Conference Summary Part I: The Internet as Playground and Factory
The New School held a conference last week that may be of interest to many Sociology Lens readers, so I have decided to devote this week’s entry to sharing some notes from the conference.
The implosion of work and play was the most recurrent theme in the panels that I attended. The term “playbor” was frequently used to describe the product of this implosion. Panelists generally seemed to assume that playbor was a relatively new and increasingly prevalent phenomenon. However, one dissenter, an artist named Stephanie Rothenberg, argued that play and productivity have coincided from the earliest days of capitalism. She explained that hobbies (e.g., collecting, handicraft, parlor room singsong, gardening, and animal raising) are voluntary forms of play that produce objects with no intent to exchange them on the market. These activities often have significant social aspects and some hobbies, like music or quilting, are even done collaboratively. Given the resemblance to hobbies, Rothenberg urges that we view playbor as the latest instantiation of a historical trend, rather than newly emerging paradigm. In fact she claims that online environments like Second Life mimic the world so hyperbolically that they offer an unprecedented opportunity for us to turn a critical eye on ourselves. In our distanced view of these “simulacrums,” we find our own distanced reflections.
This emphasis on the supposed distance between our online and offline presence in the world strikes at the heart of my major criticism of the conference: Panelists again and again betrayed the assumption that the online world was somehow distinct from the “real” world. However, this assumption was never substantiated—and I am dubious as to whether it can be. We know, for example, that most online interactions occur between people who know one another from “real-life” contexts. Moreover, I believe users often perceive their online interactions in a different manner than we do as sociologists.
Sociologists tend to view the variable which distinguishes online and offline interaction (i.e., technology) as salient. In contrast, I think it is likely that users focus on the areas of continuity (i.e., the interactions themselves). This difference in emphasis, I think, is behind the tendency to over-exaggerate the dichotomy between “virtual” and “real.” Clearly, the Internet facilitates new forms of communication that are instantaneous, spatially-compressed, asyncratic, and highly reproducible. These communications may be different, but they are no less real. It is no less absurd to say that online interactions constitute and occur in a separate world than it is to say that telephone calls do. Internet theorists appear to be making the same conflation between form and properties that Aristotle worked to dispel over two millenia ago.
Returning to playbor, Martin Roberts argued that fun occupies a seemingly unassailable position in our culture, whereby criticism meets almost immediate dismissal and is largely non-existent. He extends the theory of the Frankfurt School by arguing that the capitalist system not only profits from a cultural obsession with fun that is a driving force in the sphere of consumption but now increasingly benefits from the notion that “productivity is fun” (and it’s implicit inversion: being unproductive is not fun). A culture driven to seek productivity in its leisure time presents greater opportunity for exploitation.
Interestingly, the cultural identification of fun with productivity perfectly contradicts the technical definition of play in Johan Huzinga’s Homo Ludens. Huzinga was one of several theorists including Tiziana Terranova and Marshall McLuhan, who were repeatedly cited at the conference but receive limited attention in sociology.