Delighted to recieve the final draft of an essay I contributed to a forthcoming Stanford University Press volume, Learning from the Global Financial Crisis: Creatively, Reliably and Sustainably, edited by Paul Shrivastava and Matt Statler.
You can download the final PDF here - and my original, unedited text is below the fold.
First draft, 26th April 2010. Contribution to Shrivastava and Statler, Learning from Global Financial Crisis: Building the Future Creatively, Reliably, and Sustainably, Stanford University Press (forthcoming)
For those of us whose topic is the cultural, psychological and evolutionary reality of play in the human condition, the financial crash of 2008/9 only confirms the ambiguous and paradoxical nature of our subject.
One can cite immediately the self-description of many financial agents in this environment as 'players in the financial game' themselves, part of a long tradition of sportive and contestive metaphors in Western business culture itself.i The oeuvre of journalist Micheal Lewis, moving effortlessly between casino capitalism and sports studies, is exemplary here.ii In his classic writings on the 'organisation man' of mid-century America, William H. Whyte notes that when business uses sports metaphors,
the goal of sports activity is always unambiguous … Participants do not come together to discuss or debate the ends for which the activity has been established, but rather take this end for granted and apply themselves in a single-minded fashion to the task of developing the most efficient means to achieve the predetermined, unchanging and noncontroversial end: winning.iii
What's interesting in Whyte's quote is the implication that contestive, zero-sum games as a framework for finance is not the only way that “participants” in a marketplace might come together. Discussion or debate on “the ends for which the activity has been established” - what mainland Europeans might easily call “stakeholder” capitalism, or South-East Asians “the infinite game” of the keiretsuiv - is not within the autotelic purview of the Anglo-American financial player. They are focussed on their own and/or their shareholders' pecuniary victories, with all other social externalities “beyond the game” simply imperceptible.
And “developing the most efficient means” to maximise shareholder and personal value is a delightfully moderate phrase to apply to the “financial innovations” that brought the transatlantic banking system to its knees. There are a few fascinating parallels between innovative processes in both sports and finance, conducted as “finite games” where victory comes at any cost. In both spheres, there is a semi-covert pursuit of biotechnical enhancement of human performance, both of which test the existing regulatory structures to their limits.
In sports, we see subterranean regimes of chemical and surgical enhancements surfacing controversially in every other tournament – and even, with the disabled athlete Oscar Pistorious (known as the 'Blade Runner'), a challenge to the very adequacy of the human skeleton.v In finance, we see the cognitive and cybernetic enhancements that the “quants” derive from their superpowered computers, which enable the algorithmic trading of minute fractions of debt and currency fluctuation, at speeds largely beyond human deliberation. viIn both domains, we see the perversion that theologian James Carse once predicted as the result of an “infinite game put at the service of a finite game” - that is, human possibility and ingenuity harnessed to the ends of supremacy-in-contest, a slip from the autotelic to the autistic.vii
The perversion comes in the very collapse of the “fair play” ideal inherent in both sportive and financial games. The relentless pursuit of personal performative advantage subverts the very regulations and refereeing which gives each game-space its legitimacy – that which guarantees that the market or sporting field will be a open, viewable spectacle of evident strategy and meritable effort. Without referees or regulations, each zone of contestation would be a chaos of all-against-all.
Thus we see a complex resurgence of the power of regulators in both sport and finance. The soccer referees empowered to penalise “divers” and “fakers” in match-play, who themselves were taking advantage of the outlawing of particularly egregious and destructive tackling; the financial regulators across the developed West pressing for greater transparency in, and impedance of, trading – and like the soccer referees, literally attempting to shape the rhythm and flow of financial transactions.
