All weekend, I’ve fielded texts from people who are despairing about the state of the country. Is some kind of unsolvable civil war developing between police and people, even between races? And how can politics solve this when the candidates seem to have every interest in actually exploiting and even exacerbating the problem? The opinion pages overflowed with expressions of deep sadness and warnings that, once again, the center is no longer holding. The nation is falling apart.
What could possibly be the solution here? These problems seem so deep as to be insoluble.
Oddly, the answer might be in your pocket. Through our smartphones and the app economy, we are being given tools to allow us to reach the world and connect with others in ways that were previously unimaginable. This is not a political solution; in fact, it might be a solution precisely because it is not political.
Poetically, it was exactly this weekend — following so much terrible news and after a season in which two-thirds of Americans report being alarmed by their coming presidential choices — that millions downloaded and played one of the most delightful digital apps to yet appear: Pokémon GO.
It has broken all records on the numbers of downloads in such a short time. In only a matter of a few days, the mobile app had nearly as many real-time users as Twitter. As a term, Pokémon is top trending. If you follow your Facebook home feed, you know all about this. If any application could be described as having swept the nation, this was it.
How can a silly game lift up our hearts and give rise to the better angels of our nature?
People were holding their phones, playing the game, laughing and moving around. Crucially, people were meeting each other with something in common — people of all races, classes, religions; none of it mattered. They found new friends and came together over a common love.
It was absolutely beautiful to watch. With an element of fantasy and the assistance of marvelous technology, we experienced the common humanity of our neighbors and strangers in our community. This kind of experience is key for building a social consensus in favor of universal human rights.
Market-driven technology is not some invading imposition that makes people change the way they live without their permission. Instead it seeks to serve us and make our lives better; that’s its whole purpose and ethos. In the whole course of the digital revolution that began some twenty years ago, we’ve seen the gradual blurring between the physical and digital realms. What was created through code started to become just as substantial and meaningful in our lives as anything that took up physical space and we could touch.
We see this not only in games but also in health care, in finding our way around cities, in opening businesses, in driving, in dating, and in millions of life activities. Crucially, such apps are available to everyone regardless of life station. They spread capital and productivity across all classes of people, and more and more of our lives are migrating to this realm to escape the frustrating limits of physical space.
Mobile apps like Pokémon GO can of course be dismissed as just another game, distractions that do not address serious life problems like race conflict and the tit-for-tat killings between police and citizens. But actually there is more going on here.
A few weeks ago, Facebook rolled out its live video functionality for all users — and keep in mind that this is free for everyone on the planet to use. When a police officer shot Philando Castile with four bullets during a routine traffic stop, his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds took out her phone and live streamed one of the most dramatic and powerful moments yet seen on the subject of police power.
It shocked the consciences of millions. Had private enterprise not been there, the world would not have known. Now that we do, change is made more likely.
That’s the serious side of technology while Pokémon GO represents the delightful side. They work together, each making a valuable contribution to enabling a better life. What they have in common is that both are non-state solutions to crying human needs. No politician in history has ever achieved so much for the cause of human rights and human happiness.
Jeffrey Tucker is director of digital development for the Foundation for Economic Education. He is also the founder of Liberty.me, a research fellow at the Acton Institute and a policy adviser of the Heartland Institute.