Another joy of the day was following Stuart Brown, the magister ludi of play studies, whose book Play is the best guide to the multidisciplinary nature of play scholarship that you could want. I spent an hour or so with him and his lovely family, trading anecdotes like crazy. Though I doubt I'll beat his about the great Irish mythologist Joseph Campbell, who - at a dinner party with Stuart, Jonas Salk and the physicist Murray Gellman - began to recite Finnegans' Wake, from memory, for 20 minutes solid. At which point, a hitherto sceptical Gellman had to murmur, "you're a genius".
Here's my slides from the day (an underline usually means it's a hotlink to a source or article, so please explore). The Twitter account for ECI is here, and the hashtag for the conference #eciglobal. Anyone who attended and wants to know more about the points make, please don't hesitate to mail me at the contact address on the menu above.
Amazing what access to a free Glasgow public-library data-base can dig up... As my curator of Nesta's FutureFest comes to a shuddering conclusion (28-29 September, 2013, Shoreditch Town Hall London, be there!), I'm reprinting a piece I wrote for the Guardian Weekend section in 1993, under the editorship of Deborah Orr, exploring my (and our) perennial fascinating with robots.
Over twenty years ago, now - and I'm surprised at my pre-Net, humanistic techno-scepticism (I think, post-Net and the revolution in mind sciences, I'm a wee bit more cyborg myself now). But it's also worth noting that the robotics and AI evangelists have been saying, for decades, "in 20 years time..." And as far as I can see, it's still about 5 years to the self-driving car (though we do have joysticked drones). However, the same anxieties about automation and the status of productive humans still lingers (see MIT's Technology Review edition from earlier this year). I also note that Shadow, the robotics tinkerers I profiled in the piece, are still going strong.
Hope you enjoy - I'm enjoying finding these pieces, more to come. -- PK
* * *
The Man Machines
By Pat Kane
Dreams of automata created in man's own image nestle deep in the human psyche. PAT KANE fantasized about androids from childhood. But a trip into robo-reality turned his fascination into contempt and paranoia
The Guardian, ‘Weekend’, 07 Aug 1993.
THERE was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be a robot. I was between seven and nine years old: that period when your fantasies are as wild and intense as they were in infancy, except that you have developed the ability to marshal facts and figures to firm them up. By night, my finger would inch its way through spine-cracked copies of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. By day, after school or at weekends, I would get my two brothers - cast as mad, merciless alien scientists - to turn me into a Positronic Man. A Killer Android. A robot.
I remember lying there on the sitting room carpet, as Garry-John and Gregory hauled imaginary intestines and vital organs out of my midriff; sawed through my skull to remove the "useless brain-flesh", pulled out bones and eyes with a sucking sound, and replaced them with titanium struts and video orbs. When they'd finished their evil work, brutally clamping my ripped flesh together with rivets and screw-nuts, my brothers would retire to the settee-cum-control-room, push a few school rulers jammed between cushions to switch me on, and wait.
Even today, I can feel that tingle of absolute self-alienation: rising jerkily but precisely to gaze upon my creators, now whimpering to order on the sofa. And then the sci-fi monotone, rising like a steely taste up through my mouth: I am not a human. I am a robot . . . As I lurched malevolently towards my younger brothers, there was always a point at which the delicious fakery of their play-fear slipped into real anxiety. And I knew I was making myself truly robot-like when I could stop advancing about an inch from their tear-streaked, finger-clawed faces, and break up their trauma by cracking into a big daft smile. "It's only me."
But the power of that moment - and the power of the robot - has never left me, driving a fascination that's filled filing cabinets and bookshelves for over 20 years. I don't think it's left my brothers either. They still recoil from the sight of automata on the screen, whether it's ventriloquist's dummies advancing on their makers in mid-afternoon telly-films, or the latest manipulatory achievement in robot limbs as seen on the nightly news. "That kind of thing gives me the creeps, man . . ." It makes me feel guilty.
Is the robot the classic male technoid fantasy? Historical record would seem to bear this out. In the 1923 play which introduced the term to the English-speaking world, Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), the smooth running of a robot factory is disrupted by Miss Henrietta Glory of the "Humanity League". She wants rights for robots, wants them to be rebuilt with an emotional "sensitivity". And what do they do with this tender inner dimension? Revolt, kill all humans, and take over the world.
So females bring feelings to the rationally perfect worker, the robot, and it renders them as sadism and aggression. "I don't want any master," says Radius, the librarian robot who leads the rebellion. "I know everything for myself. I want to be master over people."
Capek's automata are obviously a metaphor for Bolshevism. But their psychopathic, power-laden world-view has set the dominant tone for the robot ever since - from the tin-can terrors of the Thirties and Forties, through Hal in 2001 and the Daleks in Doctor Who, to the thick Germanisms of modern big-screen metal men.
You get the gendered picture: the robot as boy's toy - another excrescence of male rationality. And yet, and yet . . . Each time I consign my robophilia to the psychic back cupboard, something comes along to raise it out of the swamps of childhood pathology. A slim book fell into my lap in the mid-Eighties which fused together all my obsessions. Farewell To The Working Class! written by French soixante-huitard and Sartrean confidant Andre Gorz, makes wrist-trembling reading for the sci-fi socialist. "If automation and robotics is able to reduce the amount of wealth-producing, human productive labour that an industrial society needs to an absolute minimum . . . then should we not begin to argue for our liberation from labour, rather than maintain our commitment to full employment and the work society?"
In the last few years, I've almost given up on a robotic revolution ever gaining popular currency. As a dream of technology, it's certainly more substantive than the page turners of my youth - social-science fiction, as it were. But the distance from here to there is so unbridgeable under present conditions - an imploding Europe, sweatshop Britain, and political classes with cataracts - that I'm almost resigned to my techno-socialism as another childish piece of wish-fulfilment.
But robots and politics intertwine in the most unexpected places. Harvard history professor Paul Kennedy devotes a chapter to the forthcoming "robotics revolution" in his recent study, Preparing For The Twenty-First Century. Kennedy judiciously weighs up the facts: automation will massively boost productivity among the developed industrial nations, at the expense of some first world workers and entire national economies in the Third World. The professor leaves us in no doubt as to the essential part that robots will play in 21st century societies, yet his hunch does not lean towards Utopia. Robbie and his offspring will be assisting the competitive advantage of nations, rather than creating a work-free world.
Yet the opportunity to speculate about intelligent machines can stir even the most sober-sided academic. And Kennedy comes up with some lurid new nightmares of his own. How about European robo-racism? "It is conceivable that automation could become part of the European debate over immigration from developing countries," writes Kennedy.
One of the reasons for Japan's status as a "robot kingdom", apart from its acute shortage of labour, has been its deep ethnic fear of the foreign labourer. Silicon "serfs" are just as cheap as human ones, and pose no threat to the "Japanese commitment to racial homogeneity", he speculates. "Will some nationalist politicians in Europe, observing what is happening in Japan, press for similar levels of automation to obviate the need to import guest workers as the workforce shrinks? Will ‘white’ trade unionists prefer robots to working alongside Arabs?"
Our deepest political suspicions are thus confirmed: cheesy horrors like MP Winston Churchill and MEP Jean-Marie Le Pen are actually renegade androids, hellbent on techno-totalitarian domination of the entire continent. That's not much less likely than Kennedy's scenario. See what the slightest touch of technofear can do to the greyest of history professors? We're back to living-room carpets and evil-doing droids.
Of course, the robots at Glasgow's Turing Institute weren't working. Some "reconfigurations of parameters" had turned their micro-mice and biped walkers into useless benchwork. I'd visited the Institute (named after the father of computing science, Alan Turing) because it is organising the second International Robot Games in Glasgow in September - a boffin's olympics intended, according to the local authority blurb, to be "a great boost to innovative industry" in the city.
But no robots. The Institute's Mr MacFarlane gave me a pile of of robot research videos to plough through instead, with appetising titles like "Legged Locomotion" and "Robotics On The Battlefield", assuring me that some of the featured machines would be performing at the games.
They seem vaguely like pornography. Formally, you can barely tell the difference - the shaky camerawork and video blurring, the flat Santa-Monican voiceover and 50-cent electro soundtrack. But the content is almost there as well. Groups of men in wrinkled shirts are standing in a room, watching the spasmodic convulsions of an entity called Julie III. She is tied to cables suspended from the ceiling: occasionally one of the spectators will try to knock her over or force her to stop. But the infernal thing keeps going, filling its allotted two minutes in the video show, compulsively repeating its actions - hopping, scuttling, climbing, flipping over - for the viewer's pleasure.
Marvin Minsky, robot-guru, has said that when we create fully autonomous, fully cognitive androids, we might have to be prepared for the first 100 of them to be insane. Watching these inelegant lumps of technology blunder around their laboratories, one is struck by the truth of Minsky's prediction. It's like watching patients in a hospital for severe mental illness; the robots huddle in corners, inch round walls, shake violently as they negotiate obstacles.
The breathless commentaries - vaunting each new advance in "sensor-perception technology" - make you feel a pang of sympathy for these ungainly harbingers of the future. Leave then alone, let them go back where they came from. But they come from us; products of human reason's attempts to penetrate the secrets of nature.
Out of all the crude simulations of natural complexity that human science has managed, the robot is the only one (so far) that's made us feel truly Creator-like. It's out there, beyond us, but not of nature; it's moving, reacting, progressing - artificial life, right there on the lab floor. But look at what it's doing, how sad it is: this is pornography, all right, but at a very basic level. It's a sick fetishisation of life itself; in order that we may know ourselves, or ease our labours, we let a pathetically limited metal insect know the merest spark of perception and intention, and watch it flail and fail forever.
If robots and computers are "mind children", in the words of MIT's fundamentalist Hans Moravec, the question is: are we helping them to grow and develop as legitimate organisms? Or are we abusing a mutant offspring from the start?
"I think we would be open to the charge that making these robots is like men having babies," says David Buckley of the Shadow Project, a back-room robotics workshop, secreted behind blank premises in London. "But we make a point of calling our robots it, not he or she," interjects Richard Sighthill, Buckley's partner and a photographer by day. "Because they're not humans, we want to keep that idea clear. The idea of rights for machines is simply stupid. A machine is just a machine."
DOWNSTAIRS, the object of our discussion hangs inertly from the ceiling. It's not working today either. Shadow Walker is a seven-foot-high bipedal robot, made by Sighthill and Buckley in their spare time. If a TV drama department wanted to mock-up a prop for the ultimate garden-shed invention, they couldn't do better than this. Outrageously, it seems to be mostly made of bevelled table legs and plywood. At its back are a wall of pressure gauges that make it seem more relevant to Flash Gordon than the age of the smart machine.
It looks at first sight like an embarrassing attempt to drape a frame in ersatz musculature, with plastic netting and rubber tubes. But it turns out to be the gadget that they're launching during the Glasgow Robot Games. It is, in fact, a simulated muscle, with sensors that can react to all surfaces in a flexible manner. In action, the "Digit" is underwhelming - a stretch of dull balloon-plastic being briefly inflated. But, I am told, it will make robotics accessible to schools and amateurs. "Make your own biped in three days from Meccano or Lego!" pipes Richard. "Hobby robotics is here!"
The Shadow project has one blindingly clear aim, unfussed by considerations of big sponsors (they don't have one) or moral considerations (they're doing stuff for disabled groups rather than the military). They want to make the "domestic robot" of cack-fiction fame that whizzes round the house, saving the hard-worked info-couple at least four hours a day in housework, costing the same as a family car. The universities and industries sneer at such mundaneness, "but we're immune to everything," says Richard. "If our own health keeps up, we'll eventually do it."
But isn't this the ultimate vindication of the despair at the heart of Capek's neologism - robot as slave to human; and humans desiring, always, to be slaved after? Richard: "But I want a slave!" Gulp. David: "All the really great civilisations have been based on slavery, where the population has had time to devote itself to high affairs because all the menial tasks were being done by the slaves."
"Slavery was great looked at from one side, and was unspeakably awful looked at from the other side," says Richard, opining at the standard level of ethical crudeness among scientists. "The interesting thing about robots is that they present mankind with a scenario where exploitation of other people is no longer necessary. Maybe some people like exploiting, I don't know." The labour-saving, time-eating impulse is admirable in these two, but their vocabulary sends me blinking furiously back into the twilight.
I've seen a few automated factories in my time, catching them on open days in various parts of the world. A sub-contracting fabrication plant in Italy's Emilia-Romagna was like a smaller version of that late Seventies Fiat advert - the one where robot arms constructed a car, "designed by humans, built by robots", to the sounds of grand opera. A generation suddenly found its hazy sci-fi mythologies snapping into focus.
A few years later, a nervous young ex-Brigadier gave me a different line. "Oh, those Fiat ads were ideological. Remember Italy's `hot summers', all those Autonomists fomenting wildcat strikes in the early Seventies? Italian industry, with Fiat at the head, started to bring in automation as a response to this kind offspring militancy. They've had to scale down their automated ambitions since, of course - but that advert for the Fiat factory was a piece of counter-propaganda. We don't need you rebels, they were saying."
I saw the perfect image of the almost workerless factory at part of the IBM plant in Spango Valley, Greenock, in the late Eighties: a room of pin-point-precise arms in glass cases, tidily punching circuit boards for later assembly. But IBM have settled into the Scottish West Coast with less evident social struggle; the tour guide reminded us of the company's jobs-for-life commitment, "not only to humans, but to robots as well".
