Real-time human experience about to change - a digital layer across our perceptions
Max Weber disenchantment of the world - this is a reenchantment.
But under whose spell?
See the Keiichi Matsude video, Hyperreality (On Vimeo). A simulation of 5 mins in life of a precarious worker in Medellin, Colombia - but from the point of view of her smart glasses.
An image both oppressive - everything flashes with adverts, health and performance indicators, dancing commercial logos - but also, frankly, hallucinatory - something a shaman might experiences under the influence
The challenge here for people in government is respecting the perceptual integrity of the user-citizen - how to manifest yourselves in people's perceptual fields?
The challenge here for commercial operators - how do you curate a pleasing, useful, comforting digital layer, as comfortable as Apple?
At FutureFest this year - we had the first ever Cybathlon - one of the sports was Brain-Computer Interfaces - severely disabled and immobile players who could move virtual or robotic avatars with thought (last year we had Neurosis - the world's first ever neuro-driven thrill-ride)
There is a post-egoic tendency, a transpersonal tendency, in digital culture - due to its webbedness, its network nature - and I think Zuckerberg is entirely correct in presuming that a techno-telepathy is the ultimate next platform or medium.
Technotelepathy is a horrible word - empathy seems too familiar - let me suggest a new word:
Harari: very strong claim of humanism is that we realise our inner natures - we dig deep down & express who we are. Human-centred digital design. But what if we are able to choose, select & edit those desires?
Calls to action to prepare for your possible future?
- Come to me and I'll send you a reading Twitter & blog list!
- Stay with two areas of practice -
- Mind/brain science
- & experimental/contemporary techno-art practice - much forging of future lifestyle/habits/behaviours going on there (for example, my curation of FutureFest)
So my current hat - in a lifetime of oddly-shaped headwear, worn in the course of a long career in creativity - is curator. Specifically, my curatorship of Nesta’s FutureFest since 2012, this year focussing on the theme of Play.
I could talk for hours about curation - how it’s like being an “editor of things” (rather than words), or how it’s one of the last places where the intellectual generalist can make an honest buck.
But let me focus on one aspect today - and that’s how a curator manages talent and expertise How do you engage a major name to appear at your event?
I’ve done not too badly over the years at FutureFest - we’ve had Edward Snowden, Vivienne Westwood, George Clinton, Owen Jones, Paul Mason, Lily Cole, Eric Drexler, Sir Martin Rees, Helena Kennedy, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, Roberto Unger. This year, we have Brian Eno, DJ Spooky and Will Self already confirmed.
Each of them represents a particular story of access. But there are some common elements that I’ve identified about effective curation that may be of interest.
What very much helps, in the FutureFest context, is that we make it clear to speakers that this isn’t your usual corporate or TED-style speaking event. We’re not charging 3-4K (£’s, $’s or Euros) per audience member - indeed we try to keep a day ticket to under £50.
We’re also a public-good charity - so the point of any revenue generated is to pay all the expenditures of the event, not to make a profit. And the point of the event itself is to engage the public in seizing their future
All that rules out by default most of the major speakers agencies - whose rates are usually themselves, even per speaker, a large percentage of our overall budget!
But what then gets ruled in is an appeal to the speakers’ or participants’ genuine intellectual or creative interest. Does the premise of this event appeal to you? Do you want to be with peers - not just on stage but before our fiercely sharp audiences - exploring the wide horizons of the mid-century?
That’s where, as curator, I start to have the most fun. It’s the opportunity to make the case for your event to speakers who themselves contain the most amazing multitudes.
To me it’s the most delicious opportunity. To read intensely into the CV or published works of a scientist or technologist, academic or artist, entrepreneur or activist - and find the strands in what they do that mesh most directly with your curated theme.
This may seem obvious, but it’s so important to make the first email the best one possible. Not just carefully giving an account of your event’s major names and achievements so far. But also showing in a few short paragraphs that you understand accurately and intelligently - and are even inspired by - what they do.
This is also important because, in the age of the in-box mail-trail, the integrity, commitment and comprehensiveness of your first offer is what sits at the bottom of every reply and chase-up. You don’t need to recapitulate your offer every time - the busyness of the major name, and the people around about them, can never be underestimated.
Even after the name has been commissioned, I like to stick around in the “cc” of the subsequent mailing - people always have last minute queries, or want their keynote or panel brief sharpened or updated in the face of recent news stories. Whenever I can, I like to close the “human” deal, and mediate the panels or keynotes they deliver at the final event itself.
And then the event happens in a heaving, pulsing rush of 48 hours - a year or more’s conversation and preparation gone like that. There’s the crude delight of everyone actually turning up on time - but also the richer pleasure of knowing you’ve helped every participant do their best to inspire, illuminate or instruct our audience.
Whatever a “curator” is these days - and there are no doubt apologies to be sent to qualified art-historical curators from the likes of me - I love being one. It’s a gig that brings ideas to life, by dealing with the actual, unpredictable, interpretable humans that prosecute them.
As I place this curatorial hat back in the box - among all the rest in my creative career - I hope to be plucking it out again for many years more.
This was a great pleasure! Not just being sought out by Varoom magazine's editor John O'Reilly, who is an academic at St. Martin's Art School in London, and who asked very meaty questions (the full interview text is below).
