Smog: an Augmented Reality?

Hendrik-Jan Grievink
December 12th 2015

A few days ago, these images of iconic buildings in Beijing as they look with and without intense smog have been posted on Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media platforms. Interestingly, these images speak the visual language of augmented reality apps, in which an additional layer of information is projected on top of the perceptible environment as seen through the lens of a camera, usually on a hand-held device. But in this particular case, an interesting reversal seems to take place.

Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China, is known for many things, but not necessarily for its bright blue sky (although it surely exists). Especially in winter, pollution can swipe clouds of smog, covering the whole city in a grayish haze – the infamous Beijing Blur (a term coined by your humble editor during one of his visits to the PRC).

Earlier this week, the pollution reached such dramatic levels that, for the first time ever, a pollution red alert has been declared during what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Airpocalypse’. The grey, choking smog is a man-made phenomena yet clearly beyond human control, therefore an excrescence of our next nature. It could also be understood as an additional layer of information on top of our built environment, an augmented reality that says: dear humans, think again about how you want to build your habitats in the future. Some kind of accidental (and unintended) information design?

The images seen on this smartphone are clearly a higly mediated representation of reality. They show us another version of the same thing and in doing so, present themselves as the additional layer, the augmented reality on top of the non-augmented one. But in fact, they should be read as a substracted reality, a reality minus a layer of augmentation. Here, the smog is the augmented reality of next nature. But is this the reality we want?

Images posted on Weibo by user @飘在英伦

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