-and-now, “normal” behavior is X, Y and Z, and this is an absolute, “ideal” benchmark. And Park’s excellent essay shows how people who are by definition “not from here” – expatriate executives – negotiate and renegotiate the issues caused by mobility itself, shaping a separate chronotope of normalcy among themselves (transnational business, after all, is a distinct “world” in Lo and Park’s terms).

Obviously, such distinctions are identity distinctions – indexical order is always a template for identity, and identities are chronotopically grounded, by extension (Blommaert & De Fina 2016). Park’s managers construct themselves in their elaborate metapragmatic discourses of mobility; Chun’s Korean fans ascribe identities to the mispronouncing transnational ones; Collins’ teachers construct their pupils in similar ways, and the discursive pathways analyzed by Vigouroux lead to a projected stereotypical identity of Sub-Saharan Africans drawn across timespace from the colonial imagination. Note that in each of these cases, moral judgments constitute the moment of identity-shaping. The “corrections” offered by Chun’s Korean fans come, as said earlier, with judgments of legitimacy, and legitimacy extends from minute features of language into categorical identity diacritics. Moralized behavioral scripts are the on-the-ground realities of indexicality, and thus of identity-making. Typically, those who are “not from here”can achieve “approximations” of the normative “standard” order (Vigouroux); they can therefore also only approximate the “standard”identities. “Standard” and “correctness” are inevitably evaluative judgments, and they fit into a package of profoundly moral-evaluative notions such as “true”, “authentic”, “real” and so forth. Language-ideological literature is replete with such terms, and in public debates on such topics one continually trips over collocations between terms such as “correct” and “true”, and “(not) from here”. Collins’ delicate analysis of racialized enregisterment in South-African schools can serve as a textbook example of this.

Lo and Choi’s case study of an internet debate on the “truth” in the story of the Korean rapper Tablo brings together several of the points mentioned here, and lends profile to another one. The critics who doubt rapper Tablo’s educational credentials (using, unsurprisingly, details of his English “accent” as evidence) draw on a chronotope of normalcy: normally, one can’t finish degree work at a US institution at the rhythm claimed by Tablo; normally, his English should be immaculate of he’s taken a degree in the US, normally he shouldn’t sound like “us” after his US-based education, and so forth. They base themselves on a “normal” behavioral script, adherence and deviance of which are profoundly moralized. The data are bursting with moral-evaluative statements that are simultaneously statements of identity ascription, and driven by the “from here-not from here” diacritic that defines globalized mobility.

But there is more, and Lo & Choi’s paper shows it in full glory. The general chronotope of normalcy, we observe, can be broken down into an infinite number of micro-chronotopes specifying the indexical order of specific bits of behavior (Tablo’s performance in a talkshow, his translation of a poetry book, and so forth). So we see a fractal connection across differently scaled chronotopes, in which the order of indexicality from the highest scale (the chronotope of normalcy) is carried over into microscopic and infinitely detailed lower-scale ones. We see, if you wish, chronotopes nested within chronotopes, with specific points and general ones interacting nonstop. Goffman’s “frames within frames” (1974) are never far away here, of course, but it is good to remind ourselves that “frames” are, in themselves, chronotopically organized.

All the essays in this volume thematize such cross-scalar connections, and call them, for instance, “discursive pathways” (Vigouroux), “re-entextualizations” (Lo & Choi), or “interdiscursivity” (Park). Such terms remain useful, and understanding them as descriptors of cross-chronotope processes of uneven (scaled) quality can deepen their analytical force and make them far more precise than the “cross-contextual” label we now stick onto them. Such connections – the “polycentricity” of communicative environments, in short (Blommaert, Collins & Slembrouck 2005) – are inevitable in the sociolinguistics of mobility, and we have to be able to get a more precise grasp of them. This leads me to a final, brief, remark.

In the essays by Chun and by Lo & Choi, the internet, or (to use an epic misnomer) the “virtual world” is the context of the data offered. The analyses are outstanding; but we should not overlook the fact that the online context is the least well understood one in our fields of study, and that a careful investigation of how this context shapes and determines online social action remains to be undertaken. We know that it has exceptional scalar qualities (think of virality), and that, as a chronotope, it stands in complex polycentric relationships to “offline” ones (see Blommaert 2015b; Varis & Blommaert 2015). But the exact characteristics of these phenomena await profound focused study. Note that all the subjects discussed in the essays in this volume live in the internet age, and that, consequently, we can assume that all have been influenced by the circulation of cultural material enabled by such technologies. Precise how this influence plays out in their actual day-to-day discourses, how it modifies them and grants them yet another dimension of metapragmatic mobility, raising new issues of polycentric normativity, looks like a worthwhile topic for a follow-up volume. It is to the credit of the present volume that such fundamental questions emerge, and I repeat my sincere thanks to the editors for affording me the chance to engage with them.