So I made a return call. "We don't use them now," said the man from Human Relations. "Sold some to the local technical college." Dumbstruck, I asked why. "Well, our customers began to want their computers more customised - tailored to individual needs. We looked at the robots, compared the cost of reprogramming them with the performance of the average human worker . . . and went back to humans. Much cheaper and more efficient."
The next week was a frustrating trawl through a list of British companies using robots. I was battered around a bewildering hierarchy of names and officials, the patent lack of assistance making me feel like my name had been entered on a "subversive list". If Paul Kennedy's diagnosis of the growing centrality of robots to capitalist competitiveness ever needed proving, then the protective secrecy of the industrial robotic sector would be adequate material.
My final call, to a shadowy organisation in Kilwinning, summed it all up. The first official was streaming pride: "Yes, we have all kinds of robotics, lift-and-lay, visual checking, some Japanese Fanuc machines . . . It doesn't put people out of work, you know. That's a myth!" A few hours later, a second official phones. "No pictures, no reporting, no quotation. We can't let any of our competitors even see what we might be using. I've been to the very top man."
It could be said that the robot is a cranky, even slightly anachronistic symbol these days. Doesn't the whole movement of "cyberpunk" consign Ol' Light-Bulb Eyes - or even his useful cousin, Mr Industrial Pick 'n' Place - to the trash compacter? Cyberpunk is a literary trend in sci-fi, dating from about 1981, and defined neatly by the new Encyclopaedia Of Science Fiction. It concerns "a future in which machine augmentations of the human body are commonplace, as are mind and body changes brought about by drugs and biological engineering".
So novelists like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling are uninterested in morality tales of human-versus-machine, dramatised by lumbering tin menaces of yore. It's humans-as-machines that fascinates these writers. "We're interested in sticky technology, stuff that gets under your skin," says Sterling. "We may be moving into a post-human age," drawls Gibson. "When intelligent machines promise immortality for humans, by containing our consciousnesses as programs, then why hang on to flesh? I feel an elegiac sadness about it, but I really think we're on the way out."
Robot and computer scientists from the wilder end of the spectrum - like Hans Moravec and Marvin Minsky - claim cyberpunk as prophecy. "Every couple of years I read William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer, and every time I find that something he's written about has become scientific reality," said the white-coated Joseph Rosen of the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Centre.
The ingredients of Cyberpunk are a rich mixture of the practical and the mystical; innumerable copies of our selves on discs, the removal of emotion and need from daily life, coasting cyberspace like digital surfers . . . These are visions far grander than our petty dreams of robot housemaids and android butlers.
"Really, the robot has been a bit of a disappointment," says JG Ballard. In his headier sci-fi days, Ballard eschewed Asimov-type melodramas, featuring angst-ridden androids worrying over their potential "humanity". "That kind of thing is a terrible sentimentalising of technology. Robotics is the moral degradation of the machine. Why do we want machines to be like us anyway? It's much more likely that we'll be like machines in the future."
Well, exactly. And that kind of future might be the best reason for hanging on to the robot as a metaphor for our relationship with technology. For at least the robot-image contains a little alienation about it. What we embody in the traditional image of the robot is our mistrust of machines and science, or at least our need to harness their powers rather than surrender to them. Capek coined "robot" from the Czech robota - meaning serf, or forced labour - to give his fantasy drama all the resonances of industrial struggle. But Capek's anxiety about keeping technology in its subordinate place - subordinate, that is, to the needs of human society - is also captured in the figure of the robot. If we feel robotics as a threat, that's exactly as it should be.
It's our justifiable anxiety about technology that's completely lost in cyberpunk, and the whole accompanying Sega-rave culture of computer games and technoid music. The TV advert for Sega expresses this premature state of electronic bliss perfectly; the blue-eyed joystick operator metamorphoses, game by game, into a metallic insect-robot juddering itself into a binary-driven frenzy.
There are a few richly satisfying conspiracy theories around to justify this slack-jawed state of human (or post-human) affairs. Try this one for size. In order that the real robots - those in factories, not in adverts - can work solely for the interests of Big Business, rather than for the workers they displace, there has to be a pacifying ideology for these de-industrialised millions.
Therefore, Cyberpunk is the latest and greatest opium for the masses. How can you challenge the machine if you are being encouraged to love it, to subsume your self into it? "Clear and distinct people may be necessary for an industrial economy, based on the sale of labour power," says US academic Bill Nichols. "But a higher priority for a post-industrial economy may be mutually dependent cyborgs." The very idea of the individual - with all its ancient dilemmas of free-will versus determinism - may only be "a trace of traditions that are no longer pertinent."
So believe all the scare stories about a computer-junkie generation, parents; your child is being shaped by the culture industries to fit into the New Cybernetic Order. Pull the junk out of the wall; lock 'em indoors; feed 'em Picador Classics, early Clash albums, anything that'll remind them that there is no such thing as cyberspace. Would you want a dry-eyed flesh-robot as comfort for your old age?
Our historical relationship with the robot has been one long oscillation between lust and loathing. But better, surely, that this sine-wave of repulsion and attraction remains tense, nervous and headache-inducing. The quasi-spirituality and dreamy adolescence of cyberpunk is a kind of caving-in to forces we should be trying to control. And neither a demonisation of the robot (General Ludd rides again) nor its canonisation (the post-industrial panacea) will help us face the coming Robotic Age maturely. "No robotisation without representation" may well sound like techno-socialism by the back door. But must we learn nothing between each Industrial Revolution?
We can take control of our gleaming Homunculi, these extraordinary products of human reason. Or we can be happy with our idle fantasies of tin men and cyborg souls. An unfashionable injunction: it's time to choose what we want from these golden arms, legs and brains. Let's look clearly at the robot, as our ineluctable, inescapable, and possibly emancipatory future. And tear the mirrorshades from our eyes.
The only robot that the British robotics community managed to get working before my eyes was the Shadow project's balsa-and-rubber pianist, a cat's cradle of pneumatic muscles and brass hinges, prodding out blocks of notes on a Sanyo kids' organ. Richard Holloway corrected it constantly as it split notes, soured chords, and was finally pulled away from the keyboard: playing into air, skilful but futile. Kurt Vonnegut's early-Fifties sci-fi novel Player Piano came immediately to mind: its central metaphor of an automatic bar piano representing the stupidity of technology as an end in itself.
Look how it's all going, 40 years on. Not automation replacing humanity, but humanity helping it to play the rudiments of Frere Jacques. I'm watching this piece of robotic presumption, and despite my contempt I find my fingers twitching involuntarily. So that's how it would be, to be a robot . . . But no more man machine dreams. Being a human will do.
The Second International Robot Games will be at Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall, September 23-25
Doing some personal archiving, I found this piece I wrote for Deborah Orr at the Guardian's Weekend supplement, on management culture - and part of the pre-reverberations before the New Labour victory in 1997.
In retrospect, I'm struck by how it sparked my interest in the cultures of work, business, creativity - and then play - which have obsessed me ever since. And rather movingly for me, I'd forgotten my late dad - a low-level British Rail manager - made a closing appearance in it, with probably the only dialogue of his I had ever transcribed. And whatever happened to Jack Black? Hope you find it interesting. ---PK
THE COMPANY WE KEEP
The Guardian, 25 May 1996
The gurus of management culture predict that `intuition is the master skill of the next century'. As a clarion call to Britain's wealth-makers, it has a nice ring to it. But at Asda HQ in Leeds, they find a toy dustbin does the job just as well
THE psychic bullets are flying everywhere. Three hundred palms rise from grey flannel suits and cream silk blouses, all eager to receive little pellets of positive energy from the guru on the stage who's cocking his fingers like a cowboy on the draw. He bends into the radio mike.
`Many of you will have come with me on this journey of the imagination,' booms Jack Black, the UK's number one Motivational Speaker For Businesses And Organisations. `Did you feel those bullets?' From the general rustle of sighs and soft giggles that sweeps through the hall, oh yes, yes, they did.
The advert on the business pages merely promised `another way to inspire your workplace team'. By brunch-time on the first day, I'm sharing a shimmering New Age moment with Edinburgh's pen-pushing finest. What is management culture in the Nineties getting up to?
Within this £350-a-skull, Next-tailored ashram, anything it wants would seem to be the answer. Jack Black, Easterhouse social worker turned business evangelist, has a whole circus of mind tricks for his audience today.
Hulking great project managers are sapped of their strength by `negative thinking'. A bottle of Perrier is sloshed over the first four rows to illustrate how we `waste our precious daily energies'. Invisible bell-jars drop over heads (to the sound of the Thunderbirds theme tune), so that their wearers can `screen out moany-faced gits'. We salivate at imaginary lemons, we cleanse our minds in spring showers, we practise office meditation, all between morning and afternoon tea breaks.
`World-class companies require world-class people,' says the guru, gravely. `And remember, you're a one-off. You are special. You can be world-class.' He might be Billy Connolly without the jokes; Krishnamurti in a Sock Shop tie. But it's precisely through his crowd-pleasing performance that Mr Black reveals the essential nature of modern management more baldly than anyone else.
On one side, it's all about liberation and self-expression. Black brandishes copies of the mystical best-seller, The Celestine Prophecy. `Intuition is the master skill of the next century,' he claims. `Five hundred of America's top Chief Executives cite it as their most helpful managerial quality. But do you know what? They're too embarrassed to tell their colleagues.'
We are enjoined to forego coffee, reject muesli, do quality relaxation, make time for our children. And, above all, use the right hemisphere of the brain rather than the left: `That's where your ideas come from, that's where you love success ... Branson is right-brain, Roddick is right-brain ...' Holding up a thumb, Jack invites us to gaze into the whorls and treasure our uniqueness. Like a convention of trainee children's presenters, 300 thumbs go up, glowing under intense scrutiny.
On the other side, management is all about insecurity, mental policing and vicious competition. The folk devil of the day is `the wee man from China' who lives in a tiny room, works 12 hours a day in a factory, does repetitive labour for minimal wages and gets one weekend off a year with his betrothed. Jack Black saw him on a nightly news programme, presented as a horror story. `But you know what they missed?' he muses. `They missed the fact that he had a smile on his face. He loved his job and he loved his life. When that wee man in China finally wakes up, he is coming after us. And he will wipe us out. Destroy us. Unless we change our way of thinking and living completely.'
Today we have sampled the full product range of the spiritual-holistic marketplace. And why? To equip us to fight a bitter capitalist war with the Asian tigers and monsters of the next century. Our guru has shown us how to release the secret resources of the self. Now it's exploitation time.
This involves a kind of self-imposed thought control. There are rules. Don't use words like `problem' and `not bad'. Replace them with `opportunity' and `fantastic!' `If I say, `I'm tired,' therefore I am tired. Meanwhile, it's the little guy from China who can smile.' Don't consume any news for a month, Black suggests - no Paxman, no broadsheets, no morning radio. `You know the old computing phrase: Garbage In, Garbage Out. And you can't afford that kind of negative stimuli!'
I've been quietly stunned at how well these snake-oil therapeutics have gone down with these capable, well-laundered Athenians of the north. At lunch-time I find out why. The attendees span most sectors of the information economy, from finance to marketing, insurance to telecommunications; and their table-talk is of friends fired and dumped, downsized and out-sourced, replaced by expert computer programs and sleek, young workaholics.
`I know they think something like this'll make me feel valued,' says one lady from a Scottish bank. `But it just reminds me how bloody hard I'm working now.' Twenty-first-century business culture may be urging you to be a Total Human, an uber-suit, so that you can deal with turbo-charged capitalism and its consequences. But if you don't perform, you're next for the chop. This is the truth of modern management: sweeter carrots, bigger sticks.
The grizzled patriarchs in their business schools all concur: management is a very ancient practice. The most successful executive in all history, says American business mandarin Peter Drucker, `was surely that Egyptian who, 4,500 years or more ago, first conceived the pyramid without any precedent, designed it, and built it, and did so in an astonishingly short time. That first pyramid still stands.' Upon the bones of hundreds of thousands of crushed and mangled slaves, admittedly. But let's not remind ourselves too early about the coercion at the heart of all management.
For management, as a class and as a discipline, has never enjoyed better intellectual and political press. In this country, there is no clearer sign of the new political consensus than the deification of managers in recent Labour (and Labour-friendly) rhetoric.
Mandelson and Liddle's The Blair Revolution coos over these company heroes like protective mother hens. Will Hutton, new editor of the Observer and best-selling author of The State We're In, a model for an alternative economic strategy, has argued that a `stakeholder society' needed `stakeholder management' - highly-skilled organisation men and women, drawn from all sectors of society `on the basis of merit'. Blair's own October 1995 interview with Management Today shows a man more at ease with the bosses than any of his workerist predecessors - claiming a number of personal friends `who are either small business people, or people who went into industry'.
Cynics on the Left or Right could score an easy point here. New Labour's acceptance of `management's right to manage' is yet another concession to one of the key tenets of Thatcherism. After all, when Coal Board supremo Ian McGregor - the original hard-nosed manager - went face-to-face with Scargill and the miners in the mid-Eighties, he effectively paved the way for Blair's post-socialists by delivering the fatal blow to trade-union militancy. And from the Marxist bunker might well come the cry that, for the past half-century, Labour's chief concern has always been to `manage' capitalism better than the Right.
