|In Praise of Play
By Virginia Postrel
A Bradley Lecture delivered at the American Enterprise Institute
January 11, 1999
At the 1996 Republican National Convention, Newt Gingrich briefly ventured off-script. Before he started his formal remarks, he pulled Olympic gold medalist Kent Steffes on stage and celebrated Steffes' sport as an example of the unpredictable, inventive culture that makes America great.
"A mere 40 years ago," said Gingrich, "beach volleyball was just beginning. Now it is not only a sport in the Olympics, but there are over 30 countries that have a competition internationally. . . . And there's a whole new world of opportunity opening up that didnðt exist 30 or 40 years ago--and no bureaucrat would have invented it. And thatðs what freedom is all about."
Gingrichðs impromptu comments weren't entirely articulate, but the sentiment behind them made perfect sense. Gingrich was a congressman from Atlanta, host of the recently completed Olympic games. The convention was in San Diego, a center for beach volleyball since the 1950s. Steffes was an enthusiastic Republican, a free-market UCLA economics major, and the only C-SPAN devotee ever described by People magazine as "bronzed, brash, and built like a Greek statue."
Who wouldn't want their political party associated with athletic excellence, good looks, and fun? And beach volleyball is exactly what Gingrich said it is: an example of spontaneous, unpredictable opportunity--a huge international enterprise that no central planner would ever have imagined. (Not every new industry involves electronics.)
It made sense to me, anyway. But then I live in California.
The real pundits laughed at Newt. You can't praise beach volleyball at a political convention--especially a Republican political convention. Liberal commentators had one word for Gingrich: weird. Typical was Walter Shapiro of USA Today, who wrote, "My heart soared at the transcendent weirdness of Newtðs imagery."
Conservatives howled: "No More Beach Volleyball, Please," begged the lead editorial in The Weekly Standard's convention edition. Gingrich, said the editors, gave "the worst and most embarrassing speech of his career, locating the spirit of American freedom in Olympic beach volleyball."
From a strictly political point of view, Newt's instincts were right, even if his message was not entirely comprehensible. There is nothing embarrassing about celebrating the quirky, crowd-pleasing products of American freedom. That is what freedom is all about--it doesnðt follow someone's official plan or undertake only dull-but-important endeavors. It continuously produces surprises and delight. The conservative establishment-s deep alienation from American life, American culture, and the American spirit is turning the Republican Party into the right-wing version of the "San Francisco Democrats"--the party that hates America. And that is not exactly a recipe for electoral success.
But the GOP's electoral difficulties are a side issue. It's not my job to worry about winning elections. I'm more concerned with how the world outside politics works. What, I want to know, are the sources of creativity, enterprise, and progress--and how do we protect them?
On these questions, too, there is a real clash between the "transcendent weirdness" of appreciating beach volleyball and the assumptions of conventional political discourse.
Lurking behind most popular intellectual discussions of capitalism, science, technology, and culture is what I call the "repression theory of progress." This theory follows turn-of-the-century sociologist Max Weber in seeing the basis of our civilization in the Puritan ethic of self-denial, thrift, and duty. The repression theory holds that both scientific progress and capitalist economics depend on an orderly society of drones.
This theory's most influential expression is in Daniel Bell's book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, whose title explains everything that left-wing humanities professors and right-wing cultural critics need to know about markets. The book was first published in 1976, but it was reissued in a special 20th-anniversary edition two years ago--testimony to its enduring influence and supposed prescience. Its thesis is simple: By encouraging the spirit of novelty and play, capitalism will destroy itself.
Bell writes that we are well on our way to that fate: "In America, the old Protestant heavenly virtues are largely gone," he says, "and the mundane rewards have begun to run riot. The basic [old] American value pattern emphasized the virtue of achievement, defined as doing and making, and a man displayed his character in the quality of his work. . . . Despite some continuing use of the language of the Protestant ethic, the fact was that by the 1950s American culture had become primarily hedonistic, concerned with play, fun, display, and pleasure. . . . The world of hedonism is the world of fashion, photography, advertising, television, travel. It is a world of make-believe in which one lives for expectations, for what will come rather than what is. And it must come without effort. . . . Nothing epitomized the hedonism of the United States better than the State of California."
Bell's analysis is based on a series of dichotomies: work versus play, achievement versus beauty and pleasure, effort versus fun, reality versus the future, "doing and making" versus imagination. In a world ruled by those stark choices, it is the job of technocratic leaders--whether in political, intellectual, corporate, or religious life--to force or entice the undisciplined masses to perform their necessary but unpleasant roles. Without such leadership, our civilization will collapse, undone by its inherent contradictions.
