I once did a safety analysis of artificial gravity systems in Traveller spacecraft.
I was tempted to stop there, actually. That’s kind of an article in itself — it’s turgid with meaning and ramifications and questions without even elaborating. Because what I did there (though in the context of play and therefore not nearly as rigorously or detailed as I would at work) was my job, but with a particular kind of science-fiction technology in a particular game setting instead of with my more usual target technology.
This was a great exercise for me. It never actually saw play, but it added a lot of quiet verisimilitude to a game or two — it gave me acronyms to throw around for NPC dialogue that were grounded in a context. It gave me a host of scenarios to explore as play (and really, studying failure modes of technology is practically the definition of plotting a good science-fiction story) and it was fun to do. I guess it helps that I like my job.
It also implied things about technology that I love. For example, there’s a credible argument than in a thousand years we will still use big relays that go THUNK for some things. Here at work we’ve been trying to get rid of them for years, but they remain an incredibly cheap and incredibly reliable way to handle safety-critical switching. There might be something new on the horizon, but beating that much cheap and that much functional is pretty hard.
Anyway, the exercise delivered on three axes: it was fun in itself, it informed play in a way I found fun at the table, and it was useful in the workplace as way to abstract a problem out of its context and think about it from a new angle. So I try to do it when I can.
Another place I get to do work-hobby is in typesetting. I write a lot at work — probably two- to five-thousand words a day. I also build a lot of diagrams, sometimes having to invent new symbology. And so I am often faced with new problems in typesetting to deliver complex material in a useful fashion and that lets me build game-publisher constructions in the context of learning more about my own work. Recent efforts in finding an electronic format that cross-correlates well with print have been fruitful, for example. I have several electronic layouts now that explore the issue from different angles using my work criteria as requirements but my game context as text. Am I playing at work or working at play? It’s a good life, at any rate.
I used to do this in my ungaming period (we call it the Dark Ages around home) as well — I was doing a lot of coding at work and would experiment with new languages and ideas by building gaming tools or IRC robots or something. A lot of code got built and a lot got learned and again I was working-at-play and playing-at-work.
A lot of people don’t do this because their work is not playful. By playful I don’t intend to imply frivolous (see my safety analysis above — the work is as far from frivolous as is possible; lives literally depend on it being right) but rather diverting. Enjoyable. Entertaining. And here’s where I want to link to our Trouble with Lulu recently — it seems likely to me that this lack of play is part of what alienates people from their work to the degree that they choose to become cogs rather than humans in the machine that hires them. But if solving that problem was play, it would have been done better and faster.
There are some highly professional cogs too — not cogs in the sense that they are automatable but cogs in the sense that they elect to be automata at work. I’ve met a lot of dentists like this and, increasingly, computer programmers. They don’t love their work and they don’t engage it playfully and eagerly. They may do it well (though my experience is that they don’t) but mostly they do it adequately. They selected the career fundamentally because it seemed likely to deliver a job with good pay. They get no joy from being at work and they cannot imagine getting joy from work. And consequently they generally look to maximise what does motivate them at work — pay. These people sometimes do a lot of overtime, paradoxically, traiding the leisure they do love for even more pay.
Worst of all are people who must be cogs because a human cog is cheaper to employ than a real cog. These people are de-humanised. That makes them easy to dismiss, but it is them I want to address.
This is what automation (in a broad sense) is all about: de-cogging humans. Because a person that is not a cog is free to be at play, and it is at play that our best thinking happens. So in our office, for example, we have a simple rule for everyone from receptionist to, well, the top: if you do the same thing over and over again, find a way to automate it. Use your skills or call someone who has them, but turn that repetition into a program that does it the same way every time. Play goes up and error rates go down. The guy who loves hacking little scripts does so, and the guy who hates converting Primavera to Excel the way his boss likes it can now click GO and get it done.
And this is where our future must aim: re-humanising everyone. It’s not something we can plan for completely — it’s not a blueprint for yet another Utopia — but it is a goal worth pursuing at every turn. There is good solid work for humans all over our artificial strata of status, but there is also awful, stupid, automatable work that makes some people have to see themselves as un-human, at least for the work day. We should make a place where everyone gets to be human all the time.
I keep smelling whiffs of Marx and Engels. Hrm, mostly Marcuse, now that I think about it. Recall that criticisms of capitalism are separate from the failed blueprints to fix it. Also recall why human rights are important. It’s that first adjective.