December 15, 2017

Horse 2354 - In Defence Of Mucking Around And Play

Ever since I were a wee lad, I have been a fan of motor racing. I remember the likes of Peter Brock, Alan Moffat and Dick Johnson thundering around Bathurst in the kinds of cars that you would see on the road and thinking it was great. I remember the era of Nelson Piquet, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna who hated each other, and Nigel Mansell who was always plucky but who never really had the equipment to win (until eventually he did).
Of course having the kind of mind where everything gets thrown together and mangled, I look at the realm of pop culture and see cars like the Batmobile, the Mach 5, the De Lorean, and​ Darth Vader's TIE Fighter and want to have them face each other. In fact, in my copy of NASCAR 2, which was published by Papyrus in 1996, because of the ability to paint all of the cars, has colour schemes which would have never existed on any racetrack at the same time. In my copy of the game, it is possible to see George Washington in front of Kimi Raikkonen and Sonic The Hedgehog in the same race.
In the trailer for the film Ready Player One, you can see quite clearly that someone else has had the same idea as I did because that's clearly the van from The A-Team, the Interceptor from Mad Max, the 1966 Batmobile and what looks like the Mach 5 in this particular shot.

I make mention of all of this because this has only come about because of someone like me in a movie studio who wasn't afraid to just muck about. I'm sure that this isn't because some high ranking movie executive or director has had a brain wave somewhere but because some low level nobody who was just asked to make a thing look pretty, wasn't afraid to look stupid. Just mucking around like a doofus is in my not very well paid opinion, one of the single greatest drivers of human advancement ever.

It is no great accident that a few of the so called garagistas which came about after the Second World War, were all products of blokes in sheds just mucking around. Names like Bruce McLaren and Colin Chapman were able to take on the world and build world championship winning cars, from an operation which had less staff than an average supermarket.
Marie Curie, the great French scientist, won Nobel Prizes while doing something not much more than mucking around in her rooms in Paris. Of course it helped that she had been to university but while the fields of chemistry and physics were still relatively young, that spirit of just kind of mucking around and having a look at what was happening, is what helped open up nuclear chemistry.
The same thing can be said for both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs because their early efforts into the world of computing were really them and their mates just kind of mucking around and seeing what happened. The companies which were founded on the back of this initial mucking around are now massive.

There is a point to me telling a stories about people just kind of mucking around. I absolutely think that building the kinds of environments in universities where there is no obvious outcome, where there is no immediate economic payoff, and where it simply looks like people are just mucking around and wasting money, is essential to the development of technology and society. It looks chaotic at times, deans of universities might not understand why they are throwing money at what looks like a bunch of deadbeat moochers and governments who are always keen to trim their budgets because fundamentally politicians have no idea of what goes on in universities, but that still isn't a good enough reason to stop. Mucking around for want of a more formal word is "play" and for want of an even more formal description can unwittingly be "basic research".

This is the main reason why I love the whole idea of institutions where mucking around is actively encouraged​ and celebrated. Taken to its greatest and most visible manifestation, the whole Apollo Program which landed a dozen people on the moon at a cost of twenty five billion Us Dollars, is the greatest case of mucking around in history. I have heard all sorts of arguments about why it was a colossal waste of money but the amount of focused mucking around to make it possible which subsequently found its way into other technology, is immense.
The same can be said for the mucking around which led to the invention of Wi-fi, of touchscreens, in which advanced logic, and the graphic arts, which make the thing you are currently reading this on possible.

I think that mucking around and looking at things such as philosophy, the arts, history, literature, theatre, and a lot of other disciplines of study that seemingly have no immediate economic benefits at all are also worth spending money for mucking around, because life isn't just about the technical pursuit of stuff but the colour and quality of the stories that are told. Business people who only look to the improvement of a balance sheet at the end of the year might produce a number which leads to economic well-being but they produce unhappiness in so many people; they certainly do not produce either the playfulness of mucking around unless they have a dedicated research and development division.

In days gone by, when people mucked around and threw ideas together, it was fine. The creative process is often just chucking in lots of stuff and seeing what works together. Now that we have intellectual property law such as copyright and patents which sit over the top of published work, what may have been outright theft is now reskinned and might be included as oblique references. That's what has happened in Ready Player One and the filmmakers who have had the job of bringing the book to the screen are trying to show the working. Really though, what we have is someone mucking around and having fun, and I think that's glorious and want to play there for a while.

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