But also the final manifestation of the interview in the magazine itself (see the PDF copy) - which felt physically like a copy of a mid-80s NME (see above - and very appropriate, given all the references!).
The layout itself is also cool, accompanied by witty Lego illustrations from Christoph Niemann's New York Times Abstract Sunday blog, and its "I Lego NY" project.
Varoom is a magazine for illustrators, who occupy a niche between fine arts, advertising, design. I was invited to explore much relevant ground to the creative classes - and found myself anticipating some of Paul Mason's arguments about postcapitalism and "networked individuals" in his new book.
As ever, all comments and shares welcome.
ORIGINAL INTERVIEW TEXT:
John O'Reilly: You published The Play Ethic in 2004. Its subtitle, A Manifesto For a Different Way of Living signalled its breadth of discussion and its existential urgency, but it also also captured and focused a concept which had become increasingly prominent in debates in the Humanities since the 80s as translations of philosophers such as Barthes, Lacan, Derrida, Baudriallrd, began to be published.
It was also a kind of sensibility partly driven by Guy Debord and the Situationists in the 60s, indeed the opening pages of the book begins with a quote from Raoul Vaneigem’s 1967 book The Revolution in Everyday Life. And for you the practices of the Post-Punk culture is a major driver. Why do you think interest in the notion of Play became such a hot-button idea in the early 2000s?
Pat Kane: A number of reasons. For one thing, the increasing cultural prominence (and mass usage) of computer games and web culture - the immersion and competitive power-ups of the former, the sheer exchange, modifications and social “interplay” of the latter.
As writers like Fred Turner, John Markoff, Erik Davis and Stewart Brand have noted, there is a directly link between Californian “counterculture” and world “cyberculture” - not just in terms of personnel (Steve Jobs, etc), but in terms of the values of self-expression, imagination, experimentation both technical and social. When network society began to mature in the early 2000s, to me it was no surprise that the ethos of openness and experiment - a playful ethos - was, as it were, “baked” into the very technology itself.
As a “theory” and “post-punk” child of the mid-80s myself, I do also think that we (the Euro-UK-Atlantic humanties grads!) were mentally ready for the recombinant potential of net/web/game culture. Having an understanding of semiotics and the mutabilty of signs and images (Barthes), appreciating language as a network of difference (Derrida), accepting that simulated realities have power to shape the course of events (Debord, Baudrillard)… all of this prepares you for not being surprised by cyberculture and its mutations.
I could go deeper, and say that the European experience of social upheaval (68 in France, the hot seventies in Italy and Germany) generated such an intellectual ferment that it even anticipated much of our current network society - Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “rhizomes”, and their position in general that societies are suffused with potentials for change that don’t always rely on full human intention (ie, sometimes on “assemblages” of technology, environment, people). It now feels, in an age of memes, flash events in the stock market, robomania, that their time has just about come...
Pat Kane's notes towards his presentation to #ikeatemporary, Milan Expo, 26 June, 2015
FIVE WAYS THAT PLAY CAN SAVE THE WORLD:
1 PLAY IS AN ESSENTIAL COMPONENT OF HUMAN NATURE - AND ONE OF OUR BETTER PARTS. THE MORE WE EXPRESS IT, THE BETTER WE BECOME
2 PLAY HELPS US BECOME WISER - BOTH PERSONALLY AND AS CITIZENS
3 PLAY POINTS TO A DIFFERENT (& BETTER) SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC ORDER
4 PLAY BRINGS MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN TOGETHER - & PUTS CHILDREN FIRST
5 PLAY RECONNECTS US WITH THE PLANET - BUT IN A COMPLEX, PRAGMATIC WAY
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1. PLAY IS AN ESSENTIAL COMPONENT OF HUMAN NATURE - AND ONE OF OUR BETTER PARTS. THE MORE WE EXPRESS IT, THE BETTER WE BECOME
A playful revolution in intellectual life
First in philosophy and social sciences from the sixties to the nineties... Then in biology and mind science in the last 20 years... Science defeated old Puritan and industrial-age idea that play is trivial, or silly, or worse - "the souls playday is the devils workday"
The version of that in science - evolutionary science - is wondering how play can even exist - it wastes energy, it leaves us open to predators, it risks injury - maladaptive. But it exists in nature! How/why? Play like sexual pleasure or deep sleep - we don't need as much of it to survive as we do - but boy does it help!
All three are zones where humans can safely, or at least non-fatally, explore the possibilities of their world - both mental and physical, emotional and conceptual. We need to do this because not only is our world complex and demanding, but WE are too - we reflective, imaginative, tool-using creatures, who love and lie, build and destroy.
I call humans the RADICAL ANIMAL radical because we have the mental power to go to the root of things animal because we are not robots (yet! Though we can use them!). We yearn, are enraged, are fearful, are caring, are lustful, are curious. PLAY is the behaviour that helps us to manage and make the best use of our radical, transforming, sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible human nature.
