A couple of weekends ago, while on a trip to Paris visiting family, I walked through Esplanade de la Défence as I normally do whenever I am in Paris. My brother in law and his family live there, so I always make it a point to walk through the plaza, which I always think is so out of scale, despite the scale of the towers overshadowing it above. I always think, it is so big - will it ever look and feel filled with people? I have walked through that plaza dozens of times, and many days in summer, it gets quite crowded. But because of its scale, it seems to get crowded in enclaves and gets emptied out in others. It is quite hard to get the sense of its fullness. This time, while still never really full, something about it felt different. There seemed to be large crowds of people walking through it, and clustering throughout it, for no apparent reason - at least it seemed that way at first. It was a little bit after noon, and no event seemed to be taking place, but the crowd inhabiting it felt rather different than usual. Upon looking closely at people, they all had something in common: they were all oblivious of the physical world taking place around them and fixated on their phones and tablets. While they were present in the physical space, just as I was, they were quite disengaged with it or with each other, and they all seemed to have their necks down as if in a ritual. People from all ages, young, old, families with children, people with multiple phones. As it turns out, it was I that was oblivious of the altered world they were experiencing. Apparently they were all looking for Pokémons!
I initially felt quite amazed by the power that a phone application had to engage people in the physical realm, bringing them out into the public space, and altering their experience in it. They were seeing something in the physical space, through their screens in a cyber world. By now we have all read the articles on Pokémon's festivals, and how they gather large numbers of people in space to look for cyber figures; and yes, yes, I have randomly seen people looking for Pokémons, but I never quite experienced it at this scale, as an outsider. There are probably bigger events that take place, but the size of this one was enough to get me really thinking about the effect of augmenting reality in public space. People collect in public spaces for different causes, they collect to make a statement, to protest, to attend a concert, to watch a movie, to hang out with friends, to dance, to shop, to play, to eat...etc. There is always some form of engagement with either one another or with something else physical taking place, whether a band singing, or a movie playing, or a person selling...etc. Their act of gathering is collective, and there is some form of collective engagement. In this case, this group of people collected to look for Pokémons. It was an act, collective and disengaged. They were collectively engaged with their individual screens, collectively disengaged with the world around them, but engaged with an augmented reality, taking place that only each of them could see through their devices, like a bionic form of vision.
I really began to question: What does this mean for public spaces? With the increase in technology, virtual reality and augmented reality, our public spaces will start to take on a different, form, won't they? Shouldn't they? What does it mean to bring people together through collective acts of disengagement? How will it affect the future of public space design, and what social dimension will it take on?
I further started wondering: Are we continuously disengaging with the city, and is what is real and physically present completely uninteresting? Are we losing touch with the physical and the social worlds around us?
As an urbanist with strong feelings about urban space and public space, the effect of an app to create a presence of a large group of people that engaged with the space and through it, I found exhilarating. But I also found myself face to face with a bittersweet reality - one that contradicted itself: people gathered in the public realm, but not to engage with each other. They gathered to engage individually with their devices, and disengage with each other.
We cannot ignore this as urban space and public space designers. Perhaps it is time to rethink what we do, to incorporate these two forms of simultaneous realities, the physical and the cyber worlds, in a way that balances the agendas of engagement and disengagement. Perhaps in incorporating such contradiction, we could uncover ways to empower public spaces in our cities.