Pokémon Go and the demon-haunted world

The world of mixed reality will be populated by countless 'spirits, demons, angels, ghosts and gods'

pokemon go

Photo illustration of a "Pidgey" Pokemon seen on the screen of the Pokemon Go mobile app.

Credit: Chris Helgren/Reuters

Are Pokémon monsters really "digital demons"?

In his 1995 book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Amazon price), Carl Sagan makes the case that science makes it impossible to believe in a world of invisible beings.

Now we can understand volcanic eruptions, for example, as natural phenomena caused by plate tectonics rather than the wrath of an angry volcano god lusting for human sacrifice.

Thanks, science!

But what science has destroyed, technology is creating anew.

The case for Pokémon monsters as 'demons'

Some religious leaders and pundits say Pokémon is dangerous. Why? Because it engages young people with spirits and demons. Well, the wrong spirits and demons, anyway.

The top clerical body of Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa 15 years ago against the original Pokémon card game. With the sudden popularity of Pokémon Go, the council recently renewed its edict. The Saudi objection, according to Reuters, is partly based on their belief that the game promotes polytheism. The council views Pikachu, Jigglypuff and Psyduck as false gods.

William J. Schnoebelen, of the With One Accord Ministries in Dubuque, Iowa, wrote years ago that he believes Pokémon are "demon-like" and that the game teaches kids the dangerous idea that "demons can be mastered and controlled."

A podcast for "Trunews" recently addressed the Pokémon phenomenon after a Pokémon Go enthusiast was seen playing the game near the organization's offices. ("Trunews" describes itself as the "world’s leading news source that reports, analyzes, and comments on global events and trends with a conservative, orthodox Christian worldview.") The Trunews podcast hosts described Pokémon characters as "beasts and spirits," "virtual cyber demons" and "digital demons." Trunews staff even downloaded the app and discovered that "inside the Trunews building is a virtual cyber demon," and they're not happy about it (The Pokémon conversation starts at 52:04 in the show.)

To be clear, religious commentators don't believe Pokémon characters are actual spirits, demons or gods. They just don't want children and the faithful obsessing over what they consider to be false ones.

Theologically, Pokémon are not demons. But what about psychologically?

Rise of the Pokémon-haunted world

Make no mistake: Pokémon Go is merely the first mainstream example of a mobile location-based mixed-reality product -- the first of thousands. This virtual world will one day be all around us, all the time.

Let's ponder the effect of this future on human psychology.

Children once were taught to believe in a parallel universe of unseen ghosts, demons, gods and spirits. Today's children will grow up in a world where they won't have to be taught that. They'll see, hear and interact with other beings in a virtual parallel universe.

Pokémon Go is just the beginning. The children's content industry will go nuts with mixed-reality games, stories and all manner of "invisible friends." Many of these will be location-based.

As children walk around, they'll see animated characters and virtual beings everywhere (including, inevitably, Ronald McDonald), as long as they're wearing their kid-friendly mixed-reality goggles.

As kids get older, they'll chat with 3D video avatars of their friends, which will appear in place right in front of them.

Adults will be attended to by virtual assistants that will take human form, but only we will see those assistants, following us around like ghosts and feeding us useful information all day. Every restaurant, park, building, business and historic point of interest will have virtual scenes and information available to anyone who wants to see and hear it.

Mixed reality is the future for experiential marketers. Having used up just about every physical surface available to hawk products, advertisers will aggressively populate the nonphysical world with content. You know, like "Jaws 19" marketing in Back to the Future II.

And here's an inevitability that will give you the chills: You know those impromptu memorials that grieving loved ones create by the side of the road where someone died, usually in a car accident? It's only a matter of time before they go virtual.

I believe shrines will be constructed in mobile location-based mixed-reality -- the same kind of technology used in Pokémon Go. Anyone who cares enough to download any of hundreds of future memorial apps will be able to see these memorials all over the place. They'll inevitably feature hologram-like videos of the deceased, standing there waving as ghostly apparitions.

Roadside memorials will be similar in concept to the ghosts conjured up by Edward Norton in the brilliant 2006 movie The Illusionist. Or maybe they'll be more like the Tupac hologram at Coachella Live in 2012.

Either way, the dead will rise and walk among us.

The ghost concept is part of a worldview called dualism, which is associated with the French philosopher René Descartes.

I suspect most living humans intuitively subscribe to dualism. The idea is that each person has two parts -- a physical body and a spirit, which is nonphysical. A "ghost" is produced, according to this idea, when the physical body dies and the spirit lingers.

Dualism requires the attendant belief that living humans have a separable "spirit" or "ghost." And so it will be in the Pokémon-haunted world -- the future of mixed- and augmented-reality.

When kids get home from school, they'll be able to see a hologram of mom reminding them that they have karate practice that afternoon and that dad will be picking them up at 4 p.m. Which raises a disturbing question: What's the difference between mom's mixed-reality hologram and mom's "spirit"?

For that matter, what's the difference between the roadside hologram of the deceased and a ghost?

Psychologically, precious little.

Augmented reality and mixed reality will usher into our conscious lives thousands of parallel universes sharing the same space that we inhabit as we move around in the physical world.

Our minds will map this unseen world and we'll carry with us an awareness of the virtual creatures and objects and information that exist at specific locations -- just as Pokémon Go players do now with the existence of Pokémon.

Children who are under the age of 10 today will grow up with an intuitive awareness of these parallel worlds and their numerous virtual inhabitants.

The world of the future will be just like the world of the past: haunted by all manner of spirits, demons, angels, ghosts and gods -- oh, and a lot of useful information, as well.

Science killed the demon-haunted world. Now technology is bringing it back.

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