Yet this is more than just the latest handshake between political and economic elites. The language of Blairism is soaked with the latest managerial discourse. Is the stakeholder society anything more than the process of `team management' and `workplace empowerment' writ large? Where all are valued and all contribute; where common goals are agreed and striven for; where consideration for personal needs goes hand in hand with the pursuit of the bottom line? Blair's calls for `partnership' and `mutual trust' between business and government seem to be directly inspired by the more idealistic forms of management-speak.
I doubt whether Jack Black and his psychic bell jars will ever get an invite to Walworth Road, yet New Labour's leading voices often sound just as tremulously excited about business culture, or the `dynamic market economy', as does Mr Black on his instruction tapes. The nation under Tony Blair is to be reconceived as a four-year-long, team-based enterprise project. But, of course, wherever there are managers, however bright and toothy, there must be the managed. Do you know which one you are? Or want to be? Or are we all `in management' now?
* * *
Archie Norman, the school-masterish chief executive of Asda, rubs his shirtsleeves ostentatiously. `You don't want any status distinctions. You don't want titles, big offices, all the trappings that go with the hierarchy in so many companies. They get in the way of communication. Everybody has a right to be involved; everybody in the company gets the same, um, type of privileges. Well, as far as we sensibly can ...'
No managers wear their jackets in the offices of Asda's Leeds headquarters: they're not allowed to. Business magazines praise the supermarket chain as the very model of progressive, empowering, `shirtsleeved' management in Britain. This is more than fashionable lip-service. Since Archie Norman's appointment in 1991, when the chain was a billion pounds in debt and ready for bankruptcy, Asda has returned healthily to the black, increasing its number of customers by 30% and sales by 8.4%.
The figures seemed solid enough, and the press hype touchy-feely enough (`this is a company with a heart', runs a typical Norman quote) to provide some genuine insight as to whether business management is truly becoming, as Peter Drucker puts it, one of the `liberal arts' of civilisation.
First, let's explain the rubbish bin that's sitting on the boss's conference table - toy-sized, plastic and golden, spelling out `Archie' in yellow letters. I first saw it this morning at a staff `huddle' in Asda's flagship store in Pudsey - a backroom where everyone, from the butcher to the baker to the lady who sells candlesticks in Domestic Supplies, plans their daily assault on the unwitting shoppers.
Absurdly, for 9am in a suburban supermarket, the atmosphere is like some Rugby League dressing-room at half-time: much whooping, shouting, rough applause. Mike, the store manager - a happy little pear-shape, cropped and ebullient - clip-clops the lid of his Archie Bin.
`Did y'see me all morning with this, picking up squashed tomatoes and leaves? I'm telling yer, this is a Major Focus. How do we become industry-leading? Hygiene! That's how! We're gonna make hygiene a hero in Asda! We're gonna make the Golden Archie Bin an absolute Asda Way. This'll be the cleanest superstore in the world ...'
I sneak a look at Mike's `colleagues' (the one-status job description in Asda-World). They're not exactly quivering with excitement. But they're not sneering either. As the huddle progresses, the weirdest transformation happens: Californian positivity enters the soul of northern retail. There's Ray - scary, Kojak-smooth, on the lookout for potential staff thieves (`I found a Wonderbra back there'), warning that the culprits will be `packed down that bloody road' - who suddenly gets thrown a magnum of champagne for 25 years' service (cue much hooting and clapping).
There's Betty, a spherical gran in big specs and a Hovis voice, who also gets whooped up for her `truly excellent' store-front welcome. There's Simon, the six-and-a-half-footer from the meat counter, who barks out his five-grand sales increase like a blood-stained corporate raider; other confident Leeds lads and lasses back him up, smartly announcing cake-counter productivity and deep-freeze turnover figures.
And just when you thought shelf-stacking and fruit display couldn't get any more bullish, Mike the store manager pops up with a ghetto blaster to deliver the ultimate company homily. `We've had Recovery. We've had Breakout. So if anybody wants to sing this tune - this is what Asda is going to be about for the next three years ...' Out comes the familiar buzz-saw guitar line: underground and far away, John Lennon's permanent spin picks up a little extra speed. "Y'SAY YOU WANNA REVOL-UU-SHAWN, WE-ELLL YOU KNA-AWW, WE ALL WANNA CHANGE THE WORLD ...' Come on, sing up now ...'
It's humbling, in a way, to know the level of organisational fever that goes into ensuring you never get a rancid kiwi fruit from an Asda store. In a society where the consumer is sophisticated and sovereign, and where most markets are mature and over-sold, every retailer fights in the marketplace on the level of service: the smile at the checkout, the assistance in the aisles, the availability of product, the ambience of the store. And in a business employing 70,000 people, you can't command and control every one of them to be nice, helpful, enterprising and tidy.
So Asda's management has attempted to win the hearts of its employees with a scheme called Tell Archie. This involves listening and responding to all suggestions, providing employees with incentives for success (the best product sellers get the company Jag for a month), granting them a large measure of autonomy over their job activities.
`Instead of punishing for not performing,' says deputy head Alan Leighton, `we reward for performing. Most people come to work to shine, they don't come to work to do badly. And if you can bring that out in people then that's the most powerful thing you can do. That's how we compete.'
Compared with Archie Norman's Charterhouse-to-Cambridge diffidence, Leighton is the It's-A-Knockout supersalesman: only a few days ago he stormed on to the stage of a company conference astride a Harley-Davidson. Today, he proudly shows me a ten-foot long inflatable ruler he has given to all his store managers. `The idea being, they should never be more than ten foot away from a customer. Wacky, but it makes the point. We measure morale and attitude in the same way we measure sales.'
So, I reply, Asda is trying to unalienate the workers? `Yes, but I think that's a very negative way of putting it,' says Archie Norman, rather tightly. An even more negative way of putting it would be this: new-wave management tries to engineer the souls of its workers, encouraging them to see initiative and self-direction as part of their personal identities, make them `enterprising' subjects in every sense of the word, linking their expressions of individuality with the aims of the company.
Now, the truest act of individuality might be to walk right out of a corporate culture which asks you to `serve from the heart', to `shine every day', to call your boss-men `colleagues'. But where would you walk out to, in these inconstant times? And if the company is a `family' that's actively embracing you and welcoming you in, dare you risk the cold and unknown beyond?
I think of Mike the store manager's pop-eyed exultation at the new directives from head office, the eager commitment of his clipboard colleagues from Household And Underwear: these are New Workers for the New Britain, undoubtedly. It's a boring job, bringing us consumers our daily stuff, so if someone's gotta do it, why not with a skip and a jump? And why not let higher management encourage the good vibes?
A few days later, free from their corporate perfume cloud, some raw capitalist data bubbles up on my Net-search. Seems that last Christmas, Asda tried to withdraw bonuses from women employees who took maternity leave, a consequence of management's `crackdown on absenteeism'.
And, bewitched by the PR woman's blather about employee share options, I missed the big story: that earlier this year, Archie Norman netted an instant profit of #1.8m after exercising his right to buy 2.4m shares. What was it Orwell wrote about all being equal (Norman: `we're proudly single-status'), but some being more equal than others?
One last nugget: Archie Norman was chair of his Conservative Association at Cambridge, ran for political office in Southwark in the late-Eighties, and is wreathed in rumours of a future shining career in the Tory party. I remember his response to my queries as to the role of the unions - for Asda, the GMB - in this `family' firm. Was there a battle for collective allegiance here? Could the two co-exist - corporate caring-and-sharing and trade-union representation? The reply came instantly, not missing a beat: `I think one is tomorrow, the second is yesterday.'
* * *
Monday morning in Manchester. Inside the concrete chateau of the Jarvis Hotel sit an acre of middling managers under conference lights: a sea of tonsures and hairspray, mutterings of `ordered that truck yesterday' and `if he can't deliver, he's out'.
What was I thinking about when I signed up for this conference on Self-Managed Teams? The English rugby coach has dropped out, due to `work pressures'. My classic Seventies Red Robbo questions will come too late for the guy from the Rover plant at Solihull: he's shifted his session. The chair looks like a bleached Kevin Maxwell, and already his cybernetic vocal drone is bringing me out in hives.
Of course, it all turns out wonderfully. The first speaker used to be the Human Resources Manager at Trebor Bassett, the sweets manufacturers. Each slide that goes up makes me drool involuntarily: Sherbet Dabs, Liquorice All-Sorts, Bon-Bons, Refreshers - everything that made my infant mouth a sugary grave.
And according to this man, the workers who mixed my youthful white fix were `autonomous' and `self-directing' many years before the news broke out of the business schools. I'm exulting in dusty print after dusty print of 1974 red-and-black industrial estates, crimped hair and Birmingham bags, screeds of neo-hippy work slogans (`The Pursuit of Excellence is Compatible with Concern for People'). There's even a Friedrich Engels-type factory owner, a Mr Ian Marks - I had to check that spelling - who pushed his humane vision through, from foundation stone to buzzing greenfield factory.
The Human Resources Manager indulged in one of his frequent long pauses, and then plunged into quiet tragedy. I hadn't noticed the last-minute programme emendation, `Formerly at Trebor Bassett ...' Mr Marks had sold out the operation to Cadbury Schweppes and, reading between the dry coughs, it was obvious that in the eyes of the new board, the HRM was a squashy Seventies man out of time.
He flipped charts, mumbled through mind-maps and then came out with it: `I just don't think they give a monkey's for our system, to be honest.' Even in this midden of mediocrity, there was a stillness, a respect for a manager's fall: `Bloody waste, I believe.' His arms struggled to contain two sets of folders as he left the stage. He was available for consultancy.
But really, who would be a manager? Who would pass through that veil, to the place where you must use living souls as means to an end, as steps in a plan: where you manipulate the autonomy of others to Get Things Done Willingly And Well? Those who move up into management often talk of the immediate estrangement from erstwhile colleagues; the need to put on the armour, or die from a thousand cutting looks and slicing barbs. No wonder the business-books shelves warp and sag with thousands of titles on `being a leader', `leadership secrets', `inspiring your team'.
For where else is the beleaguered manager to go for existential comfort than the fortress of leadership? And perhaps therein lies some nobility in widget-making, whim-satisfying, servile-doing - the need for managers to harness the latent anarchy in any human group to a productive and profitable end. Leading, leading, into the great capitalist unknown.
Except sometimes, the manager, being human, turns out to be no kind of leader at all - or can be one only at enormous cost to themself and others. The smoking wrecks of management come to Valerie Hopkins, director of the Humanitas Counselling Agency, often to her immensely restful consulting room in the West End. Most of them barrel in from the City of London, hunted and haunted. Hopkins has drawn more than a few management fundamentals from their frowning, sweating confessions in her Queen Anne chair.
First, that management can split you in two. Her favourite example of the moment is the City boss, earning a cool £350K a year, who was offered a move to head the desk at another bank. The salary would be an initial drop to £180K; making a success of it, however, promised immensely greater rewards in the long run. He turned it down, but for this reason: he already gave #300K of his salary to the Samaritans each year. And the personal gratification gained from that was far greater than the prospect of becoming another Cedric Brown.
`We find that very many senior people in organisations are becoming born-again Christians,' says Hopkins. `They're splitting their caring selves and putting it into the Church, because their company is so soulless.' Another lesson is that `healthy organisations make for healthy people'. Hopkins resents being brought in as a sticking plaster to repair malfunctioning executives: `I'm a systemic analyst. You have to deal with the whole culture.'
One company asked her to institute a workplace counselling programme to deal with high-stress casualties. `But when they told me they were working their back offices for 13-14 hours a day, six-seven days a week - and that they were about to do a raft of cutbacks - I told them straight: you need to address the basic issues, not lay around a few psychotherapists to deal with family issues, drug problems, finances, etc.' Seems like a sensible response? `I didn't get the job.'
Hopkins is beginning to encounter what she calls the `anorexic organisation' - addicted to the idea of leanness and meanness as both attractive and effective, while actually destroying their companies' health through endless leeching of human resources. Quite casually, she reveals that her husband, Ian, used to be the head of group treasury at Barings, taking the job six months before Nick Leeson pulled the plug. Three days before the bank collapsed, he was removed from the senior management committee - `for making too much fuss about controls and credit risks'.
But Hopkins is adamant that the pathologies of City management culture - `the fear, the need to conform to the culture, the inability to stand up and say something's wrong' - contributed heavily to the bank's destruction. `You had the old Barings of over two centuries alongside the brash new Barings Securities ... And they hated each other - it was like Montague and Capulet. They depended on each other, but couldn't communicate with each other.'
Hopkins is a stakeholder theorist in her heart, but not in her head. `I don't know wheth er the political remit can change where we are as organisations. Will Hutton's book is brilliant - it says all the right things about short-termism and that macho brutality of the City, which are much easier to hear if they come from a man than from a woman ... Yet sometimes I've been in the middle of a culture, faced with all these jungles of denial and fear, and I've thought, `What the hell am I doing this for?' There will always be conflicts between interests - stake, share, whatever - that managers will have to deal with. We can have more caring organisations, but management is never going to be an easy job.'
* * *
A few miles away, ensconced in a corporate eyrie somewhere between the Economist building and the St James's Club, I have an appointment with the archetypal Company Man. The definitive history of this organisational hero is to be found in the 1995 book, Company Man: The Rise And Fall Of Corporate Life, by Anthony Sampson, that veteran anatomist of Britain. The middle-managers who joined Shell, or IBM, or General Electric, or Ford during the Fifties and Sixties had their life-trajectories set in marble: diligence and conformity would raise you up the floors and through ever-more private washrooms to a chrome-and-wood-lined space of calm achievement.
