The art of play

Throughout my career it’s struck me that technology has provided two forms of service: the dull stuff and the fun stuff.

The dull stuff are the information systems, the databases, the business process automations. Generally the things that treat humans as little more than data and processing modules from whom information is to be extracted at maximum efficiency (for the machine).

The fun stuff is the world of creativity and play. From an early age (relatively speaking as someone of my vintage) I was using computer technology not only to play games, but to create through the means of programming, composing music, then creating visual stuff through desktop publishing, design software and latterly digital photography. I’ve used computers to create visualisations of music as I’ve DJed using a PC rather than decks. Most of this stuff has been outside of work, but I’ve been lucky to work in the media and creative industries over the years where the two have combined.

Thinking of a computer as a palette on which to create comes naturally to me because it’s what I’ve always done, since around the age of 9.

The art of playing around with stuff to see what it might do is, I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion, a fundamental prerequisite to discovering opportunities to do things differently. An organisation won’t disrupt if it can’t play: all it will ever be able to do is observe and copy. Don’t get me wrong, as my mate Mark Earls argues strong and clear, copying is a great creative act (if done in the context of play). The bad copying is that labeled “industry best practice” and is where good ideas go to die.

(Short diversion: there is no such thing as “best” practice, only “good” practice, and that’s something achieved through learning how to get there, not merely “implementing” it).
I spent most of yesterday with a group of senior lawyers, encouraging them to play with technology. There was dullish stuff – some business apps, some videoconferencing tools – but things that would offer more agency to individuals, and ability to communicate and collaborate with other people more effectively. There were also some more fun things- Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard Virtual reality headsets, a Ricoh Theta 360 degree camera, some of the latest tablets from Apple and Microsoft. In the evening we pulled out a few more fun stops and had folk exploring underwater realms through an HTC Vive system. 

I’ve got no idea what VR might mean for the legal industry. I’m not a lawyer. Stick a few open minded lawyers in a virtual reality environment for a few minutes, though, and the ideas start flowing. We have a handful of ideas from yesterday that could make a significant difference to both how the lawyers work, and also how they deliver service to clients. 

More importantly, though, it starts to unwire the thinking that computers are instruments of control, not things to be controlled. Now of course traditional IT management in most organizations, built around priorities of cost control and governance, has an awfully long way to go to compete with an average smartphone that these days can be used to transport is owner to just about any location on the planet with little more than a piece of cardboard and a couple of lenses.

I am indebted to Digital Chef Lewis Richards at the Leading Edge Forum from whom via osmosis I’ve learned so much in the past 12 months about this experiential approach.

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