Friday, 12 February 2010

The future of fun

Two contrasting visions for the future of leisure collided for me this week. Both, curiously, come from the past. Both, less surprisingly, refer to the behaviour of human beings in circumstances of excess.

The first vision dates from 1985 and it came to mind following a discussion about business cards.
Brook Lyndhurst is shortly to move office and amid the seemingly innumerable minutiae associated with such an exercise arises the opportunity to reconsider the corporate stationery. Despite the fact that this is inherently dull – or perhaps because it is - a vigorous management debate was prompted by a colleague’s bold proposition that we should adopt a dramatically new kind of business card, recalling a sequence of scenes in the movie ‘American Psycho’. In the arms-race for status that characterises the relationships between Patrick Bateman (the eponymous psychotic yuppie played with splendid menace by Christian Bale) and his fellow financiers, business cards assume a bloated symbolism. Both we the audience and Bateman the character know that, truly, it is just a business card; but as successive colleagues’ superior cards appear in successive scenes – embossed type, finer paper, more elaborate calligraphy – the close-up sweat on Bateman’s brow signals his progression towards the extremes that will soon be unleashed, whilst warning us, the viewer, of our own habits of focusing upon the incidental and the anecdotal at the expense of the strategic and the general.

It was American Psycho that brought author Bret Easton Ellis to the attention of the mainstream media, but it was his first novel ‘Less than Zero’ – written when he was just 21 – that signalled his ability to detect and report upon the warning signs. Less than Zero, published in 1985, follows a group of white, prosperous and disassociated Californian teenagers as they descend into the dark spaces created when ennui and affluence collide. Freed not merely from any financial constraints but from any folk memory of such constraints – neither their parents nor their grandparents have ever known austerity – Ellis’s characters are loosed from the material moorings that anchor the rest of us. What is there to do when there is no need to work? The very wealthy – or, perhaps more precisely, the children of the very wealthy – have been exploring this question for several centuries, but Ellis presents the answer on the first occasion it applies to an entire cohort.

In either case, the answer seems remarkably similar: when the tethers are cut, it is hedonism rather than artistic endeavour that seems to flourish. In the west coast case described by Ellis, two mutually reinforcing effects are also unleashed. On the one hand, the human capacity for adaptation means that, as time passes, ever more extreme behaviour is required to produce the same psychological high; and, on the other, the conduct of this behaviour in a social setting initiates a self-propelling social norm, numbing yesterday’s doubts and fostering tomorrow’s darker imaginings. Drugs and alcohol pave the way for orgies and rape; orgies and rape lead to torture and murder; torture and murder beget snuff movies and abasement. Financial excess, Ellis warns us, reverberates throughout and beyond the merely material. Untethered, we may become unhinged.

Though reporting on a California that could credibly have been said actually to exist in 1985, Ellis was sending the rest of us a message about the future. California is the frontier par excellence, in physical, cultural and psychogeographic terms. It is also ahead in economic terms: depending on how you calculate it, the UK is about 20 years behind California. Roughly speaking, it wasn’t until 2005 than average wealth in the UK reached the levels that had prevailed in California when Ellis wrote his first book. In a sense, Ellis sketched a possible future for the UK and the rest of the world: look what might happen when the rest of you reach this level of affluence…

A second vision of future leisure is implicit to the various prognostications associated with the low carbon economy, whether of the more mainstream form exemplified by the government’s low carbon transition
plan or Nicholas Stern’s ‘Blueprint for a Safer Planet’, or the more radical form such as Tim Jackson’s ‘Prosperity without Growth’. These and other similar sources are at one in referring to the fact that ‘lifestyles’ will need to change in the future, but the detail of what this means in practice is either ignored or is treated in terms of inputs. That is to say, there are propositions for (say) reducing the energy consumption in our homes, or reducing the amount we drive, or reducing the embodied energy in our food or even reducing the amount we fly, but conspicuously absent is an analysis from the other end of the pipe. What are the activities we are actually undertaking when we consume these energies, when we eat these foods, when we make these journeys? Some of these activities may be more resistant to change than others, for example. There may be an important distinction to be made between emissions associated with certain basics of maintenance – keeping warm, eating food, interacting with other human beings – and those associated with more discretionary activities.

If we treat ‘leisure’ as what we (are allowed to) do with our discretionary time (after all the income earning, bodily maintenance and
shadow work has been done), and if we were to consider the carbon emissions associated with that leisure time, it might throw rather different light upon the challenge. At present, for example, leisure activities include: going on holiday, watching television, playing computer games and going shopping. They also include going for walks, riding bikes, gardening, angling, reading books, watching sport, playing sport, knitting and painting.

Data are readily available on how
many of us do these things, how long we spend doing them and how much of our money we spend on them. (Television comes top.) The distinctive feature, from our current perspective, is that the first list is characterised by the spending of money. These are the activities of technology and modernity, they are exciting and thrilling, they change from year to year – this new game, this new piece of technology, this new holiday destination – and we chase the hedonic treadmill in order to ‘belong’ to modern society.

The second group, by contrast, consists of the
slow, the free, the lo-tech; these are activities that have been feasible for generations, they tend not to follow the vagaries of fashion, they tend not to require continuous investment.

The first group is ‘high carbon’; the second group is ‘low carbon’. The first group serves the interests of organised capital, and is promoted to us daily by the emissaries of that capital. The second group serves the interest of none but those participating and is rarely suggested by anything other than earnest campaigners or – more effectively – word of mouth. The first group is forward-looking, commensurate with ‘progress’, engaged with the future; the second group feels backward looking, rather quaint, a throw-back to pre-modernity when our choices were limited.

And there’s the rub. When those of us who are persuaded that society needs to move to a low carbon life speak of such matters, a majority of people hear that we are telling them to give things up, to forgo modern pleasures, to go backwards in time. They hear that we would like them to give up their lovely televisions and read a book instead; they hear that we would like them to go for walk rather than buy a new electronic gizmo; they hear that we would like them to take up fishing or knitting rather than holiday somewhere warm and sunny.

In short, they hear that the future of leisure is the past. But who wants to go backwards?

On the other hand, if the future of leisure bears any relationship to the dystopia of Less than Zero, who wants to go forward?

We have an interesting quandary. Humans need to have fun, to
play, and as we become more prosperous we tend, on the whole, to have a mix of more time and more money to expend on our pleasures. So far, however, we seem not to have developed the rules of moderation – or what Schelling would call commitment devices – to protect either ourselves, those around us, or the planet.

Some hard work ahead, methinks, if we want to have fun that lasts.

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