Monday 6 January 2014

Playfulness and Mindfulness

I had an interesting discussion with @paddytherabbit today about play. David's blog is excellent (it's here - - and exhibits a sense of fun and discovery in the range of its posts - from developer stuff on the Oculus Rift to data analytics and computer games. Our discussion was along the lines of "what is this about?" The answer, David said, was 'play'.

But what's that?

I'm unsatisfied with the explanations for play that I've come across. Bateson (who's better than most) talks about a kind of semiotic code of play, related to his double-bind theory, where signals are exchanged between kittens (for example) that "this is play fight, not a real fight". To be honest, the double bind is tricky enough - not because it isn't a useful concept (it's extremely useful) - but because it's not an explanation, it's simply a way of looking at things. [hmmm... How is an explanation different from a way of looking at things?... not for this post!]

To explain play, we would have to explain something about the way we think. Much of my mental life is spent 'kicking around ideas'. I want to know what the kicking does. Sometimes the kicking around tires me. I want to switch off and empty my head. For me, it's either an empty-headed mindless walk in a shopping mall, or a trip to my local church: they have the same effect! But when I empty my head, I just change the game I play - different ideas to kick around - although ideas much more about love than anything else.

My work with Loet Leydesdorff on expectations has focused me on the nature of my mental life. For Leydesdorff, anticipation is fundamentally important. Drawing on the mathematical work of Daniel Dubois, he has translated the idea of an "anticipatory system" to address issues of reflexivity from a transpersonal (i.e. not psychological) perspective (see our latest paper here: What's important in this model is that the causal agent of reflexivity is absence or 'constraint'; it is what cannot be thought. This, I think, is an important "turn" on conventional ways of thinking which will typically try to infer reflexive processes from what can actually be seen.

An important illustration of reflexivity which Loet has drawn from Dubois concerns a variant of the logistic map equation which involves an 'incursive function' calculating values based on past values and feeding back present values. Graphically, the logistic map is a fractal which shows increasing disorder (entropy) over time. This is the process of life as we know from the physicists. But reflexivity counters this forwards entropy-increasing motion by abstracting from a complexity the system that generated it. This aspect of reflexivity works against the arrow of time: Loet (following Dubois) calls it a 'hyper-incursive' function. In the logistic map, this can simply be illustrated by moving backward (so from right to left).

In thinking life, the hyperincursive function, the incursive function (which is a calculation of the future based the future and the past) and the recursive function (which is a calculation of the future based on the past only) all operate together. We are surrounded by increasing entropy. We continually reflect on the generated future states we imagine. We continually move to identify the generating system for the future states and incorporate it within our future. Katherine Hayles puts it most elegantly:
"Reflexivity is that moment by which that has been made to generate a system is made, by a changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates." (in "How we became Posthuman", p8)  

So what of play?

What's really interesting about the hyper-incursive function is that in some way, the complexities of life must be attenuated in order to identify the generating system. Real life is not like the logistic map - it is much more complex. The complexities which are seen and recognised in the hyper-incursive routine are constrained by what is overlooked. Consequently, the moving backwards of the arrow of time always creates a gap between those complexities which can be generated by the generating system and those complexities which lie outside. There is a fundamental need to familiarise ourselves with the complexities we cannot see in everyday life.

This is what play is about, in my opinion. It reveals complexity, and through so doing creates new ways in which the hyperincursive routine may find better fitting generating systems.

This also sheds some light on another topic I was discussing with David: the difference between scientists (or perhaps rather technologists) and artists. The technician's hyperincursive routine is good at moving towards the generating system (which they can then program) but the attenuation of the complexities of life are considerable. This then creates technical systems which themselves generate more constraint socially because they ignore the complexities which others see. The artist, by contrast, generates complexity, gradually finding the generating system through the form of their work.

What's encouraging about this is the articulation in a rather technical way for the necessity of apparently useless work, and the dangers of insisting on the utility and efficiency of everything.

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