Our forms of play, our playgrounds - whether arts or sports, or games and tech, or in leisure and family pursuits - are the places where we safely explore and test and prototype our relationships with others and the material world. The more we play, the better we get at living our complex human lives [Steven Pinker - the Better Angels of our Nature - fall in the rate of daily violence in our lives since medieval times - accelerated in an era where social contract and the rule of law engenders concept of "fair play"]
2 PLAY HELPS US BECOME WISER - BOTH PERSONALLY AND AS CITIZENS
We are leaning so much from child psychology and mind science at the moment A consensus - that we are over-managing our children's development, particularly when it comes to their play Jaak Panksepp, the great figure of affective neuroscience, talks about the importance of social play, or even rough-and-tumble play, to development of complex mammals. Families can and must play together - but parents must let children play amongst themselves too.
• we connect with the world by playing with it - crafting and testing its materials. And the joy we get from that! From being active, not passive, in relations to the stuff of our world! IKEA!
• In the games we play, we figure out what it is to agree a set of rules with other human beings, that might - for as long as we agree - bind our behaviour.
But in PLAY - as opposed to politics or business - we remember that those social rules can be changed, for the sake of a better, more satisfying, more inclusive game. A better play childhood will makes us less slavish consumers and more active and conscious citizens.
But remember what the scientists call neuroplasticity - the very playful malleability of the brain. A better play adulthood can also create the same effects. Which brings me to my third way play can save the world...
3. PLAY IS THE PATH TO A DIFFERENT (& BETTER) SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC ORDER
We need a very big perspective here... We are just about to come out of two centuries of scientific industrialism into a new model of productive society. And all over - the manufacturing robots will eventually come to China and South America too! We have also gone through a century of advertising-led consumer society. This has to some degree exploited our playful natures - our appetite for novelty, for pleasurably mimicking and copying others.
But there has been for a long time a deep contradiction in our consumer society - in one part of our lives, urged to be dutiful, self-disciplined workers, but in another, urged to be hedonistic, desiring, dissatisfied creatures. The work ethic subverted by the pleasure ethic. Now when Google's robots drive your cars, buses and trucks... When IBM Watson answers your legal, medical and financial questions... Do robots need a work ethic? No - they just keep on working.
But how can WE maintain an industrial work ethic when there is no industrial work? We have to search for a new ethos - one that helps us adapt to a new industrial era we are less and less a part of. (My consultancy and book is all about what I call a "Play Ethic".) If we have a deep understanding of play, I think we can find it. Perfect dramatisation of this shift is the Pixar movie Wall-E. On one level, these lazy, spherical blobs are the outcome of the March of the Machines - if the old model of hedonistic consumption persists. We are all watched over by loving machines, in space malls, while the planet fills up with rubbish... However by the end of the movie, what happens? The robots and the humans return to their polluted, degraded planet, and together, they start to reanimate and restore the place - using their skills, imagination, ingenuity, teamwork.
Now here we are in IKEA, with a new product to sell...But like Lego, IKEA have the seeds of a new world in what they do. If we have to recover those wise skills of craft and citizenship, in a highly automated world, we can recover them:-- -- the HARD way - the way that the Greeks or the Spanish are, turning to each other with radical political options under collapsing economic and social conditions --- or an EASIER way - through new products and services that invite us to try out a more active, more joyfully skilled way of being. I would say that IKEA, in comparison to many, are at least pointing in the right rather than the wrong direction.
4. PLAY BRINGS MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN TOGETHER - & PUTS CHILDREN FIRST
One way that play can clearly save the world is by putting child development, and then adult development, at the centre of our priorities as a society. How would we design our cities, how many hours would we work, what kinds of products and services would we engage with, what politics would we pursue, If we put the health and development of children truly at the heart of our lives? What the play science tells us is already changing the way we think about education, from pre-school all the way to graduate level. And about how the test of a great, vibrant city or town is the extent to which children can be seen playing in its midst. But this "right to play" - meaning the right to seek forms of living and activity which answer our evolved need for joyful experiment and exploration - shouldn't just be for children. Nor even just for families. We are here at the Milan expo - it's an example of how the festival and the carnival are becoming (or returning to become) the dominant social forms for a more playful society. Other models - like the makersspace, the lab, the studio - may also express better our need for a new balance between work & play.
5. PLAY CONNECTS US WITH THE PLANET - BUT IN A COMPLEX WAY
Other animals play - and not just complex mammals, birds, octopuses - but none as powerfully or as transformatively as ourselves, the radical animal. There is a deep paradox in human play on this planet - a capacity for infinite combinations and possibilities and desires, on a planet whose finite limits (or planetary boundaries) are becoming ever more obvious. So can we really all become quiet, contemplative monks, living lightly and calmly on the planet, as some green activists would like? I find that vision of a less aspirational, less yearning human nature unrealistic - at least to those who are not primarily spiritual or religious.
But an understanding of play can help us address realistically how humans - complex, radical and playful as we are - can be engaged in the challenge of a low-carbon planet. To think of ourselves as gardeners or curators of the earth, rather than its exploiters or victims, gets nearer to answering the playful urges of human nature. What are the ingeniuous challenges of sustainable energy? How do we identify the building blocks - of wind, solar, wave, geothermal, energy conservation, new production systems, automation - and put them together in new ways? What are the models and the modules? How do we learn to think and act like this? Who can devise the methods and the marketing?
