As a welcome to all those who'll be attending Drew Buddie's TEDxOrenda conference next week (Twitter, tickets), here's a draft version of an afterword I've provided for a US volume called Educating in the Creative Economy, edited by Daniel Araya, out next year. It's a mash-up of the paper I presented in New York recently at the Digital Labor conference at the New School, but it gets to the heart (via quite a lot of theory, apologies) of my thoughts around play, tech and education.
Comments welcomed below, and looking forward to seeing you all there! -- PK
PLAY, THE NET AND THE PERILS OF EDUCATING FOR A 'CREATIVE ECONOMY'
As complex mammals forged through play, from the beginning to the end of our lifespan, humans are fated to be lifelong learners. Yet the crucial question for the effectiveness of education in a creative economy is: to what degree is the playful generativity at the heart of our species-being a route leading towards autonomy, or heteronomy?
One might think that rising affluence, improving health indicators and the cognitive surplus represented by the internet would provide the optimum conditions for a post-work/players' identity in the developed world – a spreading 'ground-of-play', where our potentiating faculties find ever greater zones in which imagination can enchant and infuse our lives.[i] But the story may not be so blithely heading in the direction of playful liberation.
The distinct neoteny of our species – that is, the extension of youthful characteristics far into our maturity, by comparison even with other simians – keeps us always, as the Italian autonomist thinker Paulo Virno says, in a state of "permanent formation".[ii] We have kept this endemic and anxiety-inducing openness to the world under control, says Virno, by means of what he calls "cultural and social devices" – religions, castes, class identities, civic values, regional and national traditions, foremost among the last of these (as Ernest Gellner might say[iii]) being the nation's education system.
But Virno's warning is that the regime of flexible production and informationalised management that typifies contemporary Western capitalism is now uniquely exploiting our neoteny. Post-Fordism (should we bite the bullet and call it Googlism?) deliberately accelerates this indeterminacy – the faculties that open us up to endemic flexiblity and openess – to make it the very fuel of the social and economic order: "The death of specialized instincts and the lack of a definite environment, which have been the same from the Cro-Magnons onwards, today appear as noteworthy economic resources". Virno moves through our natural faculties of potentiality, and lashes them methodically to the flexible personality required by informational capitalism.
Our biological non-specialization? The grounding for the "universal flexibility" of labour services: "The only professional talent that really counts in post-Fordist production is the habit not to acquire lasting habits, that is the capacity to react promptly to the unusual". Our neotenic forever-youngness, always ready to learn and adapt? We are now subject to "permanent formation… what matters is not what is progressively learning (roles, techniques, etc) but the display of the pure power to learn". That fact that we are not determined by our environment, but make and construct our worlds? This is mirrored by the "permanent precarity of jobs", where we wander nomadically from one cloud in the nebulous world of labour markets to another.
With a sardonic gloominess worthy of Theodor Adorno, Virno denies that this intrinsically unstable system necessarily leads to unruliness – "far from it". In traditional societies with less pervasive markets (which one presumes includes Fordism), our deep ontological anxiety could be contained by "protective cultural niches". The "omnilateral potentiality" of flexible capitalism shakes those niches to fragments. Yet even though this disembeddedness allows for an "unlimited variability of rules", when those rules are applied, they are much more "tremendously rigid" than the Fordist workplace. Each productive instance is like the tight rules of a competitive game, easily entered into but severely binding when the play begins.
When commanded by our managements to respond to today's adhoc list of tasks and projects, in a world of frazzling openness and potentiality, we display "a compulsive reliance on stereotyped formulae". It is via these formulae that we "contain and dilute" the pervasive indeterminacy of the human condition. Virno characterises them as
reaction-halting behaviours, obsessive tics, the drastic impoverishments of the ars combinatoria, the inflation of transient but harsh norms…Though on the one hand, permanent formation and the precarity of employments guarantee the full exposure to the world, on the other they instigate the latter's reduction to a spectral or mawkish dollhouse.
So an education for the creative economy that aims to maintain our potentiating flexibility, which morphs its curricula and pedagogy in the plural energies of the playful self, may not be – according to Virno – as progressive as it thinks it might be. The outcome of our creative industries might all-too-easily be rendered as a "spectral or mawkish dollhouse". And what might it profit a generation of media studies, liberal arts or cultural studies graduates to gain a full facility in the "ars combinatoria", yet deploy them in the "drastic impoverishments" of the reality tv show or the taste-marketing analytics consultancy?
If the playfulness that has always been a subterranean touchstone for educators since the Romantic period – from Rousseau to Froebel, Steiner to Montessori, Reggio-Emilia to Summerhill – has now become the Achilles Heel of productive subjectivity, the point of susceptible engagement with processes of miasmic exploitation (or at least expropriation) of human creativity[iv], then the ethical telos of contemporary education would enter a real moment of crisis.