Yet no one hated these `corpocrats' more than the Anglo-American New Right of the Seventies and Eighties: the `entrepreneurial revolution' aimed to sweep away layers of useless placemen in both public and private bureaucracies. Thus emerged the Anxious Classes, the Concerned Middle, groups both Clinton Democrats and Blair Labourites hope to mould into winning electoral blocs over the next 12 months. No one, ran the smoothly polished cliche, was safe from the creative destructions of nanosecond capitalism now.
Except, it would appear, this eminently clubbable chap. Over the past 30 years, Richard Scott (his preferred pseudonym) has worked for two of the biggest companies in the West, the kind of organisations that never bleat about infrastructural investment: they simply are the infrastructure. His last one produced just about every possible product; the current one distributes just about everything that can be distributed.
`I'm a company man, and glad to be,' he pipes in his Carnaby-Street demotic. `Means I can achieve goals, have enough resources, not work too many hours. See the world. Add value.' Adding value is this man's mantra: it's why he does what he does. At the moment, his preferred mode is to be the first man to properly sell a Very Important Soft Drink to a Very Large Post-Communist State. `They don't have any decent fizz - well, nothing that's worth drinking, anyway. We're setting up the plants, doing the marketing. Giving them a good product that won't go off in four days, that always tastes the same, that is reasonably priced. That's adding value.'
He's pure Commerciality, dispensing shop-worn wisdom for a whole afternoon: less regulation on business, management by getting cleverer people to do the hard work, keeping your head down as a career strategy, advancement through results not hype, reward as the only human motivation ... Under the crush of banality, I dimly remember a comment from the academic who originally put me on to Mr Scott: `He has written a novel, you know.'
It's about his student youth in Vietnam, at the end of the war: watching one empire leave and another descend, each one of them as indifferent to the fate of its peoples as the other. At last, his studiedly lazy pulse quickens. `You can't have aesthetic, moral values unless you've got economic values. What I saw in Vietnam then, and when I went back in the Eighties, was appalling. No human dignity left there whatsoever - because no economic activity.'
There's a gleam of conviction in this man's eye: `This will sound extremely pompous ... but wealth creation is something I feel very righteous and justified about. Why shouldn't people have what they desire? Why shouldn't they be comfortable? What does politics have to do with that?'
Suddenly, I realise that this six-figure-salaried, whisky-warmed, rather endearing lounge lizard - who's nevertheless commanding a major commodity colonisation of the post-Soviet world - is the real thing: homo economicus at his most effective. He's a manager because he wants to get things done; and being near the head of this multinational octopus enables him to get very big things done. The busy-ness of the world moves on under hands like these. They add value, of a kind. They manage things.
* * *
The root of `company' is cum panis, literally to break bread together. Looked at kindly, the manager is the orchestrating host at the banquet of human energies that is the modern company or organisation. As Anthony Sampson's history shows, the professional manager emerged only because the great company-owning families decided to relinquish direct control. There are always exceptions: Japanese capital is semi-feudal in its family linkages; and there is something pleasingly matriarchal in Anita Roddick's recent disdain of `all these bloody expensive lawyers and consultants' that foist themselves upon her Body Shop.
Yet before the manager transformed into the rapacious executive, earning 50 or 100 times the salary of his workers; before management-talk became the chosen discourse of almost all public life, perceiving `excellence' and `performance' and `enterprise' in everything from bedside manner to classroom discipline; before all this, there were managers like my father.
John Kane, Area Personnel Manager for British Rail (West of Scotland Division), 1970-1986. I caught him for a morning, in the midst of a busy retirement schedule. What he did in his job, by his own testimony, was to break bread. `Charming! You mean I disappeared for ten hours a day and you never knew what I did?'
Well, as it transpires, Mr Kane didn't really `manage', in the strict business sense. `We had this Rulebook of National Agreements, decided between higher management and the unions. One deviation from that - say you wanted to reward someone, do a little project - and slam! there'd be a walk-out, a major protest. There was a rule for Footplate Staff in there from 1919, going on about horseboxes and such ... Your scope was very limited.' So what did you do? `Well, I did Personnel. I soothed egos. I sorted out personal problems. I made conversations possible.'
Engineer managers with wire wool for brains would rage furiously at indolent fitters; my father would spray gentle verbal rain, and discover the man was sleeping on a friend's couch, evicted from home and hot dinners. Pre-Thatcher, `the railway' was composed of a great divide: between the men who worked the trains and the men who helped them; between the doers and the talkers; between the sparks and the memo-writers. My father was the whitest of white collar, pouring emotional oil into the clashing social gears of state industry.
I now know where some of my more intense pop-culture references come from: Jack Lemmon and Walther Matthau in The Odd Couple, Morecambe and Wise, Dave Allen, the Two Ronnies and, pre-eminently, Phil Silvers as Sgt Bilko - all of them management men to their cufflinks, using irony and wit to register disbelief at the rules which govern them, and at their resignation before them.
I realise that these were training videos for my dad, exercises in practical office survival. He even outlined his `Bilko technique of man-management': get the guy who you've heard doesn't want to do a particular task, and tell him - in an off-hand way, of course - that he's really not suitable to do it. `Nine times out of ten, the chap will eventually say, `Well, why can't I?' Bilko did that every week. My best management training ever.'
I've also discovered where my father's profoundly British identity comes from: his gratitude to the English manager. We've always been aware of a certain ethnic discrimination in our family history: muttered Sunday tales of Catholic ghettos called `Paddy's Land', adverts in early Fifties' evening papers reading `Protestants only need apply'. I'm told that there was even a Railway Supervisor's Masonic Lodge. `I had a terrible time of it in the Fifties, at the start. The only Irish Catholic in an Orange rail depot. You had no chance.'
That is, until the English managers came up to Scotland on a wave of national rationalisation. `They had no idea about this great divide. They didn't know who the hell King Billy or St Patrick was, nor did they care. They were appointed on merit: if you could do the job, you got it. A lot of people won't admit that that situation changed. But it didn't affect them. It affected me.'
Management as the management of a life: steered where it wants to go, round its rocks and stronger than its dead-weights. Now I'm getting close to the root of my fascination with The Manager: he who assumes authority, makes final decisions, gets things done. As the next tape is about to be inserted, John Kane snaps to attention: already moving to the next meeting, which isn't actually there. `That's enough, Patrick. I haven't talked that much in 25 years. Your time's up.'
I watch his back disappear down the garden path, as I watched it disappear for many puzzled, yearning years. The heart has its management strategies, too.
It's nice to be pulled out of the depths of scholarship and enterprise around play and be asked to do a definitive interview on the subject - it forces me to think and speak in a way that makes public sense of my private musings and specialised consultations. This is from a Dutch magazine called Viewpoint, which is a bi-annual consumer trends journal. I'll be part of a bigger article with a number of ludocrats speaking, which I'll post here in November.
Interview with Pat Kane for Viewpoint magazine, November 2012
Why do you think play is gaining currency right now?
I think play is becoming important because of a number of crises in the way we habitually do things. Certainly in the decade before the recent financial crash, many economists and thinkers were talking about how "the Protestant work ethic" was becoming irrelevant to a networked and game-oriented generation. My 2004 book The Play Ethic suggested that these "soulitarians" would become conscious of their creative power and digital skills, and start to demand changes in social, political and occupational structure. It's hard to look at our current tumult of social-media driven protest, at all kinds of levels, and not see the proof of that. But I think play is also becoming central because it's a component of even bigger arguments about what growth and prosperity mean - on one side from the period of indebtedness we're about to endure, but on the other side from the crisis of consumerism, and the carbon consequences of all that material throughput, that a moment's contemplation on the climate-change statistics would incite. We need to find new motivating narratives in our lives, beyond status anxiety and lifestyle excess. Play, as a planet-friendly, convivial way to bring thrills and pleasures into our lives with others, is a prime element of those new "wellbeing" narratives.
What’s your philosophy on play?
Always evolving and changing, like play itself. But in recent years I have drawn a lot from evolutionary accounts of human nature in my understanding of play. My great guide on play theory, Brian Sutton-Smith, calls play "adaptive potentiation". Play helps neurologically-complex, deeply-sociable mammals (like us!) refine and rehearse living with other creatures like ourselves. And given our human capacity for self-reflection and conceptualisation, play in humans - the more distant from raw need and survival we get - becomes more and more the central action of our lives, rather than a practise zone for it. Play is the prime indicator that we are (as the title of my next book has it) a "radical animal" (www.radicalanimal.net) - but that this natural inheritance is dynamic, experimental and inventive, rather than just our savannah-era limitations constantly tripping us up - which is my problem with all this "nudge"-style behavioural economics. Presuming we're Homer Simpson, rather than homo (et femina) ludens.
How is the role of play changing, both in individuals’ lives and in society?
As above, I think play is becoming the central activity (arguably, alongside care) of healthy, better-educated, more self-determining people in the developed (and eventually the emerging) world economies and societies - rather than the degraded Puritan residue that the "work ethic" defines it as. There's also a very strong argument for its social centrality in terms of basic public health. For educationalists, it's a global given now that we must extend the play-moment in early years education, in order that neurological and physiological development happens to their fullest degree (the Scandinavians with their world-beating educational scores proves that, as does the brain science). But this will move beyond the kindergarten, into later years, and eventually out of the school and into wider organisational life. The general paradigm of purposefulness and value-adding activity that comes from gamer culture will get stronger and stronger, as a logic for running companies and organisations. How does an activity satisfy our demands for meaning, mastery and autonomy - as the best games do? Might genuinely committed, actively learning and relatively-free-to-decide employees be a real competitive edge in an economy where consumption becomes less important than experience?
What do you think of the idea of play being co-opted by brands and businesses?
Play can't really be co-opted by any form of social organisation - as it is one of the elemental processes that lead to any effective social organisation itself. But I'm happy to see play being invoked as a positive term or signifier by corporate brands - as I think it is a term which has radical implications for how we think of time, space and resources in our lives. Genuine playfulness is not leisure, something you do after the daily grind - it's an open, experimental and socially joyful way of being that, if embraced, has incalculable consequences for the norms of how we produce and consume. Play will as easily co-opt big biz!
How has digital gaming influenced play?
Answered at points above, but digital gaming is to the 21st century what printed books were to the Renaissance - it's a fundamental reorienting of how human beings see reality and how its elements interrelate. It's as profound as the shift from seeing one's life as a narrative line, a story running through a book, to seeing one's life as an element in a system, in which one's actions are profoundly wrapped up in others. The question for me now is the degree to which we can teach games-making literacy, in the way that the study of literature encouraged new literary genres - the systems that we enter into with our games are too much scripted from above, it's interpassivity as much as interactivity. But that will come.
How do you see the role of play evolving?
My small moment of pride recently was the news that my work has been exhibited on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York - or to be precise, an axiom about play I've been promoting for years was part of an exhibiton called Century of the Child that showed there this autumn. The axiom runs: "Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the Industrial Age - our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value". I think it's going to be as important to that in our daily lives.
The slides to my opening keynote for the Hide And Seek Weekender conference, 'Playing in Public', at Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London, 17.9.12. Any thoughts, responses, questions, let me know. (It's much more legible in full-screen, btw).
This is a very tentative presentation I made to Vinay Gupta's Truth and Beauty seminar at HubWestminster in London, on a concept I've been toying around with in my mind for a few months now... What is a "constitute" - as opposed to an institute? Or a constitution?
Personally, it's an answer to my anxiety about being drowned in rich and meaningful connections in the social-media age, and not being able to turn even a small percentage of them into resources for action or enterprise (of whatever kind - civic, intellectual, commercial). Do we need to forge a "craft of info-citizenship" or "netizenship", some guild-like or practice-like behaviours or conventions, that can capture the value of the relentless connecting, conversing and curating we do with our networked devices? Similar to the hacker ethic, or agile programming, or the Transition Towns protocols - but at the level of a great conversation in a cafe that we don't just want to let sink into the background of our busy lives? "Ok, this has gone well...let's make this a constitute...." So what behaviours/duties/commitments would that imply?
The word "constitute" points to a need to name a new, network-society subtlety in the relationship between idea and action (of course, there are older and other words like rubric, model, method, praxis, meme... I just happened to notice that constitute wasn't a noun!). And theoretically, it's another one of my journeys into the Italian Marxist tradition, looking at culture and communication as real forces for systemic change in society (but particularly coming from the work of Negri/Hardt, Virno, Marazzi, Bifo). And behind that - always behind that - my 30 year sea-journey with the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, in which I occasionally, nowadays, glimpse the shore...
All comments welcome (indeed if you do comment/repost, it becomes a constitute!)
Something I've meaning to post here for a while - but too busy helping get it off the ground to do so - is my hosting of Play's The Thing: Creative Perspectives on Wellbeing (Nov 22-23, 2011 - yes, next week!). Taking place in Toynbee Studios, London, it's been organised by Escape Artists, a social arts charity, and funded by the European Commission.
I've written this op-ed for the Guardian (see below for a fully referenced version, and this PDF of the newsprint version) setting out the main argument of the conference. This is the second time I've worried away at the relationship between government and wellbeing in the Guardian. Interesting to compare the two pieces, and my shift towards a greater environmental anxiety, which softens my perspective on the worth of "wellbeing" talk.
If you were looking for economic hard-noses among our European national leaders, you wouldn’t have to look much farther than Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron. Sarkozy telling an abject Greece there are macroeconomic “rules that have to be respected”; Cameron unrelenting on his deficit and debt agenda, in the face of the tyranny of the bond markets. Homo economicus, in full pomp.
