Playing the Net

Marc Fonda

'Let your imagination play.' What an interesting phrase! It is so over-used as to become a cliché yet, like most clichés, it has suggestive properties. It finds its parallel in the stock phrase from fairy-tales: 'Once upon a time.' Both phrases are highly effective in directing the human mind to let go of its rational, work-based mind set and enter into a realm of make-believe, a place to play.

In modern Western society, we imagine a vast difference between work and play. Don't let this fool you. Children and adults play with just as much concentration as do people working on a business deal or an essay. The only real potential difference between play and 'work' is not found in quantity, but in the quality of the experience (but, of course, quantity always can help to invoke quality). Some depth psychologists speak of the quality of playful experiences using metaphors belonging to economics. And, as would be expected, play usually rates better than work in the market-place that is the mind.

It is a fallacy to think that an economic metaphor can describe the human mind. It may provide insight, but it cannot represent the whole. Such a make-believe view is, indeed, a place to play. It is located in the mind and the mind naturally plays and it does so with imagination. When we work, we use imagination by connecting ideas, twisting thoughts, seeing images, hearing words, and so on. In effect we play with the world around us even when we work.

When we let our imaginations play, we enter a different mind-set and we see the world differently - like children, as it were. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson theorizes that play is a form of metacommunication. This means that when we are playing we are communicating with one another at a much deeper level than what our spoken words show. When we play we also communicate the fact that we are playing and not working now. We also communicate about the nature of the world itself. For example, when we make a joke we somehow inform our audience that it is a joke we are telling and then make a comment about the world as most of us understand it to be.

When we let our imaginations play we are also performing metacommunication. This can be done both privately, such as in day-dreams and other reveries we don't tell others about, and publicly, such as when our imaginations inspire a visible response in ourselves and a response in others. When we exteriorize our imaginings, we effectively invite others to commence playing with us. At this point it becomes a question whether people want to come out and play with you. Is their imagination sparked by your commentary about the world?

If your 'play of the imagination' doesn't get other imaginations playing its time to play with someone or something else and start again. Children do this easily, adults with difficulty. Children respect the difference in the play of make-believe and the play of reality much better than most adults do. Adults fear this imagined boundary, regulating to a specific time and place, pathologizing it as delusion un-reality, and demonizing it as 'irresponsible.' A society in the grip of the Protestant work ethic (read: worth ethic), is not allowed to play. This is provides a major paradox in Protestant society if you consider that Jesus claimed those people who could see and be like children would find salvation. Yet, it seems that people can play quite happily in such oxymoronic situations.

Many different mystics at many different times and in many different places said the pretty-much the same thing as did Jesus. They all understood at least one thing: seeing the world and being in the world as a child does brings you closer to the divine. They did not mean one should be childish or child-like, but rather we should see the world with the eyes of a child and experience its riches and power with awe and wonder, joy and fear.

In order to do this one needs to be open to the world, to be able to allow themselves to feel that which an experience with the world can bring. The way to do this is to enter into a state of playfulness, to interact with the world, effecting it as it affects you. Even in an oxymoronic society such as ours, people play and use imagination. We just don't ostensibly play or use our imagination. When adults play today they do so in a sublimated form. Imagination is socially suppressed by family, school, and work. Play is disguised as work, or sports, or 'entertainment.' Now, the Internet has entered the playful area of the human mind and our imaginations appear to be kindled.

The Internet may be many different things to many different people, but one thing it is, par excellence, is a vast playground of and for the imagination. The very ritual of logging on is tantamount to saying "once upon a time." You are now in a space of play and all you have to do is join in the fun and let the imagination fly. Some people, in fact, play with the Net so much that psychology has now classified Internet addiction as a certified disorder. As usual, psychologists mis-diagnose the situation. They see too much Net play as a desperate attempt to avoid the real world, rather seeing naturally playful persons finally getting the chance to play with his or her imagination and with others. Could such overuse of the Internet actually be a person finding the space to play and express themselves in a society which systematically denies them this need?

Anyone familiar with the Net knows something about its playful character. The very names of Internet tools are jokes of sorts: there's a Gopher online and Jughead and Veronica are looking for it. Meanwhile Archie works for FTP. I receive daimons regularly and I use a Trumpet to start the whole ritual. Hoaxes, irony and satire abound on the Net; practical jokes challenge those who take things seriously; and, 'so-and-so sucks' Web sites are proliferating. There are all sorts of online games being developed by enterprising young Canadians (no ads here, you can find them yourself). Not only to we enter into a playful state when logging on, we also spend time making commentaries about the world.

By allowing for play and imaginative expression the Net definitely assists Bateson's metacommunication. We know the boundary between the virtual and the real worlds, and some of us make the change easily, others with difficulty. Certainly children do this best but adults who remember how to play can use the Net to their satisfaction as well. There may well even be a form of pleasure derived from interacting with the Internet that is similar to one experienced when playing and imagining.

As a sublimated form of play, the Internet is provides one response for people caught up in the oxymoronic ritual of work for salvation verses the child's entry in the God's kingdom. The Internet's development was inspired by the imaginations of people at work. They played with an idea and brought it to fruition so that we all can play with it. The Net is used ostensibly for work and for play, but in each case it is imaginative in nature. Even when working, people imagine as hard as they do when they are playing.

Those people who don't heed the lesson "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," tend to use the economic model when thinking about the Internet. They make a sharp boundary between work and play and deny the importance of playfulness in the human experience of The Net. Their imaginations are subsumed to the pursuit of corporate goals. A distinct lack of playfulness makes Jack's Web site a dull one. One experiences awe and wonder when they are being and seeing like a child, when they are playing their imaginations. If you can't get people to play with you, start over by playing with imagination. You might not find salvation, but you will find quality.

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Copyright © 1997 Marc Fonda. All Rights Reserved.
Last updated: May 1, 1997.