In 2011, at the first Culture Hack event, I did a talk called “What if we have fun?” It was only short, but I talked about the value of subversion when engaging with tech – turning stuff inside out and doing things you’re not supposed to. I’d written a lot of humour stuff before that – two books, a Radio 4 pilot and a column for the BBC – but I always think of that talk as the point when I decided there was a common thread to all of this; the humour and the interest in hacking. I realised my ‘thing’ was about disrespecting established assumptions and transfusing perhaps perfectly fine systems with new meaning, purely for the thrill of it.
Here’s something I haven’t said in public before: for me, that Culture Hack talk took place in the no-man’s-land fortnight between having a biopsy and getting the results. It was a very, erm, awake point in my life as you can imagine, especially if you’ve had any sort of cancer scare, and it triggered an enthusiastic embracing of frightening situations over the subsequent years, especially public speaking – particularly a certain intensity around the concept of Making Things Fast. So it was a good time to be talking intensely about fun for me, personally, but it was a great time to be talking about fun on London’s tech/art/digital culture circuit.
Here’s the thing. My feeling is, about six years ago, people began to feel unusually entitled to fun. There was a technical strand to it, I’m sure, but it was more than that. Interactivity was explosive news: this video’s good but how can we let people have a go on it? This film is good but how can we make it more like a game? How can we just, you know, PLAY. EVERYTHING.
In 2008, I made a book of stupid things anyone could do. The message was basically: uncouple things from their meanings and play the world. Then in 2009 I made a gamebook – a book you could play! – and lots of people wanted to talk to me about that. Because it wasn’t just me, by any means. There were agencies that specialised in ‘playful experiences’, and not even for children. London commuters played the Tube network, smartphone-clutching technologists layered games onto everything from location check-in apps to photo apps. For a couple of years, we were all trying to make games.
But it wasn’t goldrush inspired, I don’t think. It was more a feeling that our time had come. Finally, here was a socially acceptable channel for these technical fixations, a geeky coming-of-age moment. We, who like puzzles and systems and could always see through the world to its buzzing skeleton with our x-ray eyes, now had the money and respect behind us to turn anything in the world into any toy we like.
There was no one who knew more about how things worked, no one above email contact, no unattainable power to hold in reverence. With our superhuman vision we could see everything, and when you can see everything you can see that the world is not enough.
To redefine something – even for play – is to assert power, and with great power comes at least some responsibility, one hopes, but no one questioned it. I know I didn’t. This is how entrenched this feeling is. Somewhere very deep inside we felt that we had the birthright to redesign everything – streets, work, the future. Nothing was above projection of own interests, our own image. When we criticise a culture of surveillance we have a blind spot for our own firehose onto the world. We think we have the right to shout our reckons down ear pipes onto twitter from every stage; we delight in the idea of graffiti with light or tech or paint or in comments boxes or in the sky as a cheeky shot at ‘them’, but we forget we are grown-up now, and They are us.
I think this is something that has been gestating for ages, and has finally pecked its way out into the air under the right environmental conditions. We were born, post baby boom, into a world of mindblowing individualistic entitlement. Why individualistic? Well, the entitlement impulse is not social or progressive. It’s an unearned assumption built into the grain of our being. Play, at its most fundamental, is not a challenging idea at all. It’s not a ‘disruption’ or even a ‘subversion’. We are composed of the very substance of our times, and disruptive things can be identified by the fact they press against our lungs like a vacuum, not by how much they remind us of being told off by teacher. If anything it’s a regression, because the impulse to play is so unconstructed and natural. It doesn’t push us past our natural narcissism to entertain issues of people who aren’t like us. It doesn’t push us to think beyond ourselves.
And so, of course, it couldn’t last, and there is change in the air. Back in the day, people who wanted to believe in an ideology of play, who dearly wished it would signify something more than celebratory geek indulgence, tried to make a living selling combinations of toys, games, play and work processes. Businesses set up play incentives; games rooms, toys, video gaming sessions. If you didn’t pray to the god of play, you weren’t our kind of people. Conferences had apps and balloons and things you could tweet or email. The invitation to “Join in!” and “Have fun!” hung like a great neon sign on a gossamer thread over every audience, but while everything had to be interactive, it rapidly became obvious that no one had anything very new to say. Too many mouthpieces, not enough teachers, and perhaps we were getting it all back to front.
