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Journal editor: Pat Kane

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Edited by Pat Kane

:: Playful vs. ‘Workful’? ::

The Work Foundation, directed by the estimable Observer journalist Will Hutton, invited me to London this week to talk about how we can "transform" our vision of what work means.

As I tend to think that work as we know it should be blasted into pieces, and those pieces rearranged into more interesting categories of human purpose (see The Play Ethic for more), you might imagine that this would have been a rather stiff dinner. But I came away not just pleasantly stimulated, but with a fabulous new agenda. I must, on all accounts, never allow the word “workful” to enter the popular vocabulary.

Of course, everybody wants to transform work these days. The welcome creep of European labour laws into the UK workplace - putting a ceiling (though still far too high) on working hours, giving dads paternity leave rights, and more to come - is forcing civility upon the more graceless ends of British business.

And certainly among the higher reaches of what Robert Reich used to call the “symbolic analysers”, it’s deeply fashionable to try and create a workplace with genuine “integrity” - whether it’s a post-Enron financial institution (see this), or indeed the whole structure of capitalism itself.

Take Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin’s The Support Economy, which tells big business to literally prostrate itself before the “psychological sovereignty” of the 21st century consumer. (The new car ads for Scion in the US are an example of just how nervous the biggest of big businesses are about these individuated souls.)

Yet to my mind, it’s a fear of players that’s driving these changes - downloading and networked youth, yearning parents and singletons, the new amateurs (literally ‘doing it for the love of it’) in all manner of fields. What if these psychological sovereigns (who are both consumers and producers) move to the next level of their expanded consciousnesses? The touchy-feely, I-nurture-your-human-capital workplace has been eviscerated by BBC2’s The Office. How can work recover any of its steady dignity, when the "re-creation" hours of workers are filled with gnostic madness like The Matrix Revisited, or Warhol-style video art like Big Brother?

The Work Foundation boys - John Knell and Richard Reeves - thought they had an answer to that: boldly reimagine work as "transformation" - "how we confront, interpret, and change the world and our inner selves". Thus rather than work simply being what one does in one's "job" (that particular bundle of tasks that power and money compels us to do), it becomes a whole way of looking at the world - "workfully", in their language.

Yet it is really "workful" to raise a child, or to amuse and assist a colleague, or object to the behaviour of one's unethical employers, to quote some of their examples? Aren't terms like "playful" and "caring", or "imaginative" and "critical" being colonised here?

Ok, they're the Work Foundation: what else could I expect? Their vision is humane: I don't think anyone could object to turning workplaces into a combination of therapeutic haven, funky campus, and ethical community. But it struck me that a play perspective is much more pitilessly realistic (and certainly more global) when it comes to thinking about how humans might "transform" the world.

When globalisation diversifies the number of "players" in a geopolitical arena - not just the American Imperium versus the forces of terror, but NGO's, people power, radical hackers working for software giants, angry or pacific individuals - isn't this kind of activism also "a mechanism for people to create their own meanings", as the WF'ers put it?

When hard-core research scientists can come up with technologies that allow us to literally "play God" with matter - whether it's genes, atoms or bytes - then don't we need an ethic about what to do with that kind of power?

And though I took their point about hyper-consumerism as in some sense a compensation for a lack of active purpose in working lives, there's still an extraordinary energy and possibility in popular culture and the electronic arts. Through sheer exercise of the imagination, it keeps our social script "in play": it unsettles and thrills and annoys us, won't let us rest easy with our "jobs" or our "work". That's not big bad consumerism: that's semiotic humanity, unable to resist being a trickster with meaning.

"Workful", as an ethic of human action, is incapable of encompassing any of these "transformative" activities. At the very least, we need a 'Play Foundation' to defend playfulness against "workfulness". And here we are...

::Bling Bling meets Green Wellies::

My 13 year-old R&B daughter has brought to my attention that the wheels de jour of the US hip-hop community are...Range Rovers. In advance of a full engagement of hiphop/R&B with the Play Ethic, I must merely note - as a nudging-40 Gen X'er - that I actually remember the Range Rover being launched in the early seventies. That this lumbering old tank (though admittedly very glitzy in its current version) is now a prime commodity with the major playas makes me smile. She has excellently researched the major references:

"I'm the one that put the Range in the Rover/when I'm steppin' out the range yo its over" - Lil' Kim, The Jump Off

"I'm goin' down down baby your street in a Range Rover" - Nelly, Country Grammar

"Went from Lucy's and buses to fifty cent sodas/And Novas to Hondas to Lexus to Rovers" - Busta Rhymes, I Know What You Want

::Play Times::

The Over-Soul Reloaded Never mind the Matrix - here's Emerson, the original psychonaut
Mofotolog Not a spelling mistake, but a mix of photo-phone and weblog. Gotta do something with them.
Grand Text Auto The Cahiers Du Cinema of viddy games
Blot Logo Will the unbranding of America catch on?


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