Play nation

World Google opened us up to can often be like one seen through glass.

January 21, 2010 10:59
4 minute read.
Google logo

google logo 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The block letters are like colorful playthings on Google's home page. They look like candy. They're shaped like toys.

But as Google grows ever more ubiquitous and as it enters into additional areas beyond search with its acquisition of YouTube, and now mobile communications with its new Nexus One, those playful letters stand as a larger cultural marker - the fusion between work and play.

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Similar to the eroding divisions between church and state, editorial and advertising, technology has melded work and play together. And, just as there are ethical concerns to consider in the first two long-standing categorical divisions, there are also ones to consider in this latest union. Is this meta-merger a good or a bad thing?

Consider first, work was usually something that was deemed real, while play was often thought of as something imagined. Work was once done mainly with the hands, play done with the mind.

But technology has morphed away from industries where we make real stuff to manufacturing information. And when we do make hardware (stuff we can hold in our hands), it's geared to carry chimerical bytes of that ephemeral information.

Nowadays and compounded with this phenomenon is the explosion of mobile technology, the imagined and the real world of work and play that have converged, are constantly within reach.

Wired recently called the last decade "The Mobile Decade": "People got increasingly plugged into an always-on, totally portable, always-connected existence." Gadgetry ranged from 2001's original iPod to 2009's Kindle 2.

For most of the previous century, it was left to Hollywood to create and export movies and entertainment around the world starting as far back as 1895 eventually culminating to become one of the US's largest export businesses. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, between 1986 and 2005, foreign sales of US motion picture and video products rose from $1.91 billion to $10.4 billion (in 2005 dollars) - an increase of 444 percent.

BUT TODAY, because it's no longer a one-way boulevard and YouTube and social media and mobile communications allow anyone and everyone to freely upload and export entertainment, that number is off the charts and is next to impossible to quantify.

The same technology that is used to transmit and watch movies and entertainment are the exact same devices that carry the images of protest from Iran and more recently the devastation and destruction in Haiti via Twitter and YouTube.

Even the side-armed stalwart to the business traveler, the Blackberry, attached at the hip like a road warrior's armament, is advertised on television with a version of The Beatles, "All You Need Is Love," a song once sung signifying countercultural values - the very antithesis of money and commerce. Now the playfulness of flower power has become intimately linked to the transactions of a global economy.

Moreover, the lead business stories in the last month have been about NBC's bouncing comedian/entertainer Jay Leno's show back to 11:35 p.m. and whether celebrity golfer Tiger Woods should still be a spokesman for corporations.

What was once a purely entertainment story has been subsumed by the business of entertainment. All the while in the consumer's mind, work and play collide, creating a new reality while supplanting distinctions that once existed.

Ethereal celebrities become equated with the businesses they represent and then suffer a messy divorce, while once and future politicians become celebrity journalists delivering the news and spin that was previously aimed directly at them.

What are the existential ramifications of life lived on this new stratum? Is it purely a matter for the individual to make the distinction? Or has work and play become ever more indistinguishable?

The philosopher Jean Baudrillard used the allegory of a map so large and detailed and laid over the territory it represents that it becomes the real and precedes the territory. It is what he calls the hyperreal.

But while there's a truth woven into the allegory, his metaphor ignores the harsh facts on the ground. Critical of his take, Susan Sontag in one of her later books, Regarding the Pain of Others, pointed out, "It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world." Sontag's criticism is more apt than ever, given the non-stop news footage coming out of Haiti these days.

But what neither of them has lived to see is the enormous proliferation of lenses to view what fast become historical events and that create a global hall of mirrors. Likewise, as seen and heard through the same devices that are bringing songs and movies, the world of work and play converge closer together and the newest medium's message will impact the way truth and lie are distinguished.

In the end, while Google's childlike colors evoke play, the world they open us up to can often be more like the one seen through a glass.

The writer is based in Baltimore and works in communications.

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