Under the Paving Stones

Barry Brown Mobile Life

“Under the paving stones… the beach” /Situationist Grafiti, Paris, May 1968

1. Play is work
It’s not often that we have difficulties telling the difference between work and play. Anyone who finds themselves consistently making this mistake is unlikely to retain paid employment for long – we don’t even ‘play act’ in life, we are our roles, although we might change between roles very quickly. We don’t ‘play at’ being a doctor, an academic, or whatever – we are doctors, academics and so on. Frauds are nearly always found out – confidence tricksters like Frank Abagnale in “Catch Me If You Can” are finally discovered for who they really are.

Yet play is work – not least for those who make their business out of providing play (professional footballers, or theme park attendants). Moreover, play is work in that it contains many activities which are ‘working out’. That is, play contains activities which are work in the sense of ‘purposeful activity’ – activities towards a goal. So, in the studies of tourists I conducted I was struck by how much of being a tourist is doing thing like reading a map, planning a day or working out what things to do next. Tourism, a seemingly playful activity, is full of activities which are very much like work – purposeful activity. Play is also work in that play has an important role in work environments. Often it makes it bearable or even possible. I recently did some observations in Sweden of groups go-karting at a local go-karting track. Many of the groups who attended were work groups who had an afternoon or evening off from work celebrating some event (such as their boss leaving) – the traditional ‘works night out’. Before the race groups would stand around nervously, not quite sure what to say to each other. Yet after the race, groups are tearing off their helmets eager to ask who had overtaken who, who had they cut up and so on. The race gives them an object to talk about. On looking round offices you often find little print outs of the order in which people in the office came in some competition – a competition which can still be a source of jokes or storytelling long after the race has finished. So go-karting can be work, in that it plays an important part in making work enjoyable – or at least bearable.

That’s not to say play is only work. There is the hedonic, the ludic which goes beyond the purposeful. Yet these may only be fleeting moments: the romance of the Parisian underground, or when we enter Notre Dame in Paris for the first time or the time we beat our boss at ‘yahtzee’. Yet it is surprising how much of play is merged in with the purposeful. How much we work at our play, training to be better at football, or finding our way with a map.

2. Work is play
If play is work, then we can also see how work returns the favour and is play also. Again, it is not that work is only play, but rather that a thread of play runs through even the most boring of work activities. Indeed, we thread it ourselves, breaking for a coffee, surfing the Internet or chatting on MSN messenger. “Goofing off ” has always been suppressed at work – in a rationalist manageralist view of work it gets in the way of productive work. Yet we cannot work all the time, and certainly creativity (although perhaps overrated as an aspect of modern work) depends considerably on thinking about other situations, thinking ‘the unthinkable’ – ‘playing’ with what you have or what is possible.

This is not to mention learning, an activity which is difficult to imagine without some sort of play. There are even signs that at last this playful thread is being encouraged at work. Some workplaces have found that they can reduce turnover by encouraging more playful activities at work. One Welsh call centre even went as far as employing a tea lady to make tea for all the staff. Their aim wasn’t to save time spent making tea, it was to encourage gossip – a playful aspect of the workplace, as valuable as toilet graffiti.

As the situationists put it: “under the paving stones, the beach”. Under the drab surface of everyday life there is a playful undercurrent which we can deny but which is there all the time. As they threw paving stones at the French Riot police – the CRS – there was sand underneath.

The situationists pointed out that the world of work depends upon play, on romance, sex, friendship. The very things which philosophers have riled against – enframement, organisation, rationalisation, actually depend upon play – on the, open, hedonistic and romantic aspects of activity. The mobile phone, an all important work tool, is also the flirting tool par excellence. The laptop is as much a tool for writing bad poetry or downloading pirated movies as it is moving the workplace into the home.

Again we must be careful, since the opposite is true too. The situationists were terrible at organisation because they denied that play relies on work. They always wanted to go to the pub, or fight. Rather work and play co-exist in each other – at times we work and deny that we play, and at times we play and deny that we are working.

3. Plei-Plei: Thinking about play and work
It would be near impossible to gather together and introduce the variety of contributions to this volume. The chapters range from examinations of mind body computing, our technological life with hunting dogs, to even stranger and more subtle contributions. Yet what unites these contributions is an attempt to take seriously play – an attempt at the paradox of engaging with “play” in a text-book.  That requires both serious academic discussion and study, but also a playful lightness – that sees  what we currently have as only a shadow of what we could imagine.

Different threads thus go through the book. As researchers who are concerned with technology there are a range of experiments, prototypes and new electronic gadgets that in different ways support play. Inside this book you can find flashing, buzzing and pulsating experiments with strange new devices.  Yet this work is also motivated by conceptual concerns.  We are all interested in not just building those devices but in giving them out and seeing what happens with them when they are in different hands – whoever we can find to enjoy or reject them – friends, family, strangers and others.   This work shows a common commitment to understanding play and is inherently social – we play with others, and need to learn to play in the company of others. This social heart at the centre of play is what supports its variety.  Lastly, we see play as something not easily defined, as continually changing. While common threads might unite notions of ‘playfulness’ its value comes in how it can keep changing. What we will play at in a hundred years will be radically different, although perhaps also hearteningly similar.

I wonder also on the design work of putting this book together. Rather than the plain slabs of text that one finds in most academic books we have attempted to explore a little how images and words can lift slightly the paving stones and reveal some of what is underneath. We hope then that as you look through this book you will take in not only our intellectual contributions, but also some of the energy and life not only of our projects, but also of the collaborations we were fortunate to take part in.  Lift the pages a little and see what is underneath.