Over 2014-2015, I had the great privilege of lead-curating my second FutureFest for the innovation charity Nesta. This culminated in an amazingly successful weekend on 14-15 March, 2015, in the exhibition rooms at Vinopolis, near London Bridge (see Nesta's site for more).
We had global media coverage, a sell-out crowd of over 3000 attendees, and the most stimulating range of immersive experiences, world-shaping speakers, provocative panels, tech demonstrations and brilliant music.
Have a look through Twitter, at least over the next few weeks, and you'll sample the range of responses to keynote speakers like Edward Snowden (his full interview below), Vivienne Westwood, George Clinton and Jon Ronson, and premier commisions like Neurosis, the world's first neuro-driven thrill-ride, Minimaforms' Emotive City, and the synaesthesic music-experience the Sensory Score. (Indeed, the Vine above shows George Clinton riding Neurosis - futurism to the power of N!). As well as food, drink and sensory stimulations pitched somewhere at the mid-century point.
We also had panels powering through themes like FutureDemocracy (with Helena Kennedy, Owen Jones, Jon Cruddas and Natalie Bennett), FutureMoney (with Vitalik Buterin, John Lanchester, Barry Eichengreen, and the cream of cryptocurrency innovators) and FutureMachines (with automation forecasters like Micheal Osborne and Ije Nwokorie).
We had urban imagineers from Lagos and Jo'Burg, and two Gulf Futurists (Sophia al-Maria and Noah Raford), as well as representatives from the new wave of net-era political parties, the Pirate Party, Podemos and Italy's 5 Star Movement.
My undying praise to the amazing curatorial and organisational associates at Nesta, and beyond, who made this event such a widescreen success - including Josh McNorton, Jessica Bland, Simon Morrison and Rebecca Rossini from Nesta, and independent curators Ghislaine Boddington (body/data/space) and Glenn Max (Convergence).
Not sure when the next FutureFest starts to kick off - but I am very much in the market for other curational or event opportunities. Happy to hear from you at the email link on the menu above, or click here.
I did a fun interview - and in the course of it, it was pretty self-revelatory - with the Scottish creative and artistic hub site, Central Station. The main revelation being that I've probably only HAD five proper "jobs" in my life... and even that tests the boundaries. Full interview text below, date of publication 16th December, 2014
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1. Summer student jobs: play school attendant and train cleaner | mid-80s The first made me realise that the expected terminus for a boy of my class and smarts – school teacher – was not going to be arrived at. No patience for weans being sick in synchrony on Wurlitzers. The second – working out of a repairs depot in Motherwell – gave me a big insight into industrial working culture: “slow down, son” being the best remembered phrase. Though after a summer of arguing about politics, it was the coolest thing when a quiet wee fitter gave me a battered copy of Bobby Seale’s Seize The Time, with the injunction to “pass it on.” And I did.
2. Musician under major record contract | 1986-1991 I exchanged labour for money, so I guess it was a job. But in all other respects, far too much fun for a young adult male (working with his brother, in their band Hue And Cry). My version of 80s excess was all realised aesthetics (rather than powdery substances). You’d loved post-punk and its ideological and musical freedoms; now, with a major record business flush with both profits from CDs and still-idealistic A&R men, you got the chance to use the actual New York jazz-and-soul sidemen that you’d only previously made po-mo ironic references to. And conduct muttered album artwork sessions with lugubrious St. Martin’s graduates, or make videos with moonlighting members of Throbbing Gristle (Peter Christopherson). Like I said, too much fun. And still having it: our last Hue And Cry album was Remote: Major to Minor in 2014, and we’ll be bringing out an all-new ballad record in 2015.
3. Freelance journalism and media | 1985-present While waiting for a record contract in London, I started scrivening for NME as a media/TV reviewer (for my then editor Stuart Cosgrove), and for a pop-culture mag called Jamming. I parlayed my early pop-success into more writing by-lines, and ended up with a column in the Scotsman called “Citizen Kane,” which became a book called Tinsel Show: Pop, Politics, Scotland in 1992. That generated a whole range of gigs for TV and radio, including a live chat show called Nightwatch for Channel Four, and a Sony Award winning series on Radio Scotland. Two reasons I’ve been able to pursue this, through almost all major titles, magazines and broadcasters in the UK. One: my mum compelled me to endure the Scheidegger touch typing course when I was 17. This meant that when my arse got kicked out of the major music biz in 1992, I could sit down to a keyboard and rattle off scripts, texts, articles, and display an employable facility. Two: my film and television studies and literary-theory classes at Glasgow University. The ideas ingested there have enabled me to think out of any tight corner, and leap into surprising places, with both seeming to have pleased enough gatekeepers and budget holders to give me cash for content.
4. Editorial roles within The Herald, founding editor of The Sunday Herald | 1996-2000 I shifted my column back to The Herald from the Scotsman, struck up a friendship with then head of the Scottish Media Group Gus MacDonald (he employed a sociologist as his personal chef), who then gave me two pages every week in the Saturday Herald to do with as I wish. I called them ‘E2’ (for “Second Scottish Enlightenment”) and “Scotgeist” (just to annoy people) – the first a think-tank, the second a New-Yorker style cultural review. Three great outcomes from that. i) When I walked through the editorial floor of The Herald, people whistled the theme tune from “The Twilight Zone.” ii) A senior executive once said, “this isn’t journalism for the 21st century – this is journalism for the 31st century.” iii) Andrew Jaspan saw my trouble-making and asked me to be part of the founding editorial team of The Sunday Herald along with Robert Brown and Richard Walker (now the current editor). So exciting, and so traumatic, was the launch of this title over 1998-2000 for me that I forswore any regular job from that point onwards, and settled down to write The Play Ethic for Macmillan, published in 2004.