Yet after the last crash – in Cameron’s case, before – both men were talking a different language of the market. Sarkozy launched a commission in 2009, chaired by the now-sainted Joseph Stiglitz, to explore alternatives to GDP as the primary measure of social progress.
Cameron’s stab at a “GWB” (General Well-Being), first essayed in the blithe and creditworthy days of 2005, has quietly proceeded through the machinery of coalition government. At the start of November, the Office for National Statistics announced its “10 indicators of wellbeing”, which will be used to guide attitudinal surveys in the future.
Snorts of derision over your rye-bread, no doubt, as job creation stalls, unemployment rolls rise and political parties sharpen their claws (and clauses) for contest. Yet as I’ve found in helping to organise a conference on creative approaches to wellbeing, we should try to take a step or two back from the grim financial determinism of the moment.
Democracy only functions healthily if we believe we can imagine conditions other than they are. And wellbeing is an open enough concept, firmly at the heart of government, to allow our policy-brains to stop pressing the panic button.
One of our speakers, William Davies, wonders whether the UK government’s commitment to measuring, and then making policy on, the nation’s wellbeing is one of the biggest own-goals ever perpetrated by the administrative classes.
Take a method called “income-compensation technique” – derived from wellbeing studies and psychological damage assessments in legal cases. Using data on the correlation between happiness and take-home pay, it claims to identify the amount of money it would take to compensate a person for losing access to a free public good (for example, arts events or sporting facilities). A Department of Culture, Media and Sport report in 2010 estimated that the psychological satisfaction derived from a person attending concerts regularly was worth £9,000 of extra income.
This method – putting a price on unhappiness – can be extended to other areas. A Young Foundation report calculated that the psychological injury of being made unemployed would require a compensatory income of £23,000 per month. If the wellbeing mandarins are serious about calculating the “psycho-economic return” on investment, they might be forced to admit that the best returns come from public spending and occupational security, not private spending and labour-market turbulence. As Davies quips, in a Marxian way, “a spectre is haunting liberal economics”.
So wellbeing indicators, taken seriously at government level, could justify a gentler, more Keynesian response to the national deficit and global economic crisis. But in these systemically shaky times, the charge of irrelevance and navel-gazing is easily raised.
Rather than angsting about general ill-being, shouldn’t we be firing up the raging energies of "mathletic" entrepreneurs – coding, designing and splicing new markets into being? In the face of Asia and South America, implacably ascending their development curves to middle-class prosperity, don’t we need more edgy disatisfaction and nervy, competitive ambition on these islands – and indeed, this continent – not less?
For figures such as historian Niall Ferguson, the wellbeing agenda is an example of Europeans as “the idlers of the world”. We’ve wrapped ourselves in a wet blanket of psycho-socio-babble, recoiling from the creative destruction and disruptive innovation required to lift us out of a static economy.
Yet when you gather together the tribes of wellbeing, you hardly discover a lack of enterprise or innovation. The question is the nature of the “new” that’s being sought. The other “spectre” that haunts liberal economics – other than the lingering unhappiness that its happy-clappy consumerism generates – is the broaching of planetary boundaries for survival. This was forcibly restated in last week’s report from the International Energy Agency, which referred to the extreme climatic urgency of de-carbonising our industries and economies.
Yes, let’s fund primary science to keep open the possibility of radical innovation around energy and efficiency. Let’s retain a Victorian-style ambition about constructing grand new infrastructures to answer our needs for mobility, housing, communication.
But what also needs to happen is precisely the kind of innovation around lifestyles, cultures and values pursued by those at the eco-minded end of the wellbeing agenda – seeing a low-carbon society as an opportunity for social excitement and behavioural novelty. For who else will build the mindsets, and communally forge the habits, that prepare us to cope with radical change – both the changes we invite, and the changes we’ll have to endure?
And in terms of leading people out of their consumerist echo-chambers and into engagement with these prospects, play’s the thing. Take architect Indy Johar, who founded HubWestminster in cavernous empty office space behind the Institute of Directors. It’s a new incarnation of the Institute for Contemporary Arts 1947 slogan, “a playground for the mind”. Go there any evening if you want to sample the nexus between Occupy St Paul’s and the “big society”.
In this milieu, people with ideas are driven to create new practices, not just deliver papers. Writer Marek Kohn is advising the Sunshine Bank, which hopes to turn the desire for mutual recognition into an alternative currency system for communities and companies. Alice Taylor, ex-head of games at Channel 4, is building a new platform for toys that combines virtual play and local manufacture, aimed at fomenting craft values and ideas of non-disposability among kids. Tech entrepreneur Dougald Hine has a sideline deploying local bohemia to revive moribund retail outlets, such as the revitalised Brixton Village.
At our conference, we also have Buddhists and neuroscientists, radical artists and improvisers – people who have always found a way (mostly internally) to maintain their mental and social resilience in the face of endemic change. The point is that a real diversity of input is essential to thinking and feeling our way beyond the cyclical hysterics of capitalism.
Wellbeing is the kerchief in the top-pocket of the suited men striding through the current economic drama. We should give it a good tug, and see what comes out.
This is an essay I wrote for the Scotsman's op-ed on the fate of the freelancer in the current economic crisis - with questions on whether there can be an infrastructural and social-policy support for their chosen work- and lifestyle.
The picture to the left is, I believe, from the movie of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, in which the term "free lancer" first appears...
"Thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.” These are the words of the Norman knight Maurice de Bracy in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), after introducing the phrase “free lance” to the English language for the first time.
A mercenary warrior – unsworn to a lord, and able to take payments for his slicing and dicing – is what Scott strictly meant by a freelance (the European Renaissance called them condottiere, the Japanese their ronin).
But De Bracy’s opening line sums up pretty well the necessary energy and optimism of the freelancer, right down to the present day. If modern “knights-errant” have a heraldic crest on their breastplate, or laptop lid, it might be that beautiful line from Bob Dylan’s Masters of War: “he not busy being born is busy dying”. Or more succinctly: “life before death”.
The freelancer – and I speak as an incorrigible example of the species, having swashed my sword around liberally for the last 25 years – has become a significant economic category.
A 2008 report from Kingston University suggested that “skilled professional workers who are neither employers nor employees, supplying labour and services on a temporary basis under a contract, for a fee, to a range of business clients” comprise as many as four million people, making up 8 per cent of UK national turnover. More than 60 per cent are men, and the skill set ranges from heavy construction to flower arranging.
In the US, the Freelancers Union currently flourishes, aiming to organise and provide services for what the State Department defined as a third of the American workforce. Sara Horowitz, the president of the FU – how apropos! – calls it the “industrial revolution of our time”.
The two hurricanes that blow in the age of the freelancer are that familiar pairing of neo-liberal globalisation and new technology. The first chucked many professionals out of their company cubbyholes (and barred entry to as many) as global competition compelled outsourcing abroad and managerial leanness at home. And the second, partly the cause of the first, gives these professionals new tools (such as the internet and mobile and social networks) to turn their talents and skills into useful and valuable services and products.
There are groaning shelves of books which celebrate the rise of the “free agent nation” (Daniel Pink in the US) and the “portfolio worker” (Charles Handy in the UK). Some, such as the sociologist Richard Sennett, bemoan the “corrosion of character” caused by continuous, stable occupations and professions coming to an end. Some, such as myself, argue that we’ve needed to prepare for a “play ethic” to come after the “work ethic” for quite a while, and that freelancers are the pioneers of such a shift in values around productivity and purpose.
Yet if the creativity, flexibility and exuberance of the freelancer brings such tangible value and benefits to our societies and economies, they often come at a cost – and not least to the freelancers themselves. More often than not, freelancers have made a conscious trade-off between economic security and existential freedom (less of the first, more of the second).
Artists, actors and musicians have been acutely aware of this trade-off for centuries. If they are performers, the lifestyle has to be itinerant, taking satisfaction in changing locations or in the company of fellow players. Guaranteed fees are usually secured from venues, but who knows how big the next tour will be, whether the audience will appear again? And if it’s about producing objects, again there’s no stable relationship between the sculpture or song you make, and the vagaries of public (or even elite) taste, season after season.
Of course, the experience of autonomy – of getting up in the morning and deciding how to do what you’ve chosen to do – is for many artists (and freelancers) enough tangible wealth in itself. The artistic template for freelancing rests on the psychological distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: you get a surge of wellbeing from regularly aligning your vision with your action. This is ultimately preferable to the disalignments of normal occupational work, where your alienation from your own deeds is comforted by your increased ability to participate in consumerist society.
Yet some realities have to be faced by the truly free worker. Where one lives, and how one moves about, often has to take a few steps back from the new car, mortgage and flatscreen norm aspired to by most traditionally employed workers. Living spaces tend to be shared rental or (if one has the patience for the housing list) a sole residence in a tougher area.
Places such as East Berlin, and lately Detroit, become havens for the wilder end of freelance life: rents are lower, and the rentable spaces – the empty urban hulks of an industrial or communist era – allow for residence and creativity to happen in the same location.
Cities provide another basis for the freelance life, in the richness and robustness of their public space. A half-decent transport system is like the blood vessels of the body civic, taking you cheaply and sustainably from one meeting to another.
And the locations that freelancers and their peers or clients meet are increasingly in “third places” - not just the crush of coffee shops, but plush interiors such as the Mitchell Library in Glasgow or the Wellcome Institute in London. All are suffused with low-cost or free wi-fi, allowing the benefits of an office table without the rental costs. And with ace caffs usually attached, you are deep within the “bustling times” that De Bracy the knight exulted in.
Are urban planners responding well enough to the challenge of the freelancers? In this post-property crash moment, we have an overcapacity in commercial building in cities, and some freelance advocates are figuring out a way to open these spaces up for use.
The activist Dougald Hine runs the Place Makers Agency, which brokers between creative workers, property owners and councils to re-use office spaces and market areas. A giant new Hub in Westminster, London, is opening before Xmas 2011, on a peppercorn rent, welcoming hordes of the metropolis’s freelancers. We need more of this kind of convivial enterprise north of the Border.
We live in a Scotland whose immediate future will be defined by a sharp debate over the job-creating powers of a full national parliament. So the question of how top-down governance can encourage a bottom-up culture of enterprise and initiative is highly pertinent.
Freelancers present some interesting answers to this question, as they represent an extreme on the spectrum of flexible workers. For example, should we be exploring and developing what Europeans call “social flexicurity”? In this idea, it’s presumed that people will work episodically, from project to project – but that doesn’t mean they should be subject to “workfare” restrictions on social support between gigs.
We muse on tax breaks for quicksilver multinational corporations, but perhaps we could also look again at the (recently expired) Irish and French fiscal experiments for exemptions to creative workers. Aren’t quirky, unique Scottish businesses – and the mavericks who might start them – worth structural support too?
The incessant challenges of new technologies, new global economic players and new climatic limits on growth and development can drive people to distraction – maybe even, as can be seen in recent Scandinavian election results, xenophobia. We need to imagine subtler, more resilient platforms of social security for daily lives that we have to accept will be increasingly defined by “social precarity”.
Freelancers know all about “precarious” (and some of us went there willingly). We have a lot to tell you about how “men and women of action” can make the best of “bustling times”. Errant knights may have their wider uses, after all.
I didn't really explore this angle in the review, but I am brewing up a proper Socratic exchange with the Scottish writer Ewan Morrison, whose clarion-call to prevent "The End of Books" at this years Edinburgh International Books Festival caused quite a fuss. Ewan is embracing and endorsing Levine's argument completely - and we've begun our detailed exchange on this Facebook post. But watch this space, because I think we'll be announcing a more engaged, and public, discussion about this soon. Meantime, all comments welcomed below.
How To Sink The Pirates of The Web
Unedited Review of Robert Levine's Free Ride in The Independent, 2 September, 2011 (edited version)
By Pat Kane
My eldest geek daughter and I were helpless with laughter the other night, rapt at our screens before another webcast discovery.
We had found a brilliant “mash-up”: footage of the Sesame Street character Cookie Monster, lip-synching precisely to the Tom Waits song “God’s Away On Business”. (Really, get thee to a search engine now: your day will be beatified). Such a diverting, obsessional labour of love is what we celebrate about the internet - amateur energies coursing through democratic tools, coming to mass attention from nowhere.
But what might the respective intellectual-property lawyers from Henson Enterprises, or Waits’s record label Anti, have to say about such a wisp of joy? According to Robert Levine, they should be fully empowered to discourage such irreverent bricolage, with all manner of punitions and legal threats.
In this comprehensive but relentless book, Levine (an ex-editor of US music business bible Billboard) wants to make us realise that the internet’s facilitation of “free culture” - or a world of piracy to some - has to come to an end. His case is that technology companies have built their businesses - whether web-based and advertiser-driven, or integrated device companies like Apple - on the basis of unpriced (or underpriced) content, made possible by the open (or more precisely, under-controlled) web. Levine has made an very authoritative attempt to substantiate the content creators’ fightback.
But his angst for the good old days of the music business (roughly the early to mid 90’s, before those subversive, system-wielding geeks came to spoil the party) also reveals some rather grisly commercial assumptions. For example, one of his problems with iTunes, even though it’s a monetised service, is that it “unbundles” the album. The consumer is now able to spend less money picking off favourite tracks - rather than, as before, having to spend more money on a complete magnum opus (including those interminable urban soundscape tracks on the second CD).