The subtle balance of the role of conscious regulation vis-a-vis free play in these arenas of transaction and interaction is interesting to note. There has been a strong intellectual alliance between free-market ideology and game-theoretic/complex adaptive systems science for quite a while now. Prepared by Hayek's idea of the market as a “game of catallaxy”,viii which enables wealth-growth as a consequence of the necessarily limited systemic knowledge of the market trader, much of the economic theory that accompanied the networked digital (or 'New') economy of the 90's and 00's had a romance with an 'evolutionary' context for enterprise.
These writings – exemplified by Wired magazine and its founding editor and lead theoretician, Kevin Kelly – saw the company as an survival-oriented organism in a ecosystem: relying on its own adaptive resilience and flexibility to progress, probing its niche until it established some local dominance, or otherwise expiring, but in any case excepting itself from wider “discussion or debate about the ends of their activity” as epistemologically impossible.ix If the environment of finance is regarded as a teeming rain-forest of biological diversity, rather than something more institutional (and thus regulable), then “financial innovations” of whatever kind become acceptable in the general creative destruction: a CDO or derivative is mere mulch falling healthily to the forest floor. Two years after the Crash of 2008-9, we know differently.
Yet if we are to think about the relationship between play theory and business/finance more progressively, it might be worthwhile shifting the terms of consilience between economics and biology away from game theory and complex adaptive systems thinking, and towards the ethological and psychological studies of the 'ground of play' being conducted by scholars like Stuart Brown, Brian Sutton-Smith and Marc Bekoff.x That is, away from abstracted logics of interaction between entities in a network, and towards the actual behaviours of embodied, materially-potentiating complex mammals (like us). As an evolutionarily-determined psychology, I would stress that this is far from the “Homer [Simpson] Economicus” described by the behavioural economists, that easily governable human afflicted by short-term perspective and a fatal inability to regulate desire or mood.xi
I am more interested in how the developmental moment of play in complex mammals, but particularly humans, constitutes our neoteny – that is, the way we extend the flexibilities, enthusiasms and response-abilities of the child-at-play throughout the span of our adult lives. What are the conditions which support and enable healthy, resilience-building play, and install a capacity for “adaptive potentiation” into humanity? And what might they tell us about the healthiest arrangement between the free-play of financial speculation, and the structure of financial regulation?
To begin, let me suggest that neoteny's generation of play and playforms throughout the human life-span is homologous with the deeply constitutive processes shaping the design, functionality and culture of the internet. The internet could represent 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.xii
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 Lawrence Lessig speaks of the Net as an "innovation commons”, xiii 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.
Map this over to the tumult of computerised finance, however, and a certain blitheness appears in the presumption that a “play ethic” is implied by the operations of an end-to-end network like the Web. Tiziana Terranova has looked at how the internet has come to be blamed for the uncontrollable nature of the financial crash of 2008.xiv Specifically, she examines how the hyper-gossipy “echo chambers” of Web 2.0 had “contaminated” financial capital, scrambling any rational assessment of risk in a “fog of data”, itself caused by a widening of financial agency to the everyday chattering traders of social media:
The internet would have therefore brought on an intolerable multiplication of the number of economic operators whose joint behaviour lacks that intrinsic rationality that permits the market to correctly assess commercial value. On the other hand, the ease with which it became possible to buy and sell shares exponentially multiplied the number of transactions that became practically untraceable and consequently increased market volatility.
Terranova cites the famous Newsweek article which argues that a new, well-designed simple “dashboard” must be built to represent global financial transactions on the internet – an interaction design composed from instantly comprehensible graphs and dials, governed by consistent colour codes that can tell all of us, not just Bloomberg-literate traders, “what is currently working properly in financial markets, what isn't, what you should be terrified about”. xvAs Karin Knorr Cetina has also noted, this is continuous with the already “visual and scopic” fetish of financial culture – the market “fully visible on screen” producing a “global inter-subjectivity”, composed from traders' “immediate, synchonised and temporal continuity” with the activity on their terminals.xvi
But this desire for a visual, even haptic clarity to financial information strikes me as consonant with the valences of play in the financial game-space. Is it any surprise that the Newsweek device sounds like some new interactive kids toy by Fisher-Price? As an image for a tool that might enable the sensible regulation of finance trade, it looks like something well-engineered for the kindergarten (or if you're an iPad-wielding knowledge worker, for the wifi'd corner coffee shop) – something that's guaranteed as safe and consistent for use by responsible intermediaries.