5. Speaker/researcher/consultant on play, creativity and innovation | 2000-present Initially I launched the idea of a “play ethic” – a new mentality for productive, creative lives in the information age – in an essay in Scotland on Sunday in 1996, but amplified it in an essay for The Observer in 2000. From that point onwards, I began to be asked by organisations both commercial and public – whether advertising, tech or toy companies, or broadcasters, educators and public services – to talk to them about the power and potential of play for their organisations or occupations. Over the last ten years, The Play Ethic – now an innovation consultancy – has taken me to Australia, the US, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe. My play axioms even got onto the walls of The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2012! My latest engagement around this topic is to be appointed the lead curator at FutureFest a two-day London event organised and funded by Nesta. My next book will try to fuse my understanding of play with our growing sense of environmental limits – it’s to be called Radical Animal.
There’s only one thing I know about “jobs,” and that’s from Confucius: “the man who finds a job he loves never works another day in his life.” That sounds right to me.
But it's also because keeping these artistic practices in my life gives me a vital insight into how organisations in general can foster creativity and innovation.
I'm a player-with-microphones-and-laptops - and from this, much else in my life has flowed.
For example, in a conversation earlier this week, I was exploring my own direct experiences of what a creative space feels like, in order to inform how organisations might build their own.
A “rehearsal space”, or “writing room”, in my music experience, mixes together a number of modes of experience. You should expect a certain intensity to be brewed up there - people have signed up to a creative and exploratory process, with all the consequences that implies.
But it’s so important for that intensity to be well-facilitated - good soundsystem; comfortable conditions and furnishings; on-hand expertise and assistance if extra resources are needing (or things fail); the ability to record the moment accurately if something great arises.
And it’s also vital that there is, beyond the room, a “chill-out” space - somewhere you can take respite from the intensity, wander around, look at the skies/be under the skies, ingest whatever stimulant or restorative is required.
As well as the evidence of a great song or performance, I think the deep science of play theory can really help make the case for creative spaces in organisations.
It can give an evolutionary explanation of how play-zones helps complex organisms (like we social mammals) test their reactions to a challenging world, in a non-fatal, richly educative way.
This shouldn't be an “away-day” phenomenon - leaving the flawed workplace for a refreshing idyll in some location or residence, and then returning to it again with a brimming consciouness that rapidly depletes.
A creative zone should be a "ground of play". A place to test out our strategies at the heart of the savannah, or neighbourhood...or vibrant organisation.
Now, not every organisation is like the net-era start-up, unburdened by legacy or history. The Palo Alto wizards can make the entire workplace a "magic circle" of passionate and productive creativity.
But it may be that a decent "rehearsal space" can be wrested from the strict bottom-line (or top-line) imperatives of any organisation - if they think for a moment of what startling and world-changing creations can come from that space.
I just noticed Pharrell Williams' astonishment at the power of his "Happy" song in 2014. This wasn't just the theme of a blockbusting movie, but actually an inspiration to civic activists throughout the world (the Iranian ones were even arrested for their cavorting about). "Happy" will now be the theme tune for a UN global initiative on youth education.
Pharrell notes that he had 9 rejects for the song in that movie's scene before they got one they were, well, happy with (see him at work in the picture above). Now, there's the benefits of rehearsal!
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Always happy (it's inescapable!) to hear your responses below. If you want to continue this conversation, please mail from LinkedIn, or at email@example.com.
Whether as individuals, communities, organisations or societies, humans need to play, in order to keep themselves adapting and responding to the challenges of life.
Regular experiences of play - if we understand play in its fullest sense - can maintain a reserve of optimism, energy and resourcefulness, even in the most demanding and pressured of circumstances.
In my various professional engagements around play - whether keynote, workshop or consultancy - I always begin the same way: by giving participants an account of play based in the latest, cross-disciplinary scholarship on its power and potential.
It’s certainly important to play in a play seminar! But I also feel it’s essential to show participants the science of how important and elemental play is for human flourishing.
From neuroscience to evolutionary biology to systems-theory, there is a general recognition that play - seen as a freely-chosen and joyful exploration of possible options - is vital to the progress and development of any organism (or organisation).
Whether in nature - or in the society and economy - we often accept solutions to problems that are in fact a surrender to convention, rather than the optimal outcome possible. Playful behaviour is a way of probing beyond the obvious endpoint, widening perspectives so that the next, higher peak can be scaled - and perhaps by circuitous means.
Most organisations are aware that they must devote time and resources to establishing a fertile relationship between creativity and innovation - the generation of ideas and insights, and then their application and roll-out in actual situations.
But our playful mammalian natures - life-long and inescapable - lurk at the base of any initiative of this kind. “Getting” play properly will help fuel and sustain programmes of creativity and innovation.
