perspective, possibility and play

April 22 2013

This past year, I've been thinking a lot about how we cultivate and maintain sense of the possible in the face of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

It was a year of great contrasts, that found me in places I did not expect, doing things I did not expect to be doing. Surprise and delight nourished my belief that we can work for the better. But there were also doubts of depression. Possibility and clarity were overcome by pessismism and uncertainty.

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«Surprise in infinite play is the triumph of the future of the past. Since infinite players do not regard the past as having an outcome, they have no way of knowing what has begun there. With each surprise, the past reveals a new beginning in itself.»

Again and again, I return to Finite and Infinite Games. Though short, it resists summarization. It eschews rigid precepts, but has influenced me greatly. It's about playing over winning, the game over the players, possibility over certainty, strength over power, about transcending the past for the sake of the future. I buy copies to give away.

«A finite game is played for the purpose of wining, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.»

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I didn't know Aaron Swartz well, but I'm close to many of his closest. I live with some of them in an apartment that was once his. His death was felt keenly in our community, and it came at a low time in my own life. I identified with his struggle with despair. But I was also struck that someone who I had admired for engaging creatively with the world, who has unique insight to problems and forged paths where others saw none, had succumbed to hopelessness. He had a hacker playfulness, an aptitute for playing with the rules and not merely within them. Aaron's remarkable hubris and sense of the possible had failed him.

He reminded me of another amazing tech activist friend who died six years ago. Chris Lightfoot was also somone who delighted in throwing himself at the problems of the world, and who often made dents in them. He too killed himself. We still miss him. Both left behind them a sense that the work they put down was work which we must take up. That their shoes are big, but that we must try to fill them.

Since his death, a few of Aaron's posts in particular have resonated with me. On Productivity is incisive on the quality of our time. Theory of Change engage with the question of how we hope to make a difference. How to Save a Life encourages us to raise our expectations for what we can achieve. Together, they speak to Aaron's way of viewing and addressing the world.

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It's easy to succumb to a rigid view of how things work, to underestimate our capabilities, to forget that we can be surprised, that we can surprise ourselves. There are many zero-sum games in the world, but the world is not a zero-sum game. We must perpetually struggle to transcend finite games for the infinite one.

This week was a week of contrasts. I was astonished and delighted to find myself starting a company. But it was a week in which my adopted city saw much sadness. The MIT police officer who was killed was part of my community too. I can't help but worry that this is the just the beginning of a new chapter in the sorry story of the past ten years.

How do you maintain perspective, possibility and play?


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