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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Invasion of the Cute Monsters

A strange serendipity in the Juno space mission and Pokémon Go.

Written by Rohit Gupta |
Updated: July 31, 2016 10:05:17 am
Flight path: Meganeura fossil. Insects developed flight 400 million years ago. Flight path: Meganeura fossil. Insects developed flight 400 million years ago.

Two phenomenon of a seemingly unrelated constitution seized the global imagination this month. One was the Juno spaceprobe anchoring into an orbit around the gas-giant Jupiter, and the other was Pokémon Go. On a deeper level, disconcerting similarities can be observed in them.

As mankind threw its tentacles farther into the solar system, Juno happily tweeted through the pregnant ordeal like a slightly annoying teenager. A space mission like this stretches the limits of human engineering, as any astro-enthusiast will be quick to point out. More than that, if you’re not easily given to enthusiasm, it always highlights the fact that a military-corporate complex controls outer space. An ordinary terrestrial citizen has no access to God’s infinite vistas — the very idea is considered outrageous.

Thus, it was not humanity that landed on the moon in 1969. That romantic view has been replaced by the bare facts — only a certain elite has access to big science and particularly space. Therefore, Juno merely reminded some of us that countries really are (and indeed the whole planet is) — in some sense, a giant prison. If the Earth is like Alcatraz, the only man who can escape this rock in his private boat is Elon Musk.

Meanwhile, a foraging game called Pokémon Go, based around cute, alien insects, tore through the frail fabric of urban reality. This reality is under tremendous pressure at the moment — from the aftershocks of Brexit, the unabated and pan-geographical onslaughts of ISIS, to the alarming possibility of Donald Trump becoming the President of US. This state of globalised terror is reflected strongly in our cities — in the way public spaces are throttled and social interactions are standardised through consumerism.

An augmented-reality that redefines the dynamics of public spaces, or adds a new layer to urban life can be the perfect escape from this dark junction of history. The innocent hunt for virtual Pokémons has already taken some dramatic turns — a girl found a dead body in her neighbourhood, the rare creature called Vaporeon appeared in New York’s Central Park, leading to a stampede.

In a recall of the hunter-gatherer mode of life, the game also brings to mind Situationists like Guy Debord. They were afraid (and rightly so) that capitalism was slowly trapping the cities in rigid patterns of behaviour. For example, in Mumbai or Delhi, social interaction tends to gravitate around the eating and drinking of stuff in restaurants. This behaviour slowly begins to dictate what we eat, how we travel, who we end up in bed with, and who we become as people. “We are bored in the city, we really have to strain to still discover mysteries on the sidewalk billboards,” wrote Ivan Chtcheglov in his manifesto, Formulary For A New Urbanism.

A Situationist strategy against this all-consuming urban miasma was the dérive — a sort of aimless drifting and wandering that challenged these patterns. Jeff Sparrow of Overland magazine notes the same peculiarity about Pokémon Go: “The game’s buggy. The app empties your battery and it eats your data and its servers are constantly overloaded. Yet for all its flaws, it manages — at least temporarily — to set you wandering a city landscape that’s been re-enchanted, a place where monsters appear in everyday streets and where familiar landmarks serve new purposes according to the logic of a different universe”.

The fact that Pokémon is centered around insects may also provide the ecological awareness that is missing in modern urbanity. However, the geographic extent of that awareness may be limited by the game to certain “safe” environments. As the adventurer Wayne Chambliss was quick to point out in some tweets, musing: “Are there any extremophile pokemons in the deep sea vents, or haunting hydrocarbon pockets of the deep hot biosphere? Are there cave walls covered in gleaming microbial pokemats?”

One also suspects that collective consciousness is training us through these diversions for some catastrophic turn in the near future — perhaps, a global famine driven by climate change, where hunting and eating up insects would become an act of survival instead of a sport. Or a whole new level of the game where nomadic caravans (in fleets of Uber) must identify and destroy swarms of locust-sized Pokémons, as they migrate constantly across vast tropical latitudes and perhaps across planets.

Our automobiles mimic the design of beetles; and helicopters remind us of the bumblebee. Insects evolved flight 400 million years ago and we’re still in an infant stage. But by being the longest solar-powered journey made in space, the Juno probe highlights a missing alley in the timeline of evolution.

The kingdom of plants had known this trick all along, that the highest form of solar worship is photosynthesis. The pea aphid (Acyrthosiphon pisum) is a rare insect that seems to harvest sunlight directly for metabolism. Why didn’t more species evolve to harvest solar power directly? One could then imagine a new breed of sunlight-drinking arthropods, on the brink of the atmosphere, riding jetstreams and circumpolar highways, preparing to make the first interplanetary flight by an insect.

Rohit Gupta is an independent historian of science and mathematics. He tweets as @fadesingh.

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