I once wrote a phrase up on my website which went something like: "play will be to the 21st century what work was to the last 300 years of industrial society - our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value". It must have been a zinger of a meme, because it was picked up by people like Dan Pink, Jane McGonigal and many others. First we make our phrases, then we try to understand them...
And a blogpost from the brilliant and bracing Potlatch (ie William Davies) has driven me to that task. If we increasingly know, act and confer value through play these days, then what form of governance and institutions are appropriate to that social behaviour? The Play Ethic book took some pretty utopian stabs at that question - but Davies has sharpened the question wonderfully.
Essentially, he wonders whether the next stage of post-industrial capitalism is going to be a "playground". A world where we "play" with our interactive tools, consuming, prosuming and creating; and the corporates watch over and monitor our complex online behaviour, all the better to market ever more niche and tailored products to us. The good story with this play-society is that we're all perpetual inventors, pro-ams and tinkerers - "user-led innovation" as the new spirit of public life. The bad story is that, if we use the online tools of the corporations to do this innovating (Google/You Tube, Facebook, and now Phorm), we could be all just "lab-rats" in a vast marketing exercise.
Davies proposes this half-way house:
This is where the metaphor of the playground comes in: the user as child. We are neither scientists nor rats, but children, playing creatively, producing something, but with an audience of adults who we choose, mostly, to ignore. We are lost in our world of play, but we are still being watched. It's not a performance, yet it is being seen and evaluated.