February 8th, 2016
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bell was, however, wrong, or at least incomplete. He confused the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of sensation and left out the creative, productive role of play. He saw the California of hot tubs and casual sex (this was the ’70s) but ignored the Silicon Valley and Hollywood that worked practically round-the-clock. He both embraced and condemned the bureaucratic Organization Man but couldn’t imagine that a dynamic culture would find a more interesting, more productive, but non-Puritan, substitute.
Needless to say, there are no personal computers — and certainly no Internet or robot pranks — in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. The personal computer, as Stewart Brand puts it, “is the one thing the hippies got right.” To my younger, economically pressured and career-oriented generation, the children of the ’60s looked like perpetual adolescents, unwilling to go to class, get jobs, accept limits. But, injected into a marketplace always looking for new sources of happiness, their playfulness created amazing new industries.
Play, notes Brand, provides “a place where we try stuff.” It teaches us to generate new ideas and cope with new situations. And, I’d argue, its balance of rules and improvisation encourages exactly the mental skills needed to adapt to a dynamic culture and economy. Speaking in purely economic terms, play will always dominate work, because people will play for free. It’s a great source of startup capital, and a way to help voluntarily finance “public goods,” like all those Internet projects Dan Lynch worked on.
Obviously, discipline matters too, and completing projects often means sticking to them after the fun has run out. But playful work provides a source of joy amid what economic historian Joel Mokyr characterizes as “living in a hectic and nerve-racking world in which producers have to run to stay in place and constantly spend effort and resources on searching for improvements.” In such a world, he worries, stressed-out business people will lobby government to block technological progress. Maybe not, however, if they’re busy having fun.