The repression theory has broad appeal. Hillary Clinton recycled the repression theory in her well-received speech at last year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It pops up everywhere. It is held by intellectuals such as Bell, who like repression and want to see more of it; it is held by intellectuals such as leftist cultural critic Tom Frank, who hate capitalism and relish the thought of its self-inflicted demise; and it is held by intellectuals such as "neo-Luddite" Kirkpatrick Sale, who dislike repression and therefore want to abandon capitalism, technology, science, industry, and just about every invention since human beings developed agriculture.
Along similar, but more subtle, lines, Christopher Lasch complained in The Culture of Narcissism that "Risk, daring, and uncertainty--important components of play--have no place in industry or in activities infiltrated by industrial standards, which seek precisely to predict and control the future and to eliminate risk. . . . [T]he degradation of play originates in the degradation of work."
The repression theory is one answer to my question: What are the sources of creativity, enterprise, and progress--and how do we protect them? It holds that progress will take care of itself, as long as people conform to existing systems and standards. As Bell puts it, with the eloquence characteristic of big-shot sociologists, "The nature of change in the techno-economic order is linear in that the principles of utility and efficiency provide clear rules for innovation, displacement, and substitution."
In other words, progress is a machine. Turn the crank, and innovation pops out. The future is predictable, controllable, and inevitable. There is one best way, and that way is perfectly obvious. There is no need for experimentation, novelty, or surprise--all of which encourage dangerous impulses.
In this linear model, play represents disruption, a threat to the social order. No wonder The Weekly Standard not only cringes at Newt Gingrich's beach volleyball remarks but condemns, in the words of David Brooks, "Cosmic Capitalists [who] practice Playfulness with a Purpose" and executives who "soar into a realm of unfettered imagination." Todayðs business people, complains Brooks, are constantly experimenting with new organizational forms--replacing elevators with escalators and rearranging the furniture. They wear khakis instead of blue suits. They collect yo-yos. All this novelty, he says, expresses the destructive spirit of the French Revolution.
These many manifestations of the repression theory express the sorts of sentiments that give intellectuals a bad name. Anyone who believes, with Lasch, that"risk, daring, and uncertainty" have no place in industry or, with Bell, that there are "clear rules" for innovation has not spent much time talking to business innovators, let alone tried to be one. Anyone who thinks decentralized, competitive business experiments--including such mundane matters as evolving office designs and studies of collegial interaction--are nihilistic equivalents of the French Terror simply does not appreciate how the marketplace works, or how profoundly evolutionary its processes are.
"Risk, daring, and uncertainty" are, in fact, central to capitalist economics and scientific and technological discovery. It is nonsense to suggest otherwise. But Lasch is right that these qualities are also central to the spirit of play. The connection between progress and play is what I want to explore in the rest of this talk.
In The Future and Its Enemies, I discuss what I call the "demand side" and the "supply side" of progress, both of which help to explain the importance of play and to illuminate its nature. The demand side is our constant search for improvements, our discontent with what weðre given. It is what civil engineering professor Henry Petroski calls "form follows failure"--the idea that any artifact, however successfully it fits its inventorðs vision, immediately suggests improvements.
Take contact lenses, one of my favorite inventions. It took nearly a century to solve the basic problem: to produce lenses that would provide the proper correction and could be worn all day without damaging the eyes. But that wasnðt the end of things. Once you have lenses that can be worn all day, you want ones that can be worn all night. Or if you get them cheap enough to throw away every week or two, you want them cheap enough to replace every day. And you start imagining new kinds of lenses you might invent. What about contact lenses to change eye color, protect from ultraviolet rays, or correct astigmatism? Down the street from where I live, there's an optometrist advertising funky lenses that give you red vampire eyes, make your pupils look like 8-balls, or turn them into starbursts. Maybe we'd like lenses that function as computer screens or navigational guides.
Each new invention suggests others, and the perfect contact lens is always out of reach. We are always looking to do better: to produce more variety and fewer tradeoffs. Progress is an infinite series. As Petroski puts it, "The future perfect can only be a tense, not a thing."
