Pokémon Go has created a new class of urban pedestrians, and as I watch them walking to hatch eggs or loitering around lured PokéStops, I have one overwhelming impression: Nineteenth-century Paris.
The nineteenth century was a slower-paced time, and if you had the luxury of being in the upper class, you enjoyed long stretches with nothing to do. In Paris, having nothing to do became a virtue in and of itself, and the fashionable solution was to go for a stroll around the city. Getting somewhere wasn’t the point, so the pace of the stroll was slow; for a while, it was fashionable to take your pet tortoise for a walk (or, in the case of poet Gerard de Nerval, your pet lobster). These Parisian amblers soon became an entire subculture, complete with a name: flâneur.
A flâneur was an idle stroller who wandered aimlessly around a city, usually alone. Not himself an object of observation, blending into the crowd with near-invisibility, he walked around looking without a plan or destination, enjoying looking at points of interest and whatever unexpected sights might present themselves. Sound familiar?
The flâneur was the essence of the everyman. Yet, as today, the nineteenth-century French image of an everyman did not apply equally to everyone. For starters, a flâneur had to live in the city. The country lacked the requisite people and points of interest for the flâneur to observe. Naturally, the domain of the flâneur was also restricted to the better parts of the city.
More importantly, the flâneur had to be the right gender, race, and social class. A woman wandering aimlessly around the city by herself sent an entirely different, and far less innocent, message. Even if she really was just out for a walk, she couldn’t fill the role of the unseen observer; she was likely to attract unwanted attention and would find amenities like restaurants closed to her, either by law or by social convention. A nonwhite man couldn’t be a flâneur either; his skin color made him an object of attention rather than an anonymous everyman. And a lower-class man who had the free time to stroll around was a good-for-nothing idler and troublemaker.
In Pokémon Go, we see those age-old cultural assumptions playing out once again. A free app is an everyman’s game, yet not everyone gets to participate in it equally. Both PokéStops and Pokémon are almost exclusively found in urban areas, even though it would make more sense to find Pokémon in wild areas, so rural dwellers effectively can’t play unless they drive long distances to the city.
Other groups of people face obstacles which are cultural, not geographical. Women may not feel safe wandering around a city alone and might feel the need to only play this fundamentally solitary game if they can get a group of people together. People of color, especially black men, don’t benefit from the assumption of innocent motives when they present themselves in public; there are already cases of police stopping them. Compounding the problem, certain Pokémon only come out at night.
Flâneur culture was a charming part of nineteenth-century history. We can benefit from a return to an understanding that we’re a part of the city we occupy, and there are more than just health benefits to going outside and simply experiencing the urban spaces around us. But we need to take steps to ensure that, this time, the flâneur’s experience is open to all.