Playing to a Crowd

by kiminogomi

Play is a thing by itself. The play-concept as such is of a higher order than is seriousness. For seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness. — Huizinga, Homo Ludens

As has become the new normal, something interesting is happening in Brooklyn: what the New York Times describes as “underemployed polymaths” (is there any other kind? Maybe Steve Jobs was the exception that proves the rule) have started their own post-graduate school. The Brooklyn Brainery, currently occupying a space for which the rent was crowd funded using Kickstarter, seems from the Times article to straddle the crucial educational space between the very serious human need to learn and the equally important human instinct to play. More relevantly for the purposes of this blog, it reminds me that the collaborative, anti-competitive processes that new media can facilitate aren’t unique to any particular technology or practice. Rather, they reflect something real about our prosocial nature, something that materially-complex societies often obscure: we really work better when we play with others.

One key element in the promotion of education as play is that it requires educators to do something that comes hard to us: not simply to share our authoritative role with students, but to see it as a role rather than the core of our identity. On reflection, it seems to me that the reason group work was initially a revelation in the classroom was that it represented a new recognition of the student as participant rather than consumer (thanks, Paolo Freire!). Ceding conversational control was difficult, because we had been trained to think that our expertise was the main reason for us to be there at all. But once educators assimilated group work as an authorized activity, part of that sphere of expertise, it lost its edge. Teaching, after all, is not a static system but a dynamic process, part of personal and political history, and as such it has an Imaginary aspect. When group work became, in Roland Barthes’ term, “on the right,” that is, no longer avant-garde, its unconscious allegiance changed. It was last year’s game, in the rule book, and it wasn’t much fun any more. That doesn’t mean we can’t use it, but it does mean it’s not going to produce the sense of a shared secret that according to Huizinga characterizes play.

Given this historical trend towards recapitulation (although Barthes is a little bit of a leftie pessimist), crowd-sourcing may in turn become as “old media” as group work, and the Brooklyn Brainery may either vanish or become the new New School. Right now, however, creating a disciplinary expectation of crowd-sourcing may, as Michael Nielsen suggests in Reinventing Discovery, tear down some existing walls.

By the way, which one’s Pink?