A play understanding makes managers aware of the evolved needs and urges that are raised, and met, by allowing possibility and imagination into the working environment. The challenge is not just to their colleagues - but often to the overall strategic intent and vision of the organisation.
My seminars combine a step-by-step exploration of the sciences and specialisms of play, with a range of carefully-chosen exercises - conceptual and conversational as well as sociable and physical. These are intended to make concrete each stage of our growing knowledge-base on the relations between play, playfulness, creativity and innovation.
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All comments on this blog most welcome below!
And if you'd like to engage me further in this, please contact me from menu above.
It's good to explore the ins and outs of play theory again.
I know this is a personal, even nerdish pursuit. To know a little bit about how many different disciplines and knowledges play sits at the intersection of, is to be endlessly compelled and fascinated. Literally, so many rabbit holes to disappear into!
But I also know that understanding play has direct consequences for my work as a speaker and consultant around creativity and innovation. It is the taproot of all that - a surge to invention and exploration that is about an inexhaustible as a human resource gets.
And more and more, it seems to me that play's relation to our evolved and adapted biological natures is the crucial thing to try and understand.
So many great minds as routes to that - Marc Bekoff, Melvin Konner, Vivien and Sergio Pellis, Jane Goodall, Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Piven, Stuart Brown, Patrick Bateson... And such a great journey to embark upon with them all, as an element of my next book Radical Animal.
Kestly is a play therapist. But she turned to the neurobiology of play in order to give educators and parents intellectual and scientific confidence in her interventions - which comprises of being with, and responding to, kids as they expressively played with sandboxes, clay, and lego.
Theresa's great focus is the way that neurobiology reminds us of how primal, and pre-cognitive, the operations of our brains are - particularly around those seven great emotional systems for survival that Jaak Panksepp is making claims for: Rage, Fear, Lust, Care, Panic/Grief, Play and Seeking.
It's a whole other blog to explain those... but the essential point is that, in dealing with other people, we should appreciate that these deep, evolved processes are going on within them (and us) no matter what our clear, rational brains are deciding to discourse about.
Play is just as primal as the rest of them - and as part of our essential equipment as complex mammals, it will bubble up as it needs to. Indeed, in its role as a kind of theatre in which we can handle and test the tricky relations between our higher thoughts and our lower drives, it can easily be seen as vital to our wellbeing.
For those of us interested in changing and dynamizing communities and organisations, the truth of Kestly's book fits into a bigger set of questions.
Could we sustain creativity and innovation programs better, by understanding the exact nature of the deep needs that play answers?
Rather than sweeping people up into abstracted, branded visions of a "new way of doing things", could we plan situations where playful seeking becomes as unforced and natural as the need for exercise, or teamwork, or mutual supportiveness?
The sensitivities and gentleness of the play therapy room is far distant, of course, from a world of organisations with accountabilities, bottom-lines and contractual duties. Yet not so far distant, if we think for a minute of the pathologies that often course through our offices and halls...
Great to be on this journey of ideas again. All comments, as ever, most welcome.
I made a very clear commitment on my 50th (this March) to return myself fully to the agenda I set out in The Play Ethic in 2004. Yet times have really changed, and so have I.
The book I'll be settling down to complete over the next 6 months - called Radical Animal - will take my insights into play, as a deep-rooted appetite for possibility in human nature, and relate them to the planetary boundaries we are close approaching.
How does the unlimited imagination and appetites of the playful human, so easily diverted into lifestyle consumerism, find a different answer to its yearnings - one which respects the limits of our straining, over-heating ecosystem?
I'm not sure of the answers - which is, I guess, why I'm writing the book!
But in the meantime, I am always willing to talk to collaborators, colleagues and clients throughout the world, about what a deep consideration of the power and potential of play can do for themselves, their enterprises and their communities.
I will use this platform as a weekly update on things that strike me as relevant to a "busy-ness" audience like this about play, creativity and innovation. Be great to hear from you in any shape or form - I believe there's a comment function below.
I was delighted to be invited to speak at the QuaysCulture event in Salford in 26th October, 2013, on my developing project/book Radical Animal: Play, Ecology and Human Nature (see the back-up site).
Salford is an extraordinary waterfront complex - the stunning Liebeskind Imperial War Museum across the way, the BBC's Media City on the event's side of the water, a square full of elements-powered musical installations, and Manchester United's ground shimmering in the distance... A great setting for a great discussion and exchange. The presentation is below, all comments welcome.
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.
One of the most deeply enjoyable gigs I did last year was to be the opening facilitator, and conference blogger, to "Cultural Encounters" - a meeting of 22 cross-continental winners of European funding for humanities projects, organised by HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area), based in the University of Galway, and funded by the European Commission.
A blog accompanies the process, and I wrote three entries leading up to and reviewing the conference. As I note in the blogs, for me this was an exciting return to an engagement with humanities scholarship that I began over 25 years ago, doing English and Film/TV studies at Glasgow University (I've explored this intellectual history here).
I chaired an event on "Knowledge Exchange" in Dubrovnik: but the whole conference was at pains to show how the critical and historical understanding of culture had great relevance to the societal challenges of the future (HERA is part of the European Commission's Horizon 2020 research programme).