Yet Levine has no appreciation for how this unbundling allows listeners to create their own stimulating playlists, refining and amplifying their musical enthusiasms. Would this ultimately result in more spend per consumer? Levine cites studies that say no, against others that say yes - but he also admits there is a general failure of objective market research in this area. Yet it’s indicative of the overly corporate, pro-bottom-line tone of this book that even Apple’s brilliant, integrated and mostly successful effort to commercialise the infinitely copyable is worth his sustained grouch.
What would a “functioning market” for digital culture look like for Levine? A balance of stick and carrot, entrepreneurship and regulation, which he calls “blanket” or “collective licensing”. The carrots are well-designed content “services” (the current exemplar is the music-streaming service Spotify). We receive a bountiful - but licensed - downpour of music (Levine thinks it could be extended to other media, like tv and journalism) to our various screens and headphones.
It would “feel like free”, because the user experience is the same click-frenzy as present: it wouldn’t be free, however, because our actual payment would be subsumed into the rental fees we pay for our information devices. (Levine predicts that we would have to accept some price rises in these rents).
The “stick” part is that licenses, obviously, have to be enforced. Performing Rights Society inspectors already go round radio stations, restaurants and cafes, making sure these establishments are paying their dues for playing music. So a software equivalent would regularly monitor the usages of these services across the networks - ensuring that some agreed proportion of revenues is returned to the rights-holders (be they corporations or individual musicians).
Levine hopes we can redefine copyright, “the right to copy” - an unenforceable absurdity after ten years of the vast copy-machine known as the Web - as copyrisk. Like traditional actuaries gathering together pools of money to insure against the inevitable risk of shipwreck (or car accident), the content business needs to find a way to collectively compensate authors and creators for the healthy turbulence of internet usage.
You almost feel sorry for Levine, in all his mercantile passion, when he discovers where these “collective licensing” agreements are already proving most successful: in Northern Europe, from Ireland to Germany, Denmark to Finland. That is, in national cultures where “they socialize any number of expenses that others would view as private. And as anyone involved in health care can tell you”, he continues sorrowfully, “what works smoothly in Scandinavia can start fights in the US”.
His call for a “statutory approach” in his own country, as the American polity gyres and gambles on its various fundamentalist axes, seems rather forlorn.
Ian Hargreaves’ constructive recent Digital Economy report in the UK would seem to chime with this European approach. He suggested a one-stop Digital Rights Exchange, which would help make intellectual property somewhat more trackable - and thus licensable - across the expanding wilds of bandwidth.
And away from the heavy-metal clangour of “thieves” and “property-owners” (oh enough of that, for the moment) it’s the filigree of patient, intelligent policy - forged through a boring old stakeholder-driven commitment to a well-regulated mixed economy - that will bring stability to these debates. Which labours, to his credit, Levine fully endorses.
Incidentally, Hargreaves’ report makes an astute and charming proposal: we should recognise the rights of parodists and satirists to recombine digital material, without Matrix-like IP lawyers swooping down to exterminate them. It looks like, at least in this jurisdiction, that Cookie Monster Tom will continue to flap his gums freely. Our house will be pleased.
This is a short piece I wrote for Play Today, the regular journal of Play England, the advocacy charity for children's play (original PDF is here).
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Pat Kane, 'Swings and Roundabouts in Whitehall', Play Today, Issue 72, Spring 2011
These are tough times for those trying to guarantee the grounds of play for children, adults and communities. Michael Gove’s cancellation of the playground building programme last year (though a brutally stripped-down version has survived) came as no surprise to those familiar with the Gradgrindery of his general educational philosophy, all history and Latin lessons. In the light of this, it's worth remembering just what an unlikely triumph the programme was for the previous administration.
It is true that when the then children’s secretary Ed Balls announced close to christmas in 2007 that over £200 million was to be earmarked to build 3,500 playgrounds, and then followed it through in the subsequent two years, advocates of play were pinching themselves.
New Labour, with various invocations of a renewed work-ethic for the work-shy and a notoriously exacting measurement culture in education, did not seem the most propitious sponsor of the value and benefits of play; oblique, messy and experimental as play is. Ed Balls did not join up his thinking when he rejected the Cambridge Primary Review in 2009, which showed conclusively that an extended period of kindergarten-style play up to the seventh year was the best developmental start for school children.
But there it was; alongside play initiatives from the lottery fund and echoed throughout the devolved parliaments, a commitment to building playgrounds as a step towards rethinking how we regard the activity of children in our public spaces, town and cities. It’s tempting to say that in a similar way to our shifts on climate change, the scientific consensus on the health, the cognitive and social benefits of more play in our lives - both for children and adults - was becoming indisputable.
A staple in the rise of neuro-psychological and biological accounts of human nature over the last twenty years has been the role of play: joyful experimentation, imagining and gaming with others as the best exercise for the growing human mind. Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood and Stuart Brown’s Play are at the summits of research here. The UNICEF report on children’s well-being in rich countries in 2007, which placed the UK at the bottom of 23 industrialised nations, was an embarrassing wake-up call for a government which had made the welfare of children one of its moral back-stops.
Whatever the determining forces, it was certainly the feeling among the community of play workers and advocates that a line about the legitimacy of play as a key part of human development throughout the life-span had been crossed. Given such positive support and signals, much ingenuity, commitment and invention has been pouring into this area in Britain.
The Coalition has made sure it will not let a crisis go to waste, taking the opportunity to brutally shrink the state to pre-new-Labour levels. As a result, the playground building programme goes in its entirety; not even shrunk or trimmed, but dumped wholesale.
If you wanted to find "an inch in which to live" (as the great 60's play advocate Richard Neville put it) between the Tories and Labour - and for that matter, any of the left-leaning devolved polities - a play policy for children would be that inch. Enabling good conditions of play is an investment in the ultimate long-term health and capacities of future citizens, a crucial and dynamic element of the “sure” start promised to children in the UK after the harshness of the Tory years.
Of course, play policy should have been extended beyond childhood to teenage-dom and adulthood. There is too much evidence – ably pulled together by Daniel Pink in his new book Drive – that the most creative and profitable modern organisations ensure “play” time for their employees. A small zone of self-determination increases overall productivity and effectiveness by considerable degrees. Shouldn’t we be socialising our future creative workers to expect a degree of creative play in their lives?
There might be some wriggle-room for play advocacy in the Coalition's big idea of the Big Society. According to one of its theorists, Jesse Norman, the "active, creative self... fizzing with possibility" is at the core of its vision - a citizen aspiring towards "mastery, autonomy and purpose", and expressing that through free voluntary activity.
Yet this glowing civic vision runs into the wall of a brutal deficits-justified contraction in public sector budgets. And as any playworker would tell you, the anxiety and fear which mass redundancy will generate are the least likely circumstances for such a playful, active self to flourish.
The Labour government managed to join up the dots between play, well-being, health and employment. Facing the contradictions and confusions of the current government, play advocates must take a deep breath and restate the case for the power and potential of play. The game, as they say, is worth the candle.
I did an interview with Daphne Dragona for the Greek culture magazine Konteiner at the end of last year - it's just come to me via Google Alerts - on my current thinking about The Play Ethic. Really great and generative questions (I'd also throughly recommend diving through the Personal Cinema site it's been republished on: great interviews around the politics of play/game with Ken Wark, Trebor Scholz and Raoul Vanegeim (in French)). The whole thing succinctly summarises where I am with it, and points towards my new "book-net" project Radical Animal. Hope it's all of interest .
Let’s start from the basics! Could you tell us what the “play ethic” is and how you locate it in today’s society and culture?
Simply put, the play ethic is what comes after the work ethic. If the work ethic is the mindset that enabled generations of communities to accept their position, and perform their duties, in the industrial system, the play ethic is the mindset that gets modern people ready for living in an age of information, networks and everyday globalisation.
Play is an adaptive faculty of experiment, flexibility, optimism and resourcefulness for complex mammals, and supremely so for humans. It's exactly these faculties that our current age of incessant change requires from us, as paradigms of production, environment and culture continue their transformation in the 21st century. In my view, the great promise of play becoming our dominant way of doing, being and creating value is that it keeps us open towards, and energetic about, fundamental reform of our systems and structures. As players, we are much more aware of the rules of the systemic games we are embedded in, and the possibilities that they might be amended, abandoned or imagined anew.
In your work discussing play, you very often refer to the “soulitarians”, the bearers of the play ethic as you say, the new generation of workers who are culture’s active soulful players. “Not proletarians, but soulitarians”… the ones who “were allowed to download their lives for free” and share it without second thoughts, to travel around the world with cheap airlines and base their lives on their emotional and communicational capabilities taking advantage of the possibilities the digital era offers. Is this the charming side of the new creative, affective and precarious class that emerged in the oughties? At the turn of the decade how would you now comment on their role?
Yes, I think it's true that part of my aspiration for the "soulitariat" was infused with an early-2000s moment of techno-optimism - and that nowadays, they are as much a "precariat" as a "soulitariat". I may be wrong here, but I have a specific take on the student and generational unrest in Greece (and elsewhere). Does this unrest indicate that the "expanded souls" of the digital generation (or Millenials as they are described elsewhere), forged in open networks and with a joyful experience of digital plenitude at their fingertips, has run into the reality of scarcity-and-hierarchy-dominated Western economic life? I was already quoting from people like Antonio Negri and Paulo Virno when the Play Ethic book came out in 2004, who posit a communicationally-formed "multitude" that's gradually coming to realise the power that it holds, as an affective and cognitive collectivity. These ideas really informed what I called the "soulitariat": those who retain their "soul" (the interiority and conviviality that communicational capitalism needs to function), and redeploy that in order to imagine and live out new lifestyles, or (maybe now, in more straitened economic times) protest against the limits and false promises of the existing order.
I'm also beginning to think much more than I did five years ago about how this playful techno-capacity will respond to a low-carbon horizon for societies. Can this experience of ingenuity and digital making be translated into other zones of self-production? Or do we need to be aware of how playful interactions with software platforms can be engagingly programmed to distract us from this climate crisis? I'm exploring this relationship between play and sustainability in my next book.
In your writings you clearly emphasize on the importance of the work of the psychologist Brian Sutton- Smith , The Ambiguity of Play (Harvard, 1997) and in particular on the significance of the “adaptive potentiation” of play he is talking about . What does this element mean? Would you say that play may help us to adapt, to recover, to be less vulnerable in times of uncertainty?
That is indeed the function play has for complex mammals, and other organisms with more developed brains and rich social networks - it's a zone of experimentation and simulation which helps us to rehearse and test out our social lives, our cognitive visions, without these experiments costing us too much, in terms of risk of injury or waste of energy. I have been talking recently about the "ground of play" that seems to be shared between the lion-cubs frolicing on the savannah, and our performances within the end-to-end network of the internet. A complex-mammalian ground of play is 1) loosely but robustly governed, 2) ensures a surplus of time, space and materials, and 3) is a zone where failure, risk and mess is treated as necessary for development. The point of describing this zone is to get away from the overly individualist conception of the "adaptive player" that often comes through from self-help or business literature - some tensile, labile creature leaping from niche to niche in the capitalist jungle. For me (and forgive my teleology!), the evolutionary story of play points towards a societal arrangement - which the social-democratic settlement first demonstrated, but which may take other forms - where liberalism and security, risk and governance, exist in fruitful and healthy tension. Again, returning to the low-carbon reformation that's required in the next few years, a play-oriented policy-change might well be a wholesale, all-sector reduction of the working week (heading towards 21 hours), combined with a social wage policy, which would unleash a great flourishing of social and cultural experiment, moving us away from positional consumption to engaged poiesis and production. Again: governance, but of a loose yet robust structure - that's the real evolutionary power of the play moment.
You often work as an advisor for institutions, organizations and companies, introducing play in their work system and structure. Embracing the inventiveness, the liveness, the openness of play you seem to argue that it will form healthier and more sustainable institutions. You are actually also talking of an “open source” leadership. How feasible is this? Could you give us some examples?
It's not easy to find that many! My experience with organisations has largely been that public sector and educational institutions are more amenable to a "zone of play" opening up within their operations - they often already see the need for occupational and professional development, putting their employees on away-days and training courses. My provocation to them is to imagine that these temporary, revivifying "play-days" can actually begin to affect the existing structures of the organisation. Initially this might be about giving employees much more self-determination and autonomy within their particular functional area (a version of the Google 20 per cent rule, where their engineers get one day a week to follow freely their on-job enthusiasms). But ultimately - and this is where I haven't been successful! - the aim would be to indeed devolve and "open source" the very strategic direction of the enterprise itself. In the private sector, my work with creative start-ups and arts/cultural organisations has been much more fruitful. They're aware that their best commercial moves are sustained and enriched by a hinterland of lifestyle and sensibility - which they have to devote time, space and resources to developing and nuturing. The worst experiences have been with large private corporations, for whom the play ethic is mostly regarded as a way to retain bright sparks in the 'war for talent'.
Can an openness then driven through play break down certain hierarchies and borders? Because a major issue for every period according to its different features lies upon inclusions and exclusions. Who gets to play? Who gets to decide the rules of societies’ games? If play can form tactics against games’ strategies, if play can be political, could a new common decentralized playground arise for today’s multitude?