This process of constant challenge, of always stretching to do better, is not some kind of pre-programmed law of "techno-economic change," and it is certainly not "hedonism." But it does involve seeking "what will come rather than what is." It is like the pressure of athletic competition, of always reaching a little further. One Silicon Valley entrepreneur I interviewed compared his business life to his experience rowing in college: "It's relentless," he said, "and you can never perfect it, and the computers just never get tired of challenging you. . . . It's, yes, playing, innovating, risk taking. It's an adventure game." He says he loves "the constant challenge."
I got a similar response from cancer researcher Bruce Ames, when I asked why he does what he does. "It's fun," said Ames, who also lives and works in the hedonistic state of California. "I can't imagine a more enjoyable career. If you gave me $10 million tomorrow, I'd go on doing just what I'm doing. . . . It's always a challenge. It's always new problems. I'm 69 years old and I look forward to coming to work every morning."
This "game" of seeking improvements and novelty satisfies our deep human need for what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow." Csikszentmihalyi has done studies in which people agree to record what they're doing and how theyðre feeling when they are randomly paged. The studies find consistent patterns across many different sorts of people: People say they are happiest when they are completely absorbed by some activity that challenges their skills, provides feedback, has rules, and gives them a sense of control--when, in short, they are at play. They compare those satisfying activities, which vary widely from person to person, to problem-solving, discovery, and exploration. Such enjoyment stems from finding the perfect balance between tasks that are too easy, and hence boring, and those that are too hard, causing anxiety.
Maintaining that balance means constantly looking for harder tasks, because, as we learn and improve, the old challenges become boring. The drive to play is thus one source of what businesspeople call "the learning curve," the pattern by which organizations and individuals get more productive over time.
Csikszentmihalyi tells the story of Rico Medellin, an assembly line worker who does the same task almost 600 times a day. He writes that "Rico has been at this job for over five years, and he still enjoys it. The reason is that he approaches his task in the same way an Olympic athlete approaches his event: How can I beat my record? . . . When he is working at top performance the experience is so enthralling that it is almost painful for him to slow down. 'It's better than anything else,' Rico says."
Medellin's achievement is not just a matter of working hard, of doing his duty, or of effort without enjoyment. It is "better than anything else." It is fun. Certainly, Medellin is a responsible, disciplined employee, not someone who just follows his whims. But responsibility and discipline are not what make him special: To satisfy his bosses and the Puritan ethic, Medellin need only show up for eight hours a day and do each assigned task in 43 seconds. To satisfy himself, he must do much more: better his record, an average of 28 seconds per unit. His amazing productivity comes from the spirit of play. It has nothing to do with repression and everything to do with joy.
Our desire for new challenges and constant improvement is the "demand side" of progress. The "supply side" lies in combinations. They are the answer to the old question, Aren't we running out of resources?
The real limit to progress is not the amount of stuff we have, or even the current supply of ideas. It's all the different ways those things or those ideas can be combined. And once you start combining things, the numbers get very big, very fast.
The term we often use is "building blocks," and since this is a speech on play, I thought I'd bring in some toy blocks to illustrate the point. These are six Duplo blocks, which are just like Legos, only larger. According to a company representative, you can use these six blocks to create 102 million different combinations. [A mathematician later corrected this to 109 million.--vp] And these blocks provide a relatively small collection from which to build new possibilities. An ordinary deck of 52 cards offers 10 to the 68th power possible arrangements, which means that any order you happen to shuffle has probably never appeared before in the entire history of cards. And even that enormous number is tiny. Recombining the 1s and 0s on an ordinary 1.4 megabyte floppy disk could generate 10 to the 3.5 millionth power different bit strings--strings that could be words or computer programs or pictures or music, or any combination. You begin to see why people who work with computers can imagine a world of open-ended progress.
The supply side of inventions is unbelievably vast. Every new idea adds to the ever-branching number of future possibilities. That's why Bell's notion of techno-economic progress as a simple machine breaks down. Even if "utility and efficiency" were as easily defined as he suggests, the number of possibilities to test against those principles is way too large to calculate in advance. Hence the importance of experimentation, competition, and feedback.
And hence the importance of what we inherit from the past. In creating combinations, we are limited only by our imagination and the time in which we have to exercise it. Time is the ultimate limited resource. But time includes not simply our own lifespans but the creative legacies of past generations: the experiments, the inventions, and the knowledge on which we can build.
People who study creativity refer to that inherited knowledge as the "domain" of a field--the building blocks for future creations. One mark of creative genius is mastery of a larger domain than most people have access to: Shakespeare's 17,000-word vocabulary, for instance. Mastery is a matter not only of how many things we know but of how quickly and adeptly we can use them in new situations.
