The Play Ethic by Pat Kane

Welcome to the fun-house

James Harkin
Friday 29 October 2004 00:00 BST

In California, there exists a business consultant who goes by the name of "Dr Play". Using props purchased from toyshops, Dr Play helps chief executives rediscover their creativity, for which he pockets $3,000 for a half a day's work.

Pat Kane is in a different league from Dr Play, but part of the same basic phenomenon. In the last five years, this Scottish pop singer-turned-cultural thinker has established himself as the Pied Piper of social theory, the most vocal British advocate of toppling the work ethic in favour of an ethic of play. The monotony of work, Kane argues in this new book, has been a millstone around our shoulders for the last 250 years. Drawing on the work of the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, he argues that many activities within business, the arts and the political world are more usefully interpreted as intrinsically playful. Rather than repressing the urge to play, he argues, we should celebrate it and elevate it into a manifesto for everyday life.

"We need," Kane says, "to become literate in all the forms of play that humans pursue." Besides, he argues, at a time when the economy seems devoted to the short-term, it would be lunacy to invest too much in the world of work. "Why believe in work," he demands, "when it doesn't believe in you?"

There is another catalyst for the play revolution. Just as Marx envisaged that the proletariat would be the agent of revolution against the system, says Kane, time only became ripe for play-power with the emergence of a different kind of worker: not proletarians, but soulitarians. These "immaterial labourers" of the new economy - chiefly in the media, culture and service industries - offer their ideas rather than their labour for hire.

These are the people whom surveys find to be capable of shunning high salaries in favour of "meaningful work". They are militant about protecting their lifestyle from the demands of work, to free more time for creative and self-determined activity. They are, he says, "eager to take all the opportunities that the new network society can offer, but wise enough to realise that wage-labour is only one strand in their life-stories".

But they are far from mere drop-outs. On the contrary, he argues, dynamic and highly motivated players will be much sought-after in the flexible 21st-century workplace.

Underlying this enthusiasm for an ethic of play is the idea that we are at our most creative as children, and that by revisiting our childhood we can rediscover that creativity. Those claims, however, should be treated with caution. The innocent way children play may be enchanting, and may prompt us to reflect on our own approach to life. But there is no real evidence that a child-centred view of the world - limited to its immediate environment, and lacking any discipline - is of any use to adults. The creative urge that drives work is qualitatively different from that which allows a child to build sandcastles. No one would have dared suggest to William Shakespeare or James Joyce that their output could benefit from playing around with children's toys.

Just like any other grown-up activity, hard work of any kind involves a stubborn seriousness of purpose. Coming after a period in which management has exhausted the potential for restoring profitability by cost-cutting and trimming the workforce, the lurch towards creative play shows signs of desperation.

The problem with elevating play to such a central role, however, is not just its infantile approach to the business of management. It also risks spoiling our fun. A game of Lego whose purpose is to impress one's colleagues and turn around the business is not only destined to fail; such seriousness is surely designed to put anyone off the game for life. Once play loses its spontaneity and its sense of purposeless abandon, it ceases to be play at all.

The Play Ethic, nonetheless, fizzes with intellectual curiosity. Kane writes engagingly and with a humility difficult to find among idea-entrepreneurs. And he addresses an enduring problem. Those of us in mind-numbing or ignominious jobs could do with working fewer hours in favour of something more fulfilling. But in the absence of an outbreak of altruism, Kane's proposals for a universal "citizen's income" will never amount to anything. Which leaves us not only stuck in the office, but condemned to spending our weekends playing around under the corporate cosh.

James Harkin is director of talks at the ICA

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