Possibly. For me the rise of play as a civilisational keyword, and as a mode of action and thought, in the developed West has been the result of two things: the persistence of post-Sixties counter-cultural values, and the rise of a communicational infrastructure - the internet - which provides tools for the realisation of those values, resulting in new kinds of groups, organisations, networks and movements. Play becomes the emotional overtone of the awareness that, as the 90's anti-globalisers put it, "another world is possible", demonstrated by their "carnivals" against capitalism. I would point your readers to the work of Michel Bauwens and his Peer-to-Peer Foundation (http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/) - he has worked out very carefully how we transition from a capitalist to a more collaborative economy and society, and factors different consciousnesses (including the openness and improvisation of play) into that transition.
For myself, I believe that the positive valuation of play in areas of policy, research and advertising is a sign that a shift of values is taking play - overturning, at the very least, the Puritan bias against intrinsically-motivated, joyful activity. It sits alongside positive accounts of precarity, or slow living, or idle cultures - all of them demonstrating a profound disillusionment with the idea of heteronomous work, and a desire for a more integrated and satisfying life. Of course play subtends all human existence and arrangements, our neotenic advantage over other animals. But we may be getting closer to collective and productive arrangements that allow it to be the true seat of our social nature.
Some great questions afterwards - I've built and developed my original answers.
Q: In Castells' era of mass self-communication, how do we ensure that there isn't so much noise that noone can hear the crucial information?
A: This is my point about the editorial function - it has to be more ambitious, as a scarce expertise in an overloaded information environment. But perhaps professional editorial should not be tied to the old business models, bemoaning falling paper sales, shrinking classified ad revenues, and pining for a remonetisation of their sales through mobile and tablet devices. Perhaps they should be talking to charities and NGOs, or thinking about establishing trust funds with philanthropists to secure long-term editorial functioning. Yes there is the public service media option - but I would also like to think futuristically about that too.
Q: But doesn't reasserting the editorial function just mean that we're going back to the old, pre-internet days of gatekeepers and institutions of information authority?
A: No - because as Clay Shirky says, the costs of creating such an editorial institution are much lower than they ever were, given the "insanely easy group forming tools" that the Net provides. Take the range of ex-Wikileaks employees who are setting up what they regard as better services for handling leaked information (see Open Leaks). I also think that editorial skills becomes something that gets spread through the citizenry. That will pluralise the idea of "objectivity" that is often, in reality, hides an unacknowledged and unconscious world-view among many journalists.
At the start of this debate series on the potential of happiness to shape political discourse, William Davies hoped that it would return our attention to production - or more specifically, how our experience of work in organisations is a crucial determinant of our wellbeing and life-satisfaction. A long history of economic thought in the 20th century had led up to a moment where the consumer was sovereign, and the producer his willing slave: workers' conditions were always ultimately malleable - flexible, just-in-timed - in the retail service of this whim-laden desiring machine.
Of course this machine, as Davies plaintively says, was often a worker too. Can't our politics encompass producer as well as consumer identities? Buttressed by the The Spirit Level and the happiness science of Richard Layard, Davies wonders if might there not be a new political appeal to the "workers" available to Ed Miliband's Labour Party. A health-oriented, moral-political rhetoric that could render bad employers (and the paltry labour market regulations binding them) "toxic" and "polluting" - perpetrating injuries upon the bodies and souls of their employees as mendaciously as cigarette vendors, or nuclear-powerplant owners. (And who knows, perhaps just as vulnerable to class-action litigation on the basis of prior knowledge of harm?)
I'm fascinated to observe the battle raging between the major UK parties for ownership of the new sciences of the "social animal" or "social brain". They're all struggling to realise their own political capital from the intellectual collapse of utility-maximising "economic man", in the face of consiliences between neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, epidemiology, network theory and more. And not forgetting a financial crash that caused its architects to doubt their own intellectual edifice.
Read Conservative MP Jesse Norman's ideas-tour of The Big Society, and then read some of the papers coming from the Compass group of the Labour Party. Both of them cite the same sources - particularly Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum's work on capabilities - to claim that a "social recession" has been occurring, regardless of economic recession. They share a figure of the healthy, happy citizen as needing "meaning, mastery and autonomy" - a purpose, goal or shared cause; an avidity for learning and new skills; the freedom to choose one's engagements in life.
In the midst of my own creative consulting practice, I did a double-take recently, when this trinity of capacities popped up in a discussion of what makes for a truly satisfying video-game. Yet surely it's all too obvious what the differences are between a PS3 "player" and a Big-Society "creative, active self". The former pursues meaning, mastery and autonomy (MMA) as a voluntary and joyful act, under conditions where there is a surplus of time, space and materials, essentially socially secure. The latter is being asked to become a "fizzing bundle of energy" (in Jesse Norman's words) under conditions of social insecurity, with extreme deficit-driven cuts slashing employment in public services. As far as my expertise in play tells me, these are not the most enabling conditions for MMA.
It's very easy to see The Big Society as an attempt to gull the aspirational and "creative" classes into supporting widescale privatisation, by talking their beloved language - specifically, appealing to their desire to achieve personal wellbeing through pro-social activities. But the Big Society falls down on its own terms, unravelled by the Oscar Wilde one-liner about the problem with socialism: "it will take too many evenings".
One might imagine that there could be a joyful, playful volunteerism to be pursued - if the Conservatives got tough with business and regulated for a shorter working week (say 30 hours), without a directly proportionate wage reduction. This would provide a rich systemic support to all that volunteering which, of course, has already been going on (one of the sharpest objections to the Big Society is that it's an opportunistic re-branding of what already exists). But a Conservative party that's brazen enough to preach democracy in Egypt, while hawking arms to Arab autocracies, is hardly going to take that kind of stand against squealing employers.
But while it's easy to critique a Tory philosophy on happiness which over-emphasizes voluntaristic "risk" and "creativity", and under-values the collective "security" and infrastructures which give a platform for the "active self" - you'd expect them to do that - I am doubtful that the Labour Party will find a better balance between these two in the modern workplace. How much of the sense of meaninglessness that pervades work in the commercial services sector, for example, comes from an awareness that much of what occurs there is the excitation, administration and sustenance of false needs, or delusory social-positioning? How much MMA can really be achieved by employees in hyper-consumerist industries based on the exploitation of guilt, shame, envy and anxiety?
At least the Green critique of current working practices, as exemplified by think-tanks like the New Economics Foundation and writers like Tim Jackson, Juliet Schor and Jeremy Rifkin, has the urgency of carbon-reduction and global warming at their backs. "Meaningful work" - which could as easily be fully-engaged, hacker-like play, or absorbed, intrinsically-motivated care - is what they hope will substitute for the planet-crisping satisfactions of lifestyle consumerism.
In a low-carbon economy that takes itself seriously, "flourishing" in the form of participation, self-provision and conviviality will have to compensate for "growth", "wealth" and its mountains of stuff. But no party will be able to preach the benefits of plenitude-without-trinkets, the happiness that comes from relationships, mindfulness and autonomous labours (see the five virtues extolled by the NEF's Happy Planet Index), while the financial plutocracy cavorts freely and unemployment rolls burgeon.
Cameron's plan for happiness began in the blithe financial-bubble-bath of the mid 2000's: pursued in these brutal conditions, it seems more like an idee fixe than a thought-out component of political hegemony. For Labour to succeed with its own version, some guarantee of greater security has to be offered - but it'll be through bold proposals on labour-market regulation, new networks of public goods, visible restorations of income equality - and an honesty about how our indicators of progress and prosperity will have to change. And not, I'd suggest, through workplaces the majority of whose enterprises contributes toward the consumerist tumult that guarantees unhappiness.
Here's my Independent review of Jane McGonigal's Reality Is Broken, her long-awaited opus on how computer games can motivate global change - about as pure a manifestation of The Play Ethic as it's possible to express. A short review, nowhere near adequate to the content of the book, but hopefully it'll jar you to buy it.
Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World
It has been strange to read a book which claims that reality is listless, uninspiring and broken compared to computer games as the Arab revolutions swarm across our screens. We watch real citizens defy real riot police in order to achieve real control of public space and institutions. At this moment, it's not that easy to hear Jane McGonigal tell us that immersion among the trolls and space warriors of virtual worlds is a way to recover our sense of epic idealism and heroic altruism.
But even in the blazing context of the new Arab dawn, McGonigal might have a point. One of the cheekier posters held up by the Tunisian youth in their mass protests was "Game Over": and we know generally how much cyber-culture enabled the fall of Ben Ali.
Even though Mubarak in Egypt was sharp enough to hit the off-switch early, it didn't seem to matter anyway. Digital-era protestors were already planning to play around with the oppressive reality of Egyptian public life. Remarkably like the "alternate reality games" that McGonigal has created in the streets of major cities for corporate clients, young activists began to stage creative protests that subtly reclaimed their streets. They flash-mobbed in city centres to sing the national anthem; they dressed in black and stood silently beside the Nile.
Egyptian street tactics for the initial "day of rage" on 25 January - in the words of activist Ahmed Salah, aiming "to be multi-polar, fast-moving, and too mobile for the amin markazi [central security forces]" - sound exactly like the kind of collaborative, laterally-thinking play that McGonigal (and others, like Steven Johnson and Tom Chatfield) celebrate as the core cognitive benefit of computer games. Sociologists, here's a brief: how has interactive culture shaped a new sense of civic confidence among Arab youth?
Reality Is Broken is the most powerful justification yet for computer games as one of our central literacies - parallel to literature or movies in the way they connect our motivations and energies with the challenges of understanding and intervening in our social worlds. As with literacy in the first Enlightenment, the huge popular embrace of this medium provides a rich test-bed for new grand theories about human nature and society.
Armed with an impressive bibliography in psychology and neuroscience, McGonigal makes the claim that the huge rush towards gameplay is a kind of exodus from what Theodor Adorno called "damaged life" - work that doesn't satisfy, relationships that don't persist, societies that don't find a place for hope or ambition. She brilliantly links the growing scholarship on happiness to the gimmicks and tricks that commercial game designers devise to engage their febrile audiences. Games help us get off the "hedonic treadmill", in which our consumer choices are fated never to satisfy us, and help us build up what she calls hedonic resilience.
The tough challenges we willingly embrace in computer games generate an internal sense of satisfaction that spills over into other areas of our lives. For example, and counter-intuitively, she cites numerous studies that heavy social gamers display greater levels of community-mindedness than non-gamers.
Ambitiously, McGonigal wants to take that emerging swell of human engagement and connect it to the solution of real-world problems. She has been involved in games about peak oil and other global instabilities, where the fun comes from playing out possible futures, using comic strips, web videos and elaborate avatars.
McGonigal begins and ends her book with Herodotus's tale of the Lydians, who turned to dice games to help them get through their 18 years of famine - and then played one final, giant game, drawing lots to choose which half of the population would leave the country to seek prosperity elsewhere. Her point is that games can both raise spirits and build collective understanding, particularly at moments of extreme crisis.
As Arab activists grapple with the grown-up difficulties of a free public sphere, they may currently have a less-than-ludic take on their "broken" reality. But there was an imaginative component of these protests which took its cue from something other than the usual verities about civil rights. As McGonigal might say: watch this game-space.
Pat Kane's 'The Play Ethic' is published by Macmillan
Below are the slides to my presentation to the Young Foundation, a social enterprise think-tank in London founded by Micheal Young, exploring the concept of the "Big Society" - the UK Conservative Party's big idea for its Coalition government - in relation to my evolving theories about play, human nature and governance.
The slides may need a little context. My subtitle as announced on the day was "48 hours in the life of an London ideas merchant". The day before my Young Foundation presentation I'd had a meeting with a commercial digital agency to see if we could devise some useful strategies about convincing advertisers and marketers that they should approach a game/play based approach to their expenditure. We cited the work of game analyst Sebastian Deterding, from whom the test of a great game experience is that it allows "meaning, mastery and autonomy".
That evening, while preparing for next day's presentation, I was reading the Conservative MP Jesse Norman's The Big Society on my Kindle - when I came upon a passage where he talked about the Big Society's motivational drives being that of "autonomy, mastery and purpose/meaning"... Thus alerted to a synchronicity in the world of ideas, I tried to follow through the consequences...
All comments welcome below. (An extended article will be available over the next few days).
In the world-theatre of geopolitics, where hubris sometimes seems like the only hit production running, Hilary Clinton's 'Internet Freedom' speech of January 2010 deserves some kind of special critics' award.
Drawing a parallel between the Iron Curtain of the Cold War and the "information curtain descending across much of the world", the US Secretary of State praised "viral videos and blog posts" as "the samizdat of our day... We need to put these tools in the hands of people around the world who will use them to advance democracy and human rights".
Wiki-oops! Since then, of course, we've seen April's "viral video" of trigger-happy US soldiers killing Reuters journalists in Iraq. And over the last few weeks we've been reading the world's most incendiary collection (so far) of "blog posts", a recent selection from a vast cache of secret US diplomatic cables spanning the last forty-odd years.
In one of Evgeny Morozov's three cursory references to Wikileaks in over 400 pages of the The Net Delusion - ah, the perils of papery publishing schedules! - he notes that the American political elite "can't be calling for imposing restrictions on sites like Wikileaks" (already being proposed earlier this summer) "and also be disparaging China and Iran for similar impulses".
Quite so. Yet it's strange to read this truculent but extremely well-informed critique of "cyber-utopianism" and "internet-centrism" - with its demolition of such phenomena as the Iranian "Twitter Revolution", never mind Clinton's vapors about digital freedom - in the aftermath of the structural shock-waves that Wikileaks has set off around the world.
