The Pursuit of Risk

Building on my last post ((Re)Defining Play), I’d like to expand the idea that the core trait of play is an attitude rather than an observable, external activity. I intend to situate play within a broader notion of what I will call the pursuit of risk. This phrase pulls directly from David Pye’s “workmanship of risk,” and I will use a discussion of that as a starting point. This post will be one of two; in the next one I’ll describe what it means to adopt the opposite attitude – the pursuit of certainty.

In The Nature and Art of Workmanship, designer and craftsman David Pye discusses two types of workmanship: that of risk and that of certainty. Of the first, he writes,

“If I must ascribe a meaning to the word craftsmanship, I shall say as a first approximation that it means simply workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not pre-determined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works. The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making; and so I shall call this kind of workmanship ‘The workmanship of risk’: an uncouth phrase, but at least descriptive.” (p. 20)

“The workmanship of risk has no exclusive prerogative of quality. What it has exclusively is an immensely various range of qualities, without which at its command the art of design becomes arid and impoverished.” (p. 23)

Important here is the notion that the quality of the result is not pre-determined. Pye ties the quality-determining process directly to the process of creation and consequently shifts the focus from prediction to action. The end result is necessarily understood to be contingent upon the in-the-moment changes imparted by the agent, and thus the quality of the end result can never be guaranteed. The quality is actively determined by focusing on the process, rather than the process being predetermined by focusing on intended quality.

The risk here does not arise because the projected task may not achieve a known end quality; rather, the risk arises because the end quality is intentionally unknown. The risk is present because the maker is determining quality as he or she acts, rather than ahead of time. Predictability is suspended in favor of possibility. This focus on present possibilities (as opposed to future consequences) is important; Pye goes on to discuss the merits of this process in terms of craft, uniqueness, etc., but for now the notion of risk as a pursuit of present possibility will suffice.

To unpack this notion a bit, let’s first revisit the definition of play, outlined before:

Play’s value ends in the process, remaining completely agnostic of any particular result… If play is framed as a self-fulfilling attitude – as a disposition that guides behavior, activity, and decision-making in-the-moment without determining success or value from any external source – then its structure is maintained. This description of play aligns closely with the “magic circle” referenced by Huizinga; whereas in his definition this represented an actual physical space in which real-world issues become fantastical, symbolic, transformative