The subtle pleasures of wasting time

One of the broken-record themes of my blog — and my video-games journalism — is how badly our culture understands the meaning of play and games. This is partly because the philosophy of play, ludology, isn’t taught at any level of school; it’s also been almost completely ignored by philosophers both ancient and modern. Small children love to dream up weird new games and think about new forms of play, but this is systematically drummed out of them when they go to school and are told that there are only seven or eight “serious” sports, like football and baseball and the like.

So I was delighted to open up this weekend’s “Week in Review” section of the New York Times and find that John Schwartz had written “The Joy of Silly” — a lovely, thoughtful piece on the culture of the wacky Wham-O toys of the 60s, created by the recently and sadly deceased Wham-O founder Richard Knerr. Here’s an excerpt:

Our toys, Dr. Tenner said, flow from the cycles of innovation and refinement that define all technologies. The playthings tend to be the byproducts of a new technology and a fertile imagination. So Silly Putty came from failed experiments in making artificial rubber, and the Slinky was a tension spring that a naval engineer saw potential in — and not just potential energy. The postwar period from 1945 to 1975 was especially rich in innovation, and thus toys, Dr. Tenner said.

But the cultural moment has to be right as well. “You can see pictures in Bruegel of kids running after a hoop and a stick,” he noted, but in the Hula Hoop the technology of cheap, plastic manufacturing dovetailed with a nation ready to shake its hips. The message of the Hula Hoop, and for that matter of Elvis Presley, he said, emerged in a time for many of intense optimism, which seemed to say: “You can let yourself go. You can dance wildly. You can swing wildly. You don’t have this dignity to preserve.”

Dr. Hall said one thing that defined the early Wham-O toys was that they were “a little transgressive,” and involved physical activity with a little naughtiness or risk.

There’s plenty more worth reading in this too-short piece! Schwartz also quotes Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who points out that toys of the Wham-O vintage were “so noneducational in that dreary, earnest, modern sense of ours.” This is a superb point: When I walk into toy stores — which I do a lot more frequently now that I have a two-year-old — I’m struck by how avidly the toy-makers are trying to peddle their wares based on their presumed educational value. Never mind the fact that these educational aspects are usually just corporate bumph (they’re almost never scientifically tested, for sure); the point is that the toy-makers know that parents desperately want the toys to be an early inflection point in their children’s parabolic punt into Yale or Harvard. Parents are terrified that if their kids play in an open-ended way, they’ll just — well — waste time.

Yet — as Schwartz comes close to saying outright, but doesn’t quite — one of the whole points behind play and games is to waste time. It’s not the sole point or even the chief point, but it’s a frequent one. One of the reasons I like playing video games is specifically to park my brain inside ringing, clattering box of physics for an hour or so, merely for the gorgeously idle pleasure of it. I do not intend it to be productive: I am choosing to waste time. Hell, I probably need to waste a certain percentage of every day simply to prevent myself from getting emotional rug-burn from all my other, frenetically Taylorist attempts to optimize every single waking minute. When I install a stupid, time-wasting game on my PDA phone, it’s partly to restore that device’s spiritual balance — to make sure that I use it to waste some time. Otherwise I’d just be using it to check email neurotically all day long, and precisely what kind of life is that?

Wasting time proudly has, I’ve decided, become a weirdly radical act.

(The picture above is by Marilynn K. Yee, and beautifully illustrated the Times piece … check it out in full here.)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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