I explore some of these issues in the following writings:
From March 2012 to the end of September 2013, I was asked by Geoff Mulgan, the CEO of Nesta (the UK's innovation agency) to lead-curate a massive festival of the future called, appropriately enough, FutureFest.
The plan was to occupy Shoreditch Town Hall in London, over the weekend of 28th-29th September, and fill its Edwardian municipal grandeur with visions, arguments and demonstrations of the near-future (with an implicit mid-century horizon of 2050).
Well, we finally executed the plan - and it was an extraordinary event, the speakers, discussion and performances fully captured on the legacy FutureFest website (video, podcast and blogs).
Over these three blogs (one, two, and three) I explain my curatorial vision - but these paragraphs give you a flavour:
Go back to any of the great expos, or even to the earliest futurologists – like Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), with its longevity drugs and flying machines, its robots and clones – and it sometimes seems that modernity has always contained the same set of yearnings about the future: stronger, faster, more automation, more communication.
The acme of this might be Walt Disney’s mid-fifties EPCOT (Experimental Community Of Tomorrow), a theme park in which cosmic exploration leaves behind a happy planet of harmonious cultures and sociable, zip-suited citizens.
Well, it’s 2013, and of course we’re wiser and more civilization-weary than all that. Those intricate techno-sciences we devise and set running? They end up rattling our economies, fighting our wars, bombarding our attention spans and challenging our bio-ethics around birth, health and human potential.
And some of the more massive trends heading into the future – the inexorables of population growth and global warming, emergent economies and regions with their own claims to truth and justice – would seem largely resistant to the glittering technical fixes that future-types of the past have put their faith in.
But it’s 2013, and of course we can also imagine – because that’s what humans irrepressibly do – how this progress towards the mid-century might be quite different.
Radical innovation could well find us a combination of energy sources that mitigate the impact of a heating planet. Our computers and devices could as easily amplify our natural capacities for invention and community, as unravel or stymie them.
Over only a few decades of bioscience, our “new normal” could be closer to that menagerie of mutants and cyborgs that you see in the average Star Trek street-scene, than it might be to the mutton-chopped visitors to the Crystal Palace.
How to capture all of these possibilities, in a particular time and place? And in city where the weight of the past, and the chaos of a globalised future, can easily be mapped from the top of a giant glass shard? The principle of a festival – with its tolerance for enthusiasm, dissent and experiment – seemed like the only way it could be gathered together and curated.
FutureFest takes place in Shoreditch Town Hall, London – a building which itself brims with Victorian progressive self-confidence (its motto on the stained glass windows is “more light, more power”). In its cavernous rooms we will be deploying three different methods of thinking about the future. Firstly, great minds and practitioners (some writing in these pages) will give short but powerfully focussed takes on our options heading towards mid-century, and beyond – everything from the future of religion and altruism, to the future of eating and manufacturing.
Next, we’ll offer immersive spaces in which participants can literally “meet and experience” the future. Real – or at least, artistic and creative – humans will conduct a variety of performances, installations, social games and even banquets, that will leave visitors in a delightful space between “now” and “next”.
And finally, we’ll allow people to go deeper into the future, with a range of forums, seminars, makeshops and technical expos from organizations like the Oxford Martin Institute, Arup, the BBC, Berg, Dyson and many others. (Pat Kane, "Making the Future Dance", Futurefest site).
We had a sell-out on the day, saw millions of interactions around the #futurefest hashtag on Twitter, and with any luck FutureFest will become a regular event in the cities of the UK for years to come. Certainly one of the most satisfying creative endeavours I've yet directed.
Delighted to be commissioned by the Independent to review the latest book from one of my literary gods, Thomas Pynchon - but disappointed that the book was so laboured and even predictable, the late and lazy work of a great imaginative power.
''A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now." Quite the opening line, from Thomas Pynchon's 1973 masterpiece set in the Second World War, Gravity's Rainbow.
On a Glasgow morning, 11 September 2001 – after I had slowly put down James Harding's hopeful business article in the FT about the "counter-capitalist movement", then stared at the first screen images of the punctured North Tower of the World Trade Centre – Pynchon's words were the first thing that came to my mind. And they remain there still.
So for this ardent Pynchonist, the advance hype reporting that Bleeding Edge was to be his long-rumoured "9/11" novel is a little moot. The carnivalesque pursuit of rocket power that makes up the action of Gravity's Rainbow, with Nazis and Allies alike intoxicated by dreams of annihilation at an abstract distance, was always the darkest possible wit. Post 9/11, and now with killer drones remotely flown into far-off lands by youths wielding joysticks (joysticks: how Pynchon does it get?), the book feels near-oracular.
To enter fully into Thomas Pynchon's literary imagination is to be in a dangerous playground of world-systems and implicit orders – those systems and orders mostly gaming among themselves, occasionally toying with us, or (worst of all) revealing how much of our inner lives is actually their external scripting. Gilles Deleuze once called this our "dividuality", our susceptibility to wider control via our aspirations towards self-control.
