Greg Goldberg is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Wesleyan University, and Visiting Fellow at Yale University’s Information Society Project. His work has appeared in New Media & Society, WSQ, ephemera, and on the Huffington Post.
The Playʼs the Thing: Examining Anxieties Surrounding the Collapse of Work and Play
In the paper, I examine anxieties over the shifting boundary between work and play, with particular focus on those activities which appear to be play but are geared toward the production of value. First I look at academic discourse surrounding no-collar employment, and in particular the informal design, relaxed norms, and unusual amenities often associated with “creative class” workplaces in the tech sector. Second I look at academic discourse surrounding the harvesting of value from usersʼ participation online. In both cases, what appears to be fun or play is revealed to be work, and users/laborers are characterized as suffering from a sort of false consciousness. I argue that this approach to play is structured by an underlying rejection of play as a narcissistic, irresponsible endeavor.
More specifically, I argue that the move to characterize leisure/play as work simply because of its capacity to produce value evidences an underlying and disavowed discomfort with play/leisure. This underlying discomfort is not simply with the unpaid labor of internet users and tech workers, but more substantially the content of their play/leisure. However, because of the legacy of cultural studies (and particularly the advent of reception theory in the 1970s) it has become difficult for scholars to malign the tastes and pastimes of the masses. I argue that the problem for scholars is not the exploitation of users/workers, but rather the looming dissolution of certain forms of sociality historically tied to labor—those that elicit responsibility, obedience, and sacrifice—and the concomitant unleashing of ego. Rather than taking concerns about user/worker exploitation at face value, I reframe these as symptoms of anxiety stemming from this dissolution—an anxiety which works to reconstitute a boundary between work and leisure, and in so doing to (re)produce a properly socialized subject, i.e. a subject disabused of the prospect of getting something for nothing.