It’s Time to Play

- education political economy

If today’s toys are tomorrow’s tech, then we must also start to play.

Building on Marc Andreesen’s landmark essay, Tanner Greer identifies the source of our inability to build in recent cultural and social changes. A culture that seeks to solve problems by persuading and deferring to authorities, as we seem to do now - rather than through individual or collective self-reliance, as we used to in this country - will not build. “The real question,” Greer says, “is whether we will be able to rebuild a building culture.”

Amidst our apparent national decline, Greer and Andreesen provide inspiration to move forward.

But in an attempt to reverse engineer previous highs, I wonder if we’ll forget a crucial ingredient. 

We may summon our courage, cultivate individual and collective self-reliance, root out complacency, get harder and more serious, live up to the legacy of the Greatest Generation, and build…but this sounds like someone signing up for a gym membership on December 31st. Without the right attitude and intermediate rewards, will we stick with it?

I think Greer’s essay alludes to the seed of the attitude that can drive individual and national renewal: write tawdry poetry and build treehouses.We first rebuild a *playing* culture - or, more humbly, just play (yes, you) - and let the building take care of itself.

In fact, we have some evidence that a habit of play was a subtle yet scarce and irreplaceable ingredient in our nation’s greatest technological innovations.

Writes Stuart Brown in Stuart Brown’s Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul:

“You might say that JPL invented the Space Age…But in the late nineties, the lab’s management was saying, “JPL, we have a problem.” As the lab neared the new century, the group of engineers and scientists who had come on board in the 1960s, those who put men on the moon and built robotic probes to explore the solar system, were retiring in large numbers. And JPL was having a hard time replacing them. Even though JPL hired the top graduates from top engineering schools like MIT, Stanford, and even Cal Tech itself, the new hires were often missing something. They were not very good at certain types of problem solving that are critical to the job.”

JPL ultimately found that “those who had worked and played with their hands as they were growing up were able to “see solutions” that those who hadn’t worked with their hands could not.

“They found that in their youth, their older, problem-solving employees had taken apart clocks to see how they worked, or made soapbox derby racers, or built hi-fi stereos, or fixed appliances. The young engineering school graduates who had also done these things, who had played with their hands, were adept at the kinds of problem solving that management sought. Those who hadn’t, generally were not.”

Perhaps we will not solve and plan our way forward, and must allow ourselves to tinker, hack, and play instead.

We seem to agree that “to do something well you have to like it.” But if we demand excellence and usefulness of fledgling efforts - be they to build technology, institutions, or to simply write poetry - we won’t last, won’t end up doing well, and won’t end up being useful to others.

If you get home from work and sit down to write a poem or rebuild a computer with the intention of “building culture” or “building a building culture,” you won’t enjoy it enough to stay in the game for long.

There is a common understanding that necessity is the mother of invention. And it is hard to argue against the importance of existential threats to 20th century technological innovation. But however you want to characterize our failure to handle COVID-19, it does not seriously compare to the threat posed by Hitler or the USSR. I would hope we need not rely on existential threats to drive innovation, anyway.

As it happens, I see some anecdotal evidence to be confident that play is making a comeback.

Funny, expansive, curious and playful people - the Joe Rogan’s, Brett McKay’s and Mark Rober’s of the world - have gained massive followings. We hunger for their attitudes and lifestyles.

I’m excited about what Let Grow, Exuberant Animal, PlayCore, and companies like KiwiCo are doing.

Perhaps even the lawyers - the makers of our bureaucratic malaise! - are joining in. In Stuart Brown’s book, he describes being approached after a book talk by woman who was a partner at a major New York law firm and a mother of two.

“She had done all the right things and gone to all the right schools, but now she sheepishly admitted that she was not all that happy, as if this were a shameful secret. And now she was getting her kids into all the right schools and the right activities, but she worried she was taking them down the path that she had tread.”

“In the end, I get the sense that adults feel that they themselves didn’t get it right, that they once had something special and let it go. They don’t know where it went or how to get it back, but they would like to give their children more options than they had.”

In instances like these, I think we find the seeds of our renewal.