References

Agha, Asif (2007) Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan (2005) Discourse: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail (1981) The Dialogical Imagination. Austin TX: University of Texas Press.

Blommaert, Jan (2015a) Chronotopes, scales and complexity in the study of language and society. Annual Review of Anthropology 44: 105-116.

Blommaert, Jan (2015b) Meaning as a nolinear effect: The birth of cool. AILA Review 28: 7-27.

Blommaert, Jan & Anna De Fina (2016) Chronotopic identities: On the timespace organization of who we are. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 153. Tilburg: Babylon.

Blommaert, Jan, Jim Collins & Stef Slembrouck (2005) Polycentricity and interactional regimes in ‘global neighborhoods’. Ethnography 6/2: 205-235.

Cicourel, Aaron (1967) The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice. New York: Wiley.

Cicourel, Aaron (1992) The interpenetration of communicative contexts: Examples from medical encounters. In Alessandro Duranti & Charles Goodwin (eds.) Rethinking Context: 291-310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, Erving (10974) Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New Tork: Harper & Row.

Gumperz, John (1982) Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hylmes, Dell (1996) Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice. London: Taylor & Francis.

Silverstein, Michael (1992) The indeterminacy of contextualization: when is enough enough? in Peter Auer & Aldo DiLuzio (eds.) The Contextualization of Language: 55-76. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Silverstein, Michael (1996) Monoglot “standard” in America: Standardization and metaphors of linguistic hegemony. In Donald Brenneis & Ronald Macaulay (eds.) The Matrix of Language: 284-306. Boulder Co: Westview Press.

Silverstein, Michael (2003) Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language & Communication 23: 193-229.

Varis, Piia & Jan Blommaert (2015) Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures. Multilingual Margins 2/1: 31-45.

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The history of global information networks: some notes

Jan Blommaert 

Just a few notes, triggered by the amazingly informative book by Donald Read, The Power of News: The History of Reuters (Oxford University Press 1992).

First, observe the continuity of old structures and infrastructures of globalized information distribution. The following map (Read, p68-69) shows the telegraph sea cable infrastructure in the 1880s.

map of telegraph cables, 1880s Read 1992 The Power of News 68 69 Oxford UP

Now look at the map of Internet sea cables in 2012.

SeaCableHi (1)

With the exception of the cable infrastructure in the Pacific area, the map shows nearly identical patterns. Telegraph cables in the Pacific were built in 1902-03, and from that moment onwards the global infrastructure for information distribution acquires its present pattern.

Second: the issue of volume and density. Reuters was the market leader of its time in the field of news and information distribution, and the company consistently used  (and sometimes created) the most advanced technologies. Yet, the volume of actual words was restricted by factors such as cost-per-sign and the clumsiness of morse code for communicating larger texts. Reuters used a code system by means of which longer phrases could be condensed to one or a handful of words, to be “translated” by Reuters agents at the receiving end of the telegraph line. In 1914, the volumes of words per month sent worldwide was as follows (Read, p.71).

map of density of Reuters traffic 1914 Read 1992 The Power of News 68 69 Oxford UP

Important stations such as Bombay and Cape Town received a monthly volume of 10,000-12,500 words of “news” (a Bulletin), possibly complemented by a 9,000 word volume of dispatches. This is the volume of two academic papers per month. Less important stations had to rely on a lot less – from a few hundreds of words to a few thousands.

Evidently, this volume (for which receivers paid handsome amounts of subscription money) has been blown away by contemporary social media – this is trivial. Just consider the volumes of daily traffic of just one of the various social media currently available, Twitter.

ScreenHunter_67 Apr. 29 11.23

More interesting is to see that the same center-periphery models that were already present over a century ago are simply replicated in the here-and-now. We have seen how the Internet sea cabling patterns mirror those in place by the end of the 19th century. The global Internet traffic map of 2010 confirms this:

global-traffic-map-2010-x

And we can see similar patterns of center and periphery when we look at a map showing us the year in which parts of the globe started using Twitter. I take this map from an interesting source.

figure18 when join Twitter center periphery

The parts of the world that were connected by telegraph cable in the late 19th century join Twitter earlier than the more peripheral parts.

So while speed, volume and density of information distribution have definitely increased during the Internet revolution, these differences are grafted upon old structures and infrastructures, about a century old.