From Konteiner #11
D.D: 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?
P.K: 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.
D.D. 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?
P.K: 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.
D.D. 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?
P.K: 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.
D.D. 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?
P.K: 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’.
D.D. Can an openness then driven through play break down certain hierarchies and borders? Cause 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?
P.K: 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.