Morozov builds up an almost unarguable case that the internet is easily deployable by authoritarian states to serve the time-honoured oppressors' trinity of censorship, surveillance and propaganda. Much of his book is a useful tour d'horizon of the ways that the security regimes in Russia, Iran, China, Turkey, his homeland Belarus and many others are matching, mimicking and populating the best of Web 2.0 - all those idealised "social tools" from the coding labs of California.
Yet we've seen an American establishment successfully putting pressure on some of the poster-boys of the network society - be it Amazon, Paypal, Mastercard, Visa and now Apple - to cut off the digital and financial supports of Wikileaks. Federal employees and students have been blocked or banned from visiting the site; prominent politicians and columnists have called for Wikileaks' founder, Julien Assange, to be assassinated.
It's getting a little difficult to discern one repressive cyber-regime from another these days.
One wonders whether Morozov's dull antennae towards Wikileaks' potential in this book (though ironically enough, he's making up for it now, in his unstoppable stream of tweets at @evgenymorozov) comes from his own institutional conditioning. From his days as a scholarship schoolboy, Morozov has been sponsored by Soros's Open Society institute, on whose board he now sits. This has clearly been an entree to fellowships at Stanford, Yahoo! and the New America Foundation, generating bylines at the Economist, the FT, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek.
And throughout The Net Delusion, Morozov shows a degree more sympathy for the kind of diligent, time-and-people-intensive democracy promotion of the diplomatic classes revealed by the Wikileaks cables, than he does for the crackers, hacker and platform-makers of digital evangelism.
Indeed, his central caution is that the unthinking Western promotion of cyber-tools as enablers and organisers of dissent under authoritarian regimes - sometimes driven by Cold-War nostalgia, sometimes by a lazy and mistaken search for "diplomatic efficiency" - can sometimes make things worse for those concerned.
Encouraging dissidents to use Twitter, YouTube, Facebook or mobile texting - even if those services protect the identity of users and don't cave under state pressure (whatever the state) - still provides a stream of social data which can reveal networks of activists, or alerts regimes to protests and concerns well in advance.
The powerful "sentiment analysis" software required for these tasks is being provided to regimes by Western tech-corps like IBM, Cisco and Ericsson - an amoral info-commercial complex about which Morozov is enjoyably robust: "we don't just need a wikinomics, but a wikiethics as well".
Though his demolition job on the embarrassments of Cupertino-driven "internet freedom" is comprehensive, Morozov does have more than a few positive suggestions on how Western powers can fashion information networks to give power and voice to those who need it most.
Encryption and security protocols are high on his list. He suggests they are a "win-win" for Western tech giants, who might both placate the increasing data-privacy concerns of their domestic customers, as well as give dissidents a much safer medium for informing and organising themselves.
Of course, security is at the heart of Wikileaks' offer to whistle-blowers everywhere. As Assange said in an interview with David Frost on Al'Jazzera recently, their extremely secure upload technology means that they cannot know the identity of any particular wikileaker to their service in advance.
Indeed, Assange's insurance policy - against heaven knows what depradations from the American state - is an encryption key that will unlock the complete archive of Wikileaks' documentation to the world, unfortunately described by his lawyer as "the information equivalent of a thermo-nuclear bomb".
Yet Morozov, no doubt directly informed by the particularly fustian nature of Belarussian oppression, reminds us that hammering in your safe code at a keyboard is only a secreted micro-camera away from revelation. And apparently, it's not yet possible to use long-range audio equipment to tell what characters are being distantly tapped out on a laptop (for that, some small mercies).
The Net Delusion is most useful as a reminder of how fleet-footed, rather than leaden and second-rate, many authoritarian regimes are in their cyberpolicies. China is a veritable powerhouse of disinformation-technology - not only building effective mobile, social networking and gaming platforms in which users trade off efficiency for surveillance, but also inducing the required netiquette on those services.
The Fifty-Cent Party, for example, is an army of blog-commenters who get paid for every dissident blog they snow with patriotic, party-approved rebuttals. And more subtly, China encourages blogging that highlights local corruption or poor services, while keeping a ceiling on more ambitious political critiques.
It's also a delight to be reminded that, in their search for ever-better propaganda techniques, a most honoured guest of the Central Party School in 2001 was one Peter Mandelson, there to "share his insights about the re-invention of the British Labour Party". China is inspiring the same burst of innovation in many other regimes: and Morozov usefully reminds us that loyal nationalism and patriotic service can be as much a motivation for the young socio-technical operative as the bohemian anarchisms of Julien Assange and his pals.
Which makes it imperative that the demonisation of Wikileaks stops, and a clear-sighted engagement with the shift in power that it heralds, begins. Morozov himself set out the options in a superb Financial Times editorial recently: these info-hackers, present and future, could become either a new "Transparency International" or a new "Red Brigades".
That is, their desire to be a new "fifth estate" - true to the spirit of the American "First Amendment" which holds a free press to be the best friend of accountable democracy - can be steadily answered by a non-panicked establishment. Or if things go pear-shaped (or bloody) for the likes of Assange, an info-insurrection may be unleashed that could leave considerable swathes of our comfortable, well-functioning knowledge society in ruins.
"Internet freedom", in short, is a valiant sword with a number of blades, existing in several dimensions simultaneously. As we go down the rabbit-hole of Wikileaks, Morozov's humane and rational lantern will help us land without breaking our legs.
Before the year ends, I should post up an essay I wrote for the D8 design consultancy in Glasgow, celebrating ten years of talking about The Play Ethic (my chosen anniversary date was the appearance of my major essay in the Observer newspaper in October 2000). It's not a heavy theoretical read, has some clues towards my next burst of intellectual activity. All comments welcome.
Playing well: ten years of the Play Ethic
There's nothing like the tenth anniversary of your own cultural meme to help you mark the passage of time.
My Observer magazine cover article on The Play Ethic, titled "Play For Today", first appeared on October 22, 2000. The dot-bust was just reaching the peak of its fall-out, but had still left us all living in a new, weightless, connected world. Blairism was in its high pomp, heading for another New Labour landslide; meanwhile, a brand-new Scottish Parliament was stumbling to its feet.
And I was hoping that walking out of a well-paid editorial job with a brand-new newspaper, The Sunday Herald - and betting on a zeitgeist change - was the right thing to do.
I'll never regret the last minute panicked call to the editor: "make sure the website address is at the bottom of the piece!" A bit bemused, she assented. And thus my own meeting-place for thousands of global souls (or whatever over 220,000 page views translates to), increasingly intrigued by the power and potential of play over the last decade, was founded. (And yes, the web address will be at the end of this piece). It's been a fascinating lens through which to peer at some of the civilizational tumult of the Zeroes.
In a sentence, the Play Ethic was intended to be what comes after the Work Ethic. Whereas the latter was a legitimating creed for the duty, routine, steady production and social self-restraint appropriate to the industrial era, the former was a mentality to help us get the best out of the informational era.
I wanted a new generation of "soulitarians" to exult in the flexibility of new kinds of employment, to be excited about the transformative power of digitality and networks, to recover a child-like sense of optimism and creativity that could now express itself in the mainstream of our lives. Even in the ruins of the Dot-Bust, and in defiance of the weird "new work ethic" promulgated by the even weirder Gordon Brown, it seemed to me like a major shift in the common-sense of our public and private lives was underway.
And then halfway through the write up of the Play Ethic book, in September 11, 2001, a screaming came across the sky... That delayed the book, which finally published in late 2004. But what it also had to change was a sense - something that I've been struggling with ever since - that the "playfulness" I'd been counterposing to a stiff, commanding-and-controlling, experiment-fearing world of organisational orthodoxy was perhaps too culturally specific.
My first year of the Play Ethic had seen me fielding major advertisers like Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Lowe Lintas, or esteemed organisations like the British Council and the Cabinet Office - all of them part of the blithe, post-Fukuyama 'market-democratic' over-confidence of the times. And all of them looking for the next new sexy idea to help them govern electorates, or sell to consumers.
But with the Twin Towers bomber Mohammed Atta's suicide note in my ear - "the time for play is over and the serious time is upon us" - I realised straightaway that to think about the role of play in the human condition was to do more than provide some fizzy buzz-words for some corporate business strategy.
When Will Hutton reviewed The Play Ethic in the Guardiani, he fascinatingly bundled it in with books on idleness and slowness, and then connected it to Joseph Nye's concept of soft power. These visions of squashy, messy, bucolic, non-coercive Western-ness, concluded Hutton, "might be doing their small part to help our image and limit the appeal of al-Qaida... The happier we are, the better - not just for ourselves, but as a reason to be copied rather than opposed".
Mebbes aye, mebbes naw, as the magister ludi Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish might have pronounced. But in any case, I hit the book-stands with a sprawling monster that felt it had to consider the Buddhist network path as seriously as New Labour workfare; the indeterminacy of the quantum on a par with the elegance of the Lego brick. No, a mega-bucks period of zeitgeist-surfing at Malcolm-Gladwell speaking rates did not quite ensue for me.
But what did ensue was points of contact with a growing constituency of people for whom "play" became an important keyword, signifying a crisis of meaning or purpose in their domain. For example, I've talked to so many educators and the educated over this period - everyone from Australian and British government ministers to Kilmarnock play workers and teachers, from New York academics to Bristol primary school kids.
I have no real idea what impact these conversations have had - but it has been a delight to see the growing importance of playful experience to educational reform. Until the Con-Dem coalition slashed it for deficit reduction, there were hundreds of millions of pounds being devoted to playparks in the UK - the rationale based on the kinds of multidisciplinary studies of the health and neuronal benefits of play that I'd highlighted in the book.
And almost every educational establishment now gets the benefits of extended kindergarten, or active-learning-through-play, for the development of future learners. It's taken nearly a century and a half, but Dickens' Gradgrind is gradually being evicted from the British classroom.
We're also in something of a "wellbeing" revolution in public policy: no ambitious political figure in the UK, on any part of the ideological spectrum, can now get away without condemning those philistines who know "the price of everything and the value of nothing". And from my commissions and engagements, I'm beginning to perceive that for many people, play puts meat on the bones of more abstract considerations of "happiness" or "quality-of-life". At least in its active, sociable, physical mode, play gives a taste of what the "good society" might actually feel like.
But there are other dimensions of play - what the scholars call "dark" or "ancient" play - which I've become increasingly aware of over the years. One deficiency in the 2004 book, and one which I'm still ambivalent about, is the steady rise to commercial and cultural predominance of computer games culture in the developed world. I've literally watched its rise over the shoulders of my daughters, who have both grown up playing god-games and simulated worlds in the last decade. But I'm not a natural gamer - and I wonder whether it's because games are all too easily deployed to reinforce a rampantly martial and competitive spirit of society.
My own play-guru, the psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith, isolates "contestive" play, or play-as-power, as only one form of play's "taking reality lightly". I'm consulted regularly by games-makers and professionals these days, who sense a crisis in their own burgeoning sector. It's not just in terms of the costs of blockbuster games leading to high risk and bankruptcy. It's also about the narrowness and oppressiveness of the "win-state", "power-up" mentality that so much of games culture generates.
Watch organisations like Hide And Seek, or go to events like Playful, or note games-makers like Jane McGonigal, and you'll see a generation of gamers who want to do for their medium what alternative filmmakers did for French and American cinema from the 50's onwards. But I'm finding that a "play ethic"- a sense of experiment and openness leading to a sustainably good life - is being actively sought out in this community - yes, even by the coders of out-of-control robot soldiers and vengeance-wreaking fantasy trolls.
Where next for the Play Ethic? One further omission from the 2004 book was any real grappling with environmental limits, or the necessity for a low-carbon future, other than with a kind of blithe hope that technological innovation - fuelled by the best spirit of scientific play, of course - would get us out of our resource hole. I'm now fascinated by play as both a window into the eternal sources of human inventiveness, and as a soft-spot that opens us up to addictive interaction and lifestyle narcissism.
On some mornings, I wake up and exult in a networked world that's like a giant "ground of play": robust but loosely structured, enabling a surplus of materials for us to freely combine and morph, allowing new parties and voices into the process of building society. On other mornings, I fall out of bed, attend to my flickering smart-phone, and wonder whether I'm holding in my hand a weapon of mass distraction - something that ensnares my character in a matrix of "fun", allowing me to acquiesce in the charcoaling of the planet.
The very energies of play - not exclusively our own as a species, but something we uniquely retain right to the end of our lives - shows that we are a radical animal. Play gives us the capacity to flexibly respond to almost any situation that our environment throws at us. My aim now is still to explore what an "ethic" for play might be - but one which picks through its wide range of potentiating options, and tries to develop the best ones for a sustainable society.
The rise of "maker" culture - what the hackers (who I began to pick up on in the 2004 book) did when they moved from coding to concrete reality - is an example of a dimension of play that could really help us get beyond a wastefully consumerist society.iiMakers promote a sociable tinkering, where we use hi-tech to skill ourselves and provide for ourselves more and more, rather than a lazy, brand-directed consumption.
As it seems to have taken a decade for the first incarnation of the Play Ethic to move from the curious fringes to somewhere near the centre of debate about the qualities of the good society, I'm expecting this greener version to take at least as long to get to the same place - by which time it might be called something completely different.
But the principle of freedom and openness that play represents means that, whatever happens, the debate will be rich, inclusive, sprawling and never-ending. It's been a great perch from which to observe the beginning of the 21st century. Let's see where the societal carnival takes us in the next ten years. Leg godt, as the Danish say: play well.