When it comes to innovation, work may be a thing of the past
'Hope is a gentle breeze, but fear is a whipping icy wind.' So explained 8-year-old Elsie, one of nine children between the ages of 8 and 14 who took the stage in June at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center to demonstrate the Kids Philosophy Slam. The program, which culminates in an annual contest, is designed to get young people across the United States thinking about the big questions, in this case, 'Which is more powerful, hope or fear?' It was clear from the awestruck faces in the crowd that young people also have some big answers.
The kids were one of the biggest draws at the 2006 PUSH conference, a three-day idea fest that brings together futurists, artists, technologists, scientists, policymakers, and business strategists to explore what's 'pushing' the future. This year's theme, 'A New Life,' was explored in talks on everything from cosmology, global climate change, and nanotechnology to humanitarian architecture, digital storytelling, and the emerging field of 'cooperation studies.' And whether by coincidence or by design, a leitmotif that emerged across many of the presentations was another lesson learned from youth: the value of play as a creative force.
Take the explosion of blogs, podcasts, and social networking sites. According to Ze Frank, the comic genius behind the popular video blog at www.zefrank.com/theshow, what's driving this torrent of online creativity is people's innate desire to play with new toys and to engage in conversations with each other. Ultimately, this is 'a social revolution, not a technological one,' Frank said, warning businesspeople in the PUSH audience that they ignore this wave of 'user-generated content' at their peril. 'If you don't talk with your audience, they will talk behind your back,' he said. The Kryptonite Corporation, he pointed out, was blindsided when a short film that showed how to pick one of its bike locks with a Bic pen hit the Internet in 2004.
The business world, in fact, might do well to get into the game. In a demonstration of their Croquet Project, computer scientists David Smith and Mark McCahill showed how they created a virtual reality that can merge the tiresome task of formulating spreadsheets with the fun of using characters like those in a video game.
The open-source system builds interactive three-dimensional virtual worlds in which multiple users can manipulate their avatars to cooperatively edit text files and spreadsheets. Smith and McCahill foresee language teachers using Croquet to create virtual classrooms far richer than textbooks or CDs. Architects and engineers may use it for three-dimensional prototyping of buildings or machine parts. And work teams scattered across the globe could use it to hold meetings with visual aids like a shared whiteboard.
Play is not only necessary to developing the creative problem-solving skills needed in the information economy, it may actually be a key driver of it. Speaker Julian Dibbell suggested that the open-source software movement, popularized in the media as a kind of mass exercise in software programmers' altruism, is in fact a product of play. Much like gearhead mechanics trick out their cars, Dibbell argued, open-source programmers volunteer hours of their time to coding out of a sense of good-natured competition, a desire to solve puzzles by making the software work in new ways, and the drive to win prestige among peers.
Play as a productive activity is different from traditional work in 'the sense that play is its own reward,' Dibbell told Utne. But play also can bring a lucrative financial reward, as Dibbell proved during a year he spent supporting himself largely by trading virtual objects for cold hard cash. By selling swords, armor, cloaks, and even a castle from the game Ultima Online on eBay, Dibbell earned as much as $3,917 a month, an experience he chronicles in his new book, Play Money (Basic Books).
That kind of play-as-work isn't immune from exploitation. Already, Dibbell said, sweatshop-like operations known as 'gold farms' have appeared in China and Mexico, where legions of young gamers are paid a pittance to spend hours online accumulating experience points and virtual gold pieces for their employers. And websites like TopCoder.com are using contests to entice unpaid programmers to produce software code, which the company sells for profit. Dibbell even envisions a somewhat frightening future in which work previously left to skilled professionals-say, analyzing X-rays-could be 'embedded' into video games and done by joystick-wielding gamers with newly trained eyes.
Play, it seems, may be a positive source of innovation, but it isn't all fun and games.