Here, again, we see an important relationship between play and progress. Play is what we do for its own sake, for the satisfaction of overcoming challenges. Meeting those challenges has an imperative of its own. Finding the perfect word, image, chess move, football maneuver, or musical sequence defies arbitrary limits. The spirit of play leads us to experiment, to try new combinations, and to take risks--even to play volleyball on the beach, in two-player teams, rather than in gyms with six on a side. Play encourages syncretism, which Bell condemns in the arts as "this extraordinary freedom to ransack the world storehouse and to engorge any and every style it comes upon."
Play is not bound by arbitrary assumptions about what combinations are appropriate or what will work. "Its aim is in itself, and its familiar spirit is happy inspiration," as Johan Huizinga put it in Homo Ludens (Man the Player). This extraordinary freedom is an essential aspect of play, a product of its push toward inventiveness. It is what makes play "subversive," and is the source of its creative destruction.
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that the spirit of play is chaotic, that it rejects rules. To the contrary, rules are essential to play. They are among its delights, requiring us to stretch our bodies and our minds. It is no fun to "play tennis with the net down," to undertake tasks that are too easy. Play requires not chaos but challenge. The rules of play, Huizinga tells us, are both "freely accepted" and "absolutely binding."
One of my favorite examples of the relationship between rules, play, and imagination involves the poet W.H. Auden. I love it because it is, as they said of Newt Gingrich, so incredibly weird.
As a child Auden was fascinated with, of all things, lead mining. (So much for there being no relationship between industry and play.) He pestered his parentsto buy him books on the subject and sometimes even got them to take him down real mines. Based on what he learned, Auden created an elaborate fantasy world of his own private lead mine.
He later wrote, "Since it was a purely private world, theoretically, I suppose, I should have been free to imagine anything I liked, but in practice, I found it was not so. I felt instinctly, without knowing why, that I was bound to obey certain rules. I could choose, for example, between two kinds of winding engines, but they had to be real ones I could find in my books; I was not free to invent one. I could choose whether a mine should be drained by a pump or an adit, but magical means were forbidden." To turn his imagined landscape into an "anything goes" world would have been to destroy it. The fun of its creation lay in finding originality within constraints.
The beauty and fun of games arise from the many different combinations their rules make possible, the many different orders that emerge without prior design. A good game is different every time you play it. It is a continuing source of new challenges.
In this sense, play teaches us something important about rules: Their mere existence does not make the world deterministic. We do not choose between a playful world with no rules and an orderly world with no play. What confuses the critics both of play and of order is that play is unpredictable and open-ended. It is indeed filled with "risk, daring, and uncertainty."
Although governed by rules, play is incompatible with determinism or stasis. It will not let the world remain stable or perfectly predictable. "Play," writes Huizinga, "only becomes possible, thinkable, and understandable when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos." That influx of mind is the answer to my question: What are the sources of creativity, enterprise, and progress?
Playfulness is both a product and a source of dynamism. It also is a vital adaptation to a dynamic world. That, indeed, appears to be why we play: The psychic rewards we get from solving problems and satisfying our curiosity make the human species more likely to survive in turbulent, or wildly divergent, environments.
The evolutionary advantage of play seems to be that it fosters resilience. One possibility is that play allows an individual to accumulate lots of different experiences on which to draw when faced with a challenge. It makes more possible solutions familiar. An animal that played as a child will therefore be more adaptable as an adult.
Animal play fits this explanation: Many animals play, but playfulness and curiosity are generally characteristics of the young, fading with maturity. Even chimpanzees are far less inventive as adults than as juveniles. In a stable environment, in which all necessary skills can be mastered during childhood, adults do not need to play in order to survive.
Human beings, however, play all our lives, and adults do most of the inventing. For a human being not to be creative and curious is a sign of senility, not maturity. This playfulness gives humans an evolutionary advantage: An adult who continues to play will be more adaptable still, able to draw not only on old experiences but on the desire for new ones.
This drive to discover new things is what the Silicon Valley entrepreneur means when he calls his work "an adventure game"--a world where surprises abound , where "players" thrive on "knowing that just around the corner is something new that youðre going to have to learn and to react to." The spirit of play allows us to adapt to an unstable environment, and to venture into new territories. Human beings can flourish from the tropics to the Arctic, through earthquakes and hurricanes, plagues and droughts, because we have developed the resilience that comes from play.