Digital life | Taiwan

Tears in the matrix

In Taiwan, the digital world is displacing the physical one. Even tradition is migrating to the cloud. Our author sets out in search of a lost era

Thousands of young people are standing in a square, looking at their cell phones. The windows of the skyscrapers in the background are brightly lit. It is night.

At a “Pokémon GO” event in Hong Kong. Using their cell phones, users search for small digital monsters which are displayed using “augmented reality”

I grew up in Taiwan in the 1990s, the era of the “Pokémon" game, a global phenomenon in which players caught monsters on game consoles and had to train to become masters of the “sport”.

That time still feels close and immediate - but at the same time really far away. Probably no one today would still be enthusiastic about a Gameboy game in which pixelated figures jump and wander around: always up and down, from left to right, trapped in the hermetic grid of the first digital world order in which millions of children and teenagers spent their leisure time in solitude back then.

Writing down these thoughts, I remember the video art work “How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational" by the German filmmaker Hito Steyerl. It says at one point, “Pixel resolution determines visibility." As a child I felt invisible, invisible to the outside world, hidden in the pixelated grid city of "Alabastia" where many of the Pokémon games found their virtual territory.

“At that time, the physical and digital worlds still clearly existed side by side, and the physical was still recognisable and familiar to us”

We first experienced the digital in the mode of the game. Not all at once, it was quite gradual. At that time, the physical and digital worlds still clearly existed side by side, and the physical was still recognisable and familiar to us. During this transitional period, I liked to play Monopoly.

I still remember sitting on the floor of my room, two dice in my hand, and awkwardly counting the game money. Today it's different: in the now eleventh version of the online version of Monopoly, you have to defeat the “Demon King": a rogue figure with an octopus head who travels unhindered across the board on a flying machine, almost like a hedge fund billionaire in a private jet, flying from place to place, from investment to investment.

Players team up via headsets, you can hear them shouting and swearing on YouTube videos. No one sits there quietly on the ground anymore, feeling the paper and plastic in their hands.

“We have long lived in the time of virtual space”

We have long lived in the time of virtual space and it is not difficult for me to imagine a near future where players, instead of sitting together in a room or even in a chat room, wear virtual reality goggles and team up against the demon king in the Monopoly world.

Maybe this brave new world won’t work so much differently from the global real estate market: digital reality will become a big game with virtual money and abstract counter-values that have long since dematerialised for the investors, the players. Perhaps then, in the game of Monopoly, it will only be the dice that at least suggest equal chances for all.

Through the game, we have been pulled from the real world into the digital one. And in the meantime, without us noticing, our world has become a digital one. Even Taiwan’s traditional culture and entertainment industry has set out to colonise the metaverse, whether it’s the Budaixi hand puppet show or the Koa-á-hì opera, whose performances and stories I used to watch as a child on wooden stages cobbled together at temple festivals.

Now you can watch them anywhere, anytime. Not like back then, when I cried my eyes out at the very real performances.

“People and destinies which, in traditional narratives, are only found in dreams - the fantasy figures and their audience - now meet in a shared world for which you only need virtual glasses”

Theatre has broken free from its rigid ritualisation, the seasons in which it was traditionally and exclusively presented. It wanted to, and probably had to, in order to keep up with our needs shaped by Netflix and Disney+. People and destinies that in these traditional narratives are only found in dreams – the fantasy figures and their audience, now meet in a shared world for which you only need virtual glasses. These glasses are getting lighter and lighter, so that at some point you forget to take them off again.

I recently heard that Apple, with the collaboration of Taiwanese engineers and programmers, is on the verge of developing a synchronous translator software. So before we can run up walls and catch bullets in flight like Neo in the “Matrix” movies, we will be able to overcome all language barriers and say anything and understand anything with a few seconds delay. But will the Taiwanese spoken to me by the AI be the same as I heard in my childhood? Will it seem familiar or foreign to me?

I remember that evening sitting alone at the big table, the pieces and plastic houses of the Monopoly game spilled out chaotically in front of me. Unconsciously, I was already very close to the border between the worlds then, the dawn of the real had long since begun.

“Unconsciously, I was very close to the border between worlds by then, the dawn of the real had long since begun”

I remember another evening many years later in a theatre hall in Taipei, where a renowned puppet troupe was performing fantastic scenes. Two screens on either side of the stage showed simultaneous texts in English and Chinese. It was even closer then, the border, the dawn. Only today do I understand my discomfort at that time. It was the feeling of irretrievable loss.

Today, Pokémon are hunted with smartphones in shopping malls and public places - and soon they will probably be “really” lurking in the grass of parks and in the shallows of state swimming pools, just waiting to be discovered by us. Isn't that kind of nice too? Even the first generation of Pokémon from my childhood will reappear and we can all meet the characters who became our friends back then and with whom we grew up.

Now, as in our earliest dreams, we can truly become masters of the game. At last, we can live without having to do without anything.

But wasn’t it precisely this idea of forgoing that gave things meaning in the first place?