All of this already seems tired and embarrassing, and I’ve played a part in all of it, I know. But I’ve started to see things differently in the last couple of years, because I’ve started to see things at all. Agency after agency is sinking under the weight of surplus playfulness. There are signs that hack events like the one I spoke about ‘having fun’ at back in 2011, are on the wane already in 2014. The issues are complex and this post will be too long already but it seems to me there’s a serious power trip – a conquering – in the act of taking something’s structure and injecting new values into it, whether that thing is a street or a house or a job or an event, and I’ve come to feel that power needs to acknowledge itself.
So this is how I came to be more interested in the world of art, entertainment and audiences into whose eyes one must be forced to look. The age of play isn’t over, but that little phase we went through where we played to empower ourselves, or to give ourselves a break from real work, or to indulge in large-scale public geekery because we never could before – I think that might be over, because there’s a limited audience, and they’ve all had their fill.
And I think something else is due to take the place of this little festival of play, something weightier than a conference balloon. Those who do nothing will sink; the market doesn’t seem to be there anymore. Those who simply reinvent the impulse under another name will exhaust their playful circle and suffer the same fate in a couple of years. No, I’m afraid, for the first time ever, we are going to have to do something slightly challenging. We are going to have to admit we made mistakes, that we were hopeful and greedy and we took things an indulgence too far, that the game-mind that failed was the one devoid of feeling, and that we now need to do something that builds directly on our own mistakes, and by aspiring to real, difficult, emotional experiences, propels us out of our own narcissism.
I’ve been doing talks, events and workshops as well as various podcasts and journalistic projects since about 2007, and I’ve learned you don’t connect with anyone – audience or interviewee – by asking them to tell you their secrets, or contribute to your project, or in any other way send content down a one-way mail chute into your collection. You connect with them by being a doorman. Open the door to something real that makes both of you wake up. These hidden power plays are everywhere, you need to keep checking, constantly, that you’re still a doorman, keep stepping aside.
This is what the best art does, and this is what I want to do with Hack Circus. It’s fun, yes, but it’s not a game. The project is about things I think are really important, and I feel the weight of importance more and more, the more we do. Someone praised the launch issue with, “It’s like the Fortean Times published by Make magazine” – two fantastic publications, but neither bearing deliberately uncomfortable tidings for their target readers. I am, I know, trying to do something impossible, here. You can’t make a commercial success in the media without flattering your readers, and I ask my readers and the live show audiences to get out of their comfort zone. That’s not how you sell magazines, which are aspirational to the core, but perhaps it’s how you sell a sort of art, a sort of change.
I mean, creating Hack Circus – a project ultimately about the limits of humanity – in an individualistic world geared to whimsy, a geek world geared away from the physical, and a value system that reinforces powerful trends, there is resistance at every point. It is exactly this resistance that makes builds its muscles, though. I can almost feel it in my arms.
In addition to my Hack Circus shows and magazine, which are still available to all, I have just launched something called Club Hack Circus, as a way of including groups of people in the ethos of the project more intimately without asking them to ‘interact’. I plan to create non-idealistic workshops about the realities of making stuff in the here and now, for companies who feel ‘played out’. Geeks have come into the light with their worlds, but what about the other way around? I want to bring surprise and magic back to those who have become so used to seeing the systems underneath everything with their x-ray eyes. If you can see everything, where do you go to feel powerless, or surprised, or afraid, or anything importantly human at all? Entertainment is a glossy misnomer, really, for something that can instantly short-circuit your thoughts to get to genuine feelings. Why has the geek community been so afraid, so far, to try move people to anything beyond a wry chuckle? Why has entertainment been thrown out in the race for digital interactivity? I think there is such a thing as entertainment with purpose, and something on the work/process/entertainment axis that can carry the same force as the most emotionally evocative artistic experience. But this time the power really does lie with the audience. Read more about Club Hack Circus.