Photograph by Yoshikazu Tsuno—via AFP/Getty Images
By David Z. Morris
July 23, 2016

Director Oliver Stone appeared at San Diego Comic Con on Thursday to promote his film Snowden. While on the topic of surveillance, the panel, also including Zachary Quinto and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, was asked to opine on the Pokémon Go phenomenon.

Quinto offered a mild critique of gadget-obsession, but Stone’s reply was much more intense:

It’s not really funny, because . . . what’s happening is a new level of invasion . . . the search for profits is enormous here, enormous. Nobody has ever seen in the history of the world something like [former Niantic owner] Google. It’s the biggest, new, fastest growing business ever.

And they have invested a huge amount of money into, what surveillance is, data mining. They’re data mining every single person in this room for information as to what you’re buying, what you like, above all, your behavior.

So Pokémon Go kicks into that. It’s everywhere. It’s what some people call surveillance capitalism—it’s the newest stage. It’s not for profit at the beginning, but it becomes for profit in the end. Because it creates its own awareness, and it gets into everywhere in the world, until it manipulates our behavior, and we start to act like that, which has happened already quite a bit on the internet.

But you’ll see a new form of, frankly, a robot society, where they will know how you want to behave and they will make the mockup that matches how you behave, and lead you into another form of behavior.

It’s what they call totalitarianism.

 

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The data-gathering protocols and privacy implications of Pokémon Go have been the object of intense scrutiny since its release. Some versions of the game initially asked for extensive permissions on users’ devices, though those settings have since been scaled back. Senator Al Franken has asked developer Niantic to explain how and why it collected user data.

Stone, known for conspiracy-minded and anti-authoritarian films like Natural Born Killers and JFK, spells out the big worry underlying such questions in characteristically robust terms. Pokémon Go‘s gameplay is based on users physically moving around, which could become a huge new trove of information for advertisers looking to profile and target consumers. Observers called out those risks when Pokémon Go’s precursor game, Ingress, emerged in 2012, and one writer described that game as “an elaborate ruse” to motivate players to generate data for then-parent company Google (GOOG).

For more on Pokémon, watch our video.

But with Pokémon Go, the manipulation Stone is worried about has been much more immediate, widespread, and rudimentary than wonky futurists would probably have predicted. Rather than deploying some hidden algorithm that profiles users based on their movement, the game allows businesses to buy and place ‘lures,’ which generate Pokémon for users to catch. That has turned out to be a very, very effective marketing tool for retailers and other brick-and-mortar businesses.

So, while he’s not exactly the East German Stasi, Pikachu is clearly changing the way we act.

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