Play and Consequences

Imagine a child playing in a sandbox, dreaming up elaborate stories about the castles they’ve built with their sandbox toys.  Now, imagine a group of eighteen adults, two teams of office co-workers, throwing around a baseball according to very precise rules.  Those adults are playing too.

It seems contradictory at first.  The elaborate rules of the baseball game are very different from the child’s freeform storytelling.  How can they both be forms of play?

What makes them play is freedom from external consequences. A child in a sandbox does not fear that their day dreams will bring harm to them. A softball player knows that to swing and miss three times will result in an out but nothing else.  Play can be elaborate and ritualistic or wild and spontaneous, it can be solitary or communal, it’s usually pleasurable but can also be painful, it can involve building things up or tearing them down.  What unites all these activities is the mindset of the participants: blissfully free from worry about unintended consequences.

Work is one of the opposites of play.  When we work, we’re striving towards a goal which matters, and everything we do must be measured against that purpose.  A job can involve both work and play, if care is taken to create environments where there is no pressure to get things right the first time and no negative consequences for the employee if they fail.  But some kinds of work can never be turned into play.  You would not want a surgeon to play during surgery, happily disregarding the consequences as they cut into your body. Most jobs require at least some periods of seriousness.

But no human being can go too long without play, without respite from the fear of consequences. A surgeon must take their surgery seriously, but the must also have space in their lives to play. And because we spend so much of our lives at our jobs, they’re one of the best intervention points when it comes to bringing play back into people’s lives. It is through play that we are able to take work seriously. Without those breaks, those moments of freedom, we are too exhausted to think through the consequences when it really matters. 

The famous Facebook philosophy of “move fast and break things” is fundamentally a playful one.  Paraphrased, it just means “go ahead, don’t worry about the consequences”.  The world is your sandbox.  But of course, not having to worry about consequences is a form of privilege.  And, insulated by that privilege, Facebook and other tech companies have played games with a great many very serious things.

The problem is not that Facebook encouraged playfulness, it’s when and how they encouraged playfulness.  They handed a scalpel to a surgeon and told them “move fast and break things” rather than creating a more appropriate space for play.

 

Civic Virtue and the Profit Motive

In an article about Milton Friedman in the Pacific Standard, Rick Paulas quotes from an article of Friedman’s published in 1970:

There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud

The phrase “rules of the game” immediately caught my eye, as it did Paulas’:

Another thing missing from Friedman’s framework of corporations playing “within the rules of the game” was the outsized role that the corporate lobbyists have had in the creation of those rules. As Sachs points out, “[i]n 2016, special interests spent $3.15 billion to employ 11,166 lobbyists in the U.S.” If Friedman’s theoretical world was based on the ability of outside actors—like government regulators—keeping societal rules intact, then that world has long been compromised.

There’s always a gap between rules and reality, and we require good judgment and public spirit from those navigating that gap.

Years ago I read Zephyr Teachout’s excellent book Corruption in America, and was struck by her description of how the framers approached the constitution.  Teachout writes:

We have two thoughts: (1) men are not always angels, and therefore structures must help us; and (2) virtue is necessary, and structures alone cannot help us. The reconciliation between these two Madisonian beliefs holds the key to understanding the moral psychology of the framers. These can both be true if one perceives a dynamic relationship between constitutional structure and political morality. Because men are not always virtuous, structures must be enacted in order to discourage self-serving behavior in public life. The public orientation that flourishes in these structures in turn helps maintain the structures, which in turn helps maintain virtue.

The argument is not merely that, in the absence of good regulations, individuals (or companies) must temper their self-interest with civic virtue.  It is that good regulations must be actively maintained, and that it takes virtuous individuals to do so.