Add to these toys whatever new raft of rules, impedances and breakpoints that will result from new post-Crash regulatory regimes and the new space of finance capital comes to resemble a developmentally-aware kindergarten or early schoolxvii: where the “irrational exuberance” of the players is presumed, but is forced to engage with standards of civil behaviour, with participants (to quote Whyte again) “coming together to discuss or debates the ends for which the activity has been established”.
In the open net beyond finance, the most communally substantive of activities – ie, the open source developer community – self-consciously forges (or “source-forges”, to adapt the title of one of their main institutions) the values that guide their practice. Their open play with code-forms comes along with an “play ethos” that values creativity, participation and adhered-to common standards and protocols, the “rules” of their game.xviii What might a comparable “play ethic” for the financial sector be? Is there a way for the necessary “rough-and-tumble” of capital markets to be an expression of healthy, diversive neoteny? Can there be a “creative destruction” that sustains and is sustained by a better-monitored financial system - rather than a perverse pathology of accumulation that unravels the very grounds of its operation?
So am I suggesting that stakeholder capitalism is what the Danes would call leg godt, Lego, “good play”?xix Possibly. And it would surely be better than the toxic, testosteronal, autistic play of financialized capitalism that puts infinite invention into the service of finite, zero-sum pecuniary victory. Italian Marxists would say that all contemporary finance is parasitic rent-seeking upon the productive excess that a communicational society inherently generates, Antonio Negri's “communism of capital” or “value beyond measure”xx But that is another perspective, for another time, on the game of money under capitalism. For now, Yochai Benkler's parental injunction – and network theology - about “sharing nicely”xxi will suffice.
iiSee Micheal Lewis, “The End”, Portfolio magazine, Nov 11, 2008 http://www.portfolio.com/news-markets/national-news/portfolio/2008/11/11/The-End-of-Wall-Streets-Boom/index.html
iii William H. Whyte, Jr., "The Language of Business," in Technological and Professional Writing, ed. Herman A. Estrin (NewYork: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963), p. 83.
ivGavin Kelly, Dominic Kelly, Andrew Gamble, eds, Stakeholder Capitalism (Macmillan 1997), Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars, Mastering The Infinite Game, Capstone 1997
viiJames Carse, Finite and Infinite Games, Ballantine 1976
xStuart Brown, Play, Avery 2009: Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play, Harvard 1997, Marc Bekoff (ed), Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative and Ecological Perspectives, Cambridge, 1998
xiiPat Kane, 'Play, Potentiality and the Constitution of the Net', http://www.theplayethic.com/2009/11/play-potentiality-and-the-constitution-of-the-net.html
xivTiziana Terranova, 'New Economy, Financialization and Social Production in Web 2.0', in A. Fumagalli and S. Mezzadra, Crisis In The Global Economy, Semiotext(e), 2010
xviKarin Knorr Cetina,“The Market”, in M. Featherstone (ed.), Global Knowledge: the New Encyclopedia Project. Theory, Culture and Society (Special Issue), 2004
xvii Pat Kane, 'The Infinite Game: an education for players', The Play Ethic, Macmillan, 2004
xviiiJohn Markoff, What the Dormouse Said, Viking 2005, Fred Turner, From Counterculture To Cyberculture, Chicago UP, 2006
xxAntonio Negri, 'No New Deal is Possible', Radical Philosophy, May-June 2009, http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/default.asp?channel_id=2187&editorial_id=27980
xxiYochai Benkler, "Sharing Nicely": On shareable goods and the emergence of sharing as a modality of economic production, 114 Yale L. J. 273 (2004)