The BlackBerry Z10 is the most recent device driven by an effort to create a seamless integration of work and play. The Z10’s “Hub” and “Flow” features are designed to allow you to move back and forth between these two worlds: Send in that late report while still playing a game of Angry Birds or confirm an appointment while watching the latest blockbuster.
At one time, it was thought that such technologies would free us from work and give us more time for leisure. But, as is obvious to anyone who owns a tablet or a smartphone, work ends up following us to the golf course and to the sidelines of our kid’s soccer game. Bosses and managers know play also follows us to work. Peter Cohan, a contributor to Forbes.com, estimates that people using Facebook while at work is cutting U.S. productivity by 9.4 per cent, resulting in $1.4-trillion in lost profits.
This confusion between work and play, facilitated by increasingly ubiquitous and embedded technologies, led media theorist Julian Kücklich to coin the term “playbour,” which highlights the overlooked union of play and labour.
Everyday experiences of playbour can be found in popular games such as Minecraft and Farmville. As the name suggests, players of Minecraft take on the role of a miner to unearth minerals and other building materials. The highly addictive Farmville prompts players to plant crops, build farms and run the harvest. The profusion of similar “time management games” such as Diner Dash, Supermarket Mania and Sally’s Spa allow you to replicate the harried life of a restaurant manager, grocery clerk or pedicurist.
The tremendous popularity of these games suggests something more is going on than a muddling of work time and free time. Instead, we may be at a technological tipping point where the critical balance between labour and leisure is lost. Rather than freeing us from work, technology turns everything into work.
Over the decades, much has been made about the way new technology is affecting employment. Recently, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, the authors of the new book Race Against the Machine, have argued that advances in robotics, voice recognition technology and online commerce are to blame for the jobless recovery, because these machines have replaced millions of workers.
In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford takes a more philosophical view, worrying that the waning of work, particularly manual labour, leads to a potential loss of the deep spiritual satisfaction we gain through “the experience of making things and fixing things.”
But what about the spiritual consequences of the loss of free time, leisure and play? More and more, time with our friends, families and even by ourselves is mediated by devices initially designed for work, such as the newest iteration of the BlackBerry. Even when we do manage to pull ourselves away from our screens to exercise, we end up “training” on treadmills, as though we were animals turning a wheel in some preindustrial factory. We spend our time “working out” rather than playing out.
The critical role of play has a long history in Western civilization. Way back in the 4th century BC, Aristotle wrote extensively on the importance of leisure. The ancient Greek word for leisure is schole, from which we get “school.” At least for Aristotle, leisure was supposed to be time to think about higher things, gain insight, engage in relaxed contemplation and consider the meaning of life. Work was to satisfy the lower goods of the appetites and leisure for the satisfaction of the higher goods of community, spirit and mind.
Today, of course, we are much more likely to associate leisure with the satisfaction of so-called lower goods. Perhaps that’s why we end up recreating work environments in our games. If play is being eclipsed by technology, all we may be left with is the strange drudgery of playbour. All told, we need to rethink the work-play balance as it teeters back and forth in our technological society.
David Edward Tabachnick is an associate professor of political science at Nipissing University in North Bay. He is the author of The Great Reversal: How We Let Technology Take Control of the Planet, which should be out later this month.
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