We have so much knowledge, so many skills, maybe too much time and energy. Our knowledge is widely distributed and too easily evaporates into the cloud, but we have more of it than ever. We may have fewer skills than past societies (how many cobblers are left?), but there are more of us and a surprising diversity of interest between. For good or for ill, our time and energy, once consumed by a race to the top of working life, increasingly lie fallow. Surplus upon surplus. This is nothing new, neither an emergent condition nor a radical statement. It’s just the way of things. So what?
Why so much talk about “gamification” recently? Because we’re swimming in a surplus and have no idea what to do with it.
In his keynote address to the Reboot conference in 2009, Bruce Sterling talked about the “play-labor” put into construction of favelas, ad hoc slums fashioned from corrugated aluminum and scraps in the particular, or any similarly ad hoc structure in general. “Play,” here, isn’t diminutive. Being ramshackle makes a favela no less useful, no less a home. Just, you can’t own your favela home. It’s always at risk of being reclaimed by the government, or a landowner, or being wiped out by some of our new “heavy weather.” Also, building a favela isn’t “productive” in the strict sense. It’s recycling, play-labor because it mimics the process of construction and expansion that is, if it ever was, no longer economically viable. Still, Sterling considers the favela and its “chic” a form of life, one of two that define these days. Standing beside “favela chic” is “gothic high-tech.” Similarly precarious, gothic high-tech is the inhabiting of a ruined modernity rather than its mimicry. Similarly unproductive, it’s about abandoned technology, failed enterprise, futures never fully realized. Both manifest a kind of surplus.
Joanne McNeil at Rhizome opened her post about #OWS with this: “On a quiet night, Zuccotti Park feels more like a LARP than a demonstration. Everyone deep in character with a specific task…” We have knowledge, but nothing to do with it; skills, but never opportunities to use them; time, energy and no way to put them to productive use. Our surplus is a virtual one, so we put it to virtual use.
A few ways to do this: games offer one. If this seems strange, try not to think of vulgar gamification, the endless check-ins and badges and rewards for doing laundry, though these figure in as well. Instead, think of archetypal “Alternate Reality Games.”
On Unforum, hundreds of users stand constantly vigilant, waiting for clues to puzzles that exist only in literal “alternate” worlds. They work to solve puzzles with absolutely no productive use, no reward save narrative and satisfaction. The puzzles are often wildly intricate, complex on a scale that no single person could comprehend. So, users work together. And let me stress, it is work, though there is no product. Images are manipulated, code written and deciphered, obscure texts referenced, all this information shared on the forum as collective intelligence. It’s beautiful and completely wasteful. What it lacks in production, though, it makes up for in participation.
Occupy Wall Street, et al. offer a second, related model. It’s a simulacrum of Jefferson’s “elementary republics of the wards,” play-labor put toward the construction of new political and economic life and, like Sterling’s favelas, no less useful for being unreal. Occupation isn’t politically or economically productive: no legislation will be drafted, no market created or leveraged. But it is participatory.
Thus, Mr. Wilkinson, worrying about the movement’s seeming rejection of traditional politics and insistence on…well, occupation:
“…But how is the fever supposed to spread to the general population if these modest bustling colonies exhibiting the inspiring virtues of true democratic community are only allowed where they are not unwanted? Camping and deliberating and participating democratically together on somebody’s back forty, rather than in peoples’ way, is a less empowering experience. It’s too clearly LARPing.”
Build a favela on granted land and it’s simply a slum. The participation has to be public. Go back to Sterling’s definition of favela chic: “Favela Chic is when you have lost everything material, everything you built and everything you had, but you’re still wired to the gills! And really big on Facebook.” The point is demonstration, in both senses of the word. The point is collective intelligence and the utilization of our immense “cognitive surplus.” This manifests as games, as role playing, as occupation because ours aren’t problems of production or productivity. Ours are problems of surplus and the possibilities for burning off that surplus within party politics, or hidden away on gifted private property, are limited.
William Ball is a writer who doesn’t live in Brooklyn. He writes poetry and smut when he isn’t writing essays. He likes to talk about Wittgenstein. You can find him on Tumblr and Twitter and variously around the Northeast.