But if we can question the baroque mechanisms of psychological capture that Virno so mordantly describes, all their fine-grained capitalisation of our playful natures, we might find a new foundation for a progressive education. Certainly, Virno's is not the only social-scientific reading of our wide-open, neotenic natures which is available. Brian Sutton-Smith identifies one evolutionary function of play as the continuation of "neonatal optimism" throughout the life-span. The "unrealistic optimism, egocentricity and reactivity" of the growin child, all of them "guarantors of persistence in the face of adversity", characterise many of our adult play behaviours. Play brings a sense of joyful indefatigability and energetic resilience, which – like the pleasure of sex for procreation – is evolution's "salute" to the human animal for maintaining a "general liveliness", in the face of the challenges of existence.[v]
Sutton-Smith sees play forms as an expression of reflective 'secondary' emotion, as ways to deal constructively with the 'primary' emotions located in the more reactive parts of the human brain. The amygdala that generates shock, anger, fear, disgust, sadness is mediated by a frontal-lobe that trades in pride, empathy, envy, embarrassment, guilt, and shame, with happiness as the emotion that operates across both brain areas.[vi] The 'secondary' emotions are much more 'rule-based' or 'situation-based' – our play, games and simulations operate as the medium whereby our basic emotions can be translated into manageable interpersonal and social phenomena.
Compared to Virno's 'potential human', fated to indecision in its very constititution, Sutton-Smith's 'adaptive potentiator' has a healthy dynamic in its use of play. For the latter, play is "a fortification against the disabilities of life. It transcends life’s distresses and boredoms and, in general, allows the individual or the group to substitute their own enjoyable, fun-filled, theatrics for other representations of reality in a tacit attempt to feel that life is worth living".
In the Sutton-Smith vision, play is not the soft spot whereby we are made passive 'dividuals' by hyper-capitalism, but the resilient optimism out of which the very possibilities of societal difference are generated. An education for players, founded in this socio-biological vision, becomes a constructive exercise in building forms of simulation, combination and gaming that rehearse that "neonatal optimism".
Yet isn't such a constitutive "optimism" just what the desiring-machines of Virno's info-capitalism most wishes to exploit? The answer returns power to the educator and pupil – but not in the institutions we have inherited from the industrial age. Education has to build those rich "grounds of play" in which the optimism of our species can flourish in a way which outflanks and surpasses any dominion that a powerfully calibrating control-society might assert. It could do no worse that to attend to the peculiarly persistent linking of commons and dynamism that characterises the internet.
For neoteny's generation of play and playforms throughout the human life-span is one of the deeply constitutive processes shaping the design, functionality and culture of the internet. One epochal answer to our potentiating faculties that the internet could represent is that of an extension of the "ground of play" that we see across the higher complex mammals – that open but distantly monitored developmental zone of time, space and resource, where potentiating risks are taken by explorative, energetic organisms, in conditions where scarcity is held at bay.
Lion-cubs or chimps compelled to diversively play, risking injury and predation, but in a delimited zone with ultimate defenses; children in their local playground, enjoying their rough-and-tumble with solid equipment and open space, under some kind of municipal governance; all of us on the internet, improvising our sociality and extending our conviviality with powerful communication tools, resting on a complex but (so far) resilient infrastructure. All of these can be cast as complex-mammalian 'grounds of play', sharing three conditions – they are 1) loosely but robustly governed; 2) a surplus of time, space and materials is ensured; 3) failure, risk and mess is treated as necessary for development.
So the 'constitutive' power of play in humanity – that neoteny-driven potentiation that excites both autonomists and socio-biologists – seems to also require a 'constitutional' dimension: a protocol of governance securing certain material and emotional conditions, to enable a rich plurality of playforms. When Lessig speaks of the Net as an "innovation commons", the resonance with a socio-biological vision of the ground of play is clear. His idea that the internet represents an "architecture of value" is also homologous with these conditions for play: both are discernable zones of rough-and-tumble activity in which our social-ethical identities are forged.
That our schools and colleges could be "innovation commons' and "architectures of value" - could be "constitutional" as much as "institutional" – is a future that many of the writers in this volume are striving to build. Yet they should realise that play is their deep and elemental ally in such activism. And that educational moments which cleave as closely as possible to the generative structures of the Net will tap the constitutive power of play also.
[ii] Paulo Virno, 'Natural-Historical Diagrams: the 'New Global' Movement and the Biological Invariant", in The Italian Difference, edited by Alberto Toscano, Re-Press, 2009. http://3.ly/virno
[vi] Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. By A.R. Damasio. 1994. New York: G.P. Putman and Sons