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Editorial, Volume #56

All Work, All Play

— by

After we lost Paradise, we had to work for a living. “In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread”, as Genesis puts it so nicely.1 For centuries, work was labor and for the larger part of society it was something you did to survive, not because you liked to. With the development of capitalism, the industrial society, and the exponential diversification in work and jobs, this gradually changed. The right to enjoy what you’re doing and to get something out of it for yourself became part of the deal: “Dear employer, I’ll do my utmost and make you a nice profit in exchange for a modest pay, but please allow me to at least gain some satisfaction from doing the job.” That kind of thing. The exchange is no longer limited to time and production but involves the person as well. From the employer’s point of view, competition for better pay and a better position is not enough stimuli, there should be something else to tickle to get people going. Wellbeing and happiness enter the scene. In certain sectors of production companies understand that for the kind of productivity they need creativity is crucial. And to optimize conditions for their ‘creatives’ they’ll do all sorts of unprecedented things to create the right ambiance and atmosphere. No more 9-5 working schedules, good food, sports and play-time facilities, to name but a few – in short, a homelier, more informal ambiance. The individual worker in total control of his or her daily activities, or so it seems. Yes, the company still makes unprecedented profits, but hey man, this employee’s life was never better, nothing to complain about. Although this reality is limited to a privileged class of workers in Silicon Valley-esque enterprises and the kind of work environments some advertisement agencies provide, there is a trickle-down effect in other parts of production: Life is fun (or it should be), even for you, night shift worker. 

But industry and capital are not simply giving up on control. The most radical changes happen at the low end of the market. Where, in one sector of production the worker (employee) is persuaded (or nudged as the popular term is these days) to go the extra mile, to contribute with their heart and soul (and intelligence), in another part of the productivity chain the game is more coercive.

Employed people are being replaced by freelancers, who are not paid by the hour but by the number of goods they can distribute or produce. Practices of a century ago are back and the unions are toothless. Unrelenting capitalism in its simplest form. More subtle programs are also being tested, making use of game principles and technologies is one of them. More on this in this issue.

The irony is that this development is not just the return to hardcore 19th-century liberalism but in a different guise; it is an intermediate phase only. The next step is to get rid of the employee, tout court. Uber developed a system to have taxi drivers work for less while actually moving towards a driverless future. A Dutch meal delivery service is posing as an eco-conscious company with a happy workforce gaming its way to the end of the day but in fact it is trying to replace them by automated systems as soon as it can. 

For a long time, a discussion has been ongoing in education that the way knowledge and practice is being delivered to pupils or students should be more in line with their social environment and be more fun; play and games come to the rescue. But the moment we see this mechanism surface in production, we also see the end of it. In industry it is not a next step, an improvement on earlier models and mechanisms, but a temporary development to bridge the gap with the near future that is to AI and automated systems.

When we’ve reached that point, gaming skills can still be useful of course to pass the lifelong period of unemployment ahead. No work, all play.

PS: The start for this issue was an idea about how work is being affected by our ‘blockchain society’. As a zoom in on the larger thematic we introduced in Volume 51. In the end we decided to zoom in on this zoom in: the role of (technology enabled) play in our working environments. One element we couldn’t include, I want to mention here specifically. In several issues of Volume over the past years we’ve indicated that scale is of the essence, the intermediate one in particular. The scale on which you operate or organize an activity is defining for its consequences. The current tendency to promote small-scale, local ways of building and producing in times of the ever-increasing importance and presence of globalized (and monopolizing) systems misses out on the intermediate scale or the interconnection between small and global. Local is not an alternative to global, it is a dimension of global. But how they interrelate is not a given. This is a political and an architectural issue that could do with some architectural intelligence, some design thinking.

  1. The Bible, Genesis 3:19.