Technological Redlining

As the phenomenon known as Pokémon Go has rapidly established itself as the latest distraction (or obsession) for the growing numbers of people with GPS-enabled smart phones, we have begun to see some of the surprises and challenges that often accompany new technologies (or new uses of existing technologies). And while some of these issues are interesting only in their triviality, others have raised more serious questions about our norms, our values, and the structures (visible and invisible) that we have erected (explicitly or tacitly) as our society has progressed.
Last week, Christopher Huffaker of McClatchy published a story that looked at Pokémon Go locations, known as "pokestops" or "pokemon gyms," virtual game-related environments tied to real-world geolocations. While some cities and neighborhoods were teeming with such virtual locations, other areas were devoid of them. In rural areas and small towns, for example, fewer Pokémon locations can be seen as correlative to the lower population densities. But even in and around some cities, people have noticed that pokestops are also harder to find in neighborhoods made up mostly of minority families, even though the population density is no lower than in other parts of the same city where pokestops are plentiful. 
Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, created the real-world locations of their game's pokestops and pokemon gyms from their previous GPS-based game, Ingress, which incorporated virtual "portals" in a similar fashion to Pokémon Go locations. These gelocations were created for Niantic through crowdsourcing, where users mapped the coordinates of historical markers and sites in their community and uploaded this information to a shared database. The users who collected and uploaded this information were mostly male, and tended to "skew old," according to the original owner of the database. Niantic augmented these data by asking Ingress users--who tended to be male, English-speaking, and wealthy--to submit sites of their own. 
The end result of this map was far from representative of the real communities these virtual sites lived within. As one Pokémon Go player put it, the sites were selected "by people with smartphones, tech knowledge, and spare time," which leaves out poorer segments of the population, including many minority communities, who may not have the spare time or money to spend on games like Ingress and Pokémon Go. The end result is a very close mapping between Pokémon locations and wealthier, whiter neighborhoods--redlining via augmented reality. 
A reasonable response to all of this might be: So what? It's just a faddish game that is likely to be forgotten as soon as the next form of tech entertainment arrives. Granted, making it harder for people in some neighborhoods to play Pokémon Go is small potatoes considering the much more pressing issues facing our poor and minority communities. But the big picture is a starker one. Just as food deserts, underfunded schools and after-school programs, crumbling infrastructure, and a dearth of real employment possibilities all contribute to the cycle of poverty that affects so many of our vulnerable communities, lack of access to technology plays an increasingly important role. 
This problem starts with--but is not limited to--the lack of access to the Internet. In 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression submitted a report stating that "there should be as little restriction as possible to the flow of information via the Internet," since it "has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of expression" and boosts economic, social, and political development. The availability of affordable, reliable, high-speed Internet access is a civil rights issue. Many 21st century employment opportunities, for example, allow for working from one's own home. This opens up possibilities for many who cannot afford a car or who live in areas where a commute is unsustainable. The only catch: high-speed Internet access is a prerequisite. 
But the problem only starts with access to the Internet. Some of the current fringe benefits provided by some technologies, such as increased privacy, enhanced security, and more frequent updates, all tend to be found in higher-end technologies that are often unaffordable to those with limited incomes. Online courses being made available from some of the world's best universities often require bandwidth and equipment beyond the reach of many. And public libraries, who often are the only sources of Internet access and technology to poor communities, are chronically underfunded, especially in minority neighborhoods. 
As William Gibson once said, "The future is here--it's just not evenly distributed." This is the world we currently occupy. Better deployed, our technologies could be offering our most vulnerable communities a path toward breaking the cycle of poverty. But instead we are allowing our technology to contribute to and reinforce the structural system of inequality our nation (and world) has been struggling with for generations. Yes, Pokémon Go is just another silly smartphone game. But through its popularity and usage patterns, we can see the very real boundaries of poverty and racism that continue to be reinforced when we should be using our technologies to dismantle them. 


Add new comment