For the 1968-ers it was desire that gave us escape routes from, or even just wriggle room within, this ensnaring social kudzu. For Pynchon, it's comedy. Extended moments of farce, cheesy songs and talking dogs, emblematic characters and place names (Benny Profane, San Narciso, Webb Traverse, the escapist webspace in BleedingEdge called DeepArcher): all of this anticness grants us an inch of real autonomy, amidst the choking over-determination. Much more than his immediate American peers – the analytical realism of Philip Roth, the apocalyptic fabulism of Cormac McCarthy, the chilled code-surfing of Don DeLillo – Pynchon relies on humour, in the classic Rabelaisian manner, to keep options open in an enclosing world.
And in the 40th anniversary year of the literary watershed that is Gravity's Rainbow, we can now see how Pynchon has continually tried to write his way beyond the shadow of that giant, oneiric book. One strategy has been to push pretty far back into American history, and undergird the familiar chronicle of events with a wild new logic of fantasy, radicalism and excess. Mason & Dixon (1997) subverts the American Enlightenment's metric confidence ("Who claims Truth, Truth abandons," as its narrator the Rev Cherrycoke quips), mobilising a menagerie of singular humans and even odder animals. Against The Day (2006) deliriously posits utopian anarchists, renegade boffins and underworld explorers, to countervail with railroad barons and warring imperialists at the start of the 20th century.
It's hard not to put these along with Rainbow as the best American attempts to pick up the ludic, mythic and polymathic gauntlet thrown down by James Joyce with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.This is authorial style as a cosmos, vital and entire unto itself.
But in order to get there, over the past few decades, it seems to me that Pynchon has had to get lesser (though still characteristic) works out of his system – as if Joyce had handed in a few Flann O'Brien-style farces between his monuments. For Pynchon, his "Third Policeman" is the stoner hippy – Zoyd Wheeler struggling with 1980's Reaganism in Vineland (1990), or Don Sportello as an original late-1960's furry freak in Inherent Vice (2009). And while both novels set counter-rebels against mysterious authorities in the familiar Pynchon mode, the style tumbles through cultural references in an almost dutiful, tick-box way – as if Pynchon was both reassuring himself, and us, that he was an authentic hipster of that era.
So it's sad to report that Bleeding Edge takes this tendency to an annoying and tiring extreme. The New York of the late 1990s dotcom boom-and-bust, frittering away into the violent event-horizon of 9/11, is adequately captured by the title – but only adequately. Indeed, it seems beneath Pynchon to be to so painstakingly geeky about the socio-linguistics of this thin, weightless, credit-extended period – its luxury-pad fittings, its designer shoe labels, its bloviating biz-speak.Compared to the techno-fictions of William Gibson – for years, an author happily scuffling around on Pynchon's giant shoulders – Bleeding Edge's digital shenanigans are, to be honest, a little vicar- at-the-disco-ish.
Early commentary on the book has tried to laud the prescience, in this post-Snowden and PRISM moment, of its plot mechanics. A wise-cracking fraud investigator called Maxine is slowly revealing a virtual world (DeepArcher) designed for robust privacy, in a climate of increasing state incursion into the data-flows. And it's true that Pynchon understands our pressing anxieties about communication power, life in (and under) the Cloud. "Call it freedom – it's based on control," says Maxine's father Ernie. "Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you've got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable."
So Pynchon follows his nose, and invokes some expected players of this system – variously, cornball mafiosi, value-free dot-moguls, the jetsam of post-Soviet wars; never mind vaguely time-travelling CIA agents, or half-ghostly kidnapped children. For the first time in my life as a Pynchon fan, I must reluctantly demur. The targets are clearer than that. Those in charge of Google – the most ambitiously panoptic of digital companies, aiming to "organise the world's knowledge" – are pretty explicit about their android-aspirant, robo-inflected motivations.
DARPA, the US government's military research arm, is actively building a science-fictional near-future, under the battlefield imperative of achieving "full spectrum dominance". Of all writers, I would have least expected Pynchon to be sentimental here, beginning and ending Bleeding Edge with a mom's tender meditations on the school commute. But invoking our better angels is not adequate to the real, non-human spookiness of the coming epoch of super-intelligence. Not when Google's driverless car will be coming to pick up those kids in a few years' time.
Pat Kane is the lead curator of Nesta's FutureFest at Shoreditch Town Hall, London EC1, on 28 and 29 September (futurefest.org)
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.
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.
Another gig for me at How The Light Gets In, June 2013 (see other post) was to participate in BBC Radio 3's superb Nightwaves programme - in my view, one of the last bastions of properly critical thinking about culture in UK broadcasting.
The show was about... love. Small topic! I chipped in my 10 minutes about love, play and creativity - and sang some songs to illustrate the point! My fellow speakers were appropriately eclectic - A.L.Kennedy the novelist, Esther Rantzen the presenter (and force of nature), Dylan Evans the behavioural scientist.
The whole discussion is very enjoyable, but if you want to zero in on my play/love comments via the SoundCloud player below, they are from 12.39 to 16.31, from 20.09 to 20.46, from 23.20 to 24.39, from 27.20 to 28.42, from 32.57 to 33.44, from 39.07 till end (with a performance of Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now to finish!)
In 2 June 2013, I trudged delightedly round the yurts at Hay-on-Wye's philosophy festival, How The Light Gets In, and took part in a discussion called "Luddites and Fools", about the seductions and possibilities of technology.
The whole discussion is below, but for those of you with a play-ethical interest, my ludically-oriented contributions begins at 6.07: