The Tyranny of Usefulness… and Giving Fun its Due

Umair Haque: “There’s this curious notion in America: everything must be useful. This is why, at heart, there’s little, if any room, for thinking; for the long-term; for the creative.”

Go read the whole post. Though you can’t tell from this excerpt, it’s actually about blogging and “micromedia.”

Umair is right, of course. These kinds of insights are why I’ve invited him to run a session at this year’s Supernova. It’s equally obvious that the veneration of “usefulness” made the US the dominant political, economic, and cultural force in the world. There’s no point joining that debate, however, because the 20th century — the American Century — is over. And the 21st century hasn’t fully arrived yet.

I completely agree with Umair that innovation is the great challenge for business in our new, pervasively networked, era. I’ve written and spoken a great deal about innovation over the past eight years, and yet I have to admit I still can’t define it. It’s clearly not just usefulness, or what we could call invention, for the reasons Umair identifies, among others. And it’s not just change, or novelty.

I’m starting to think that innovation means something about passion, about love. Games produce innovators for the same reason Google did in its heydey — they are fun. You can compete and win and be succesful and get rich by focusing on the objective, but you’re much more likely to innovate if you concentrate on enjoying the journey. (I should go re-read Michael Shrage’s prescient book Serious Play.)

Let me tie this back to Umair’s challenge. Fun, perhaps, is America’s secret weapon. A billion people in India and more in China want the quality of life we’ve been blessed with, and in an era of globalization, they can suddenly beat us at our own game. In the struggle for wealth and productivity, there are no entitlements. Many American individuals and corporations find this deeply scary. Yet, we, who have the luxury of starting off fat and happy, can more easily devote our energies to what we love. If we are to succeed in the post-networked century, we must learn to kindle innovation in this way. I don’t mean leisure and entertainment; I mean passion with a purpose. Useful creativity, if you will. (Hey, Umair, I can’t help it — I’m American!) Our choice is whether to amuse ourselves to death (stealing a title from Neil Postman), or to lead a great explosion of human potential in the 21st century.

Hmmm.

That’s not where I expected that post to go. I wonder if I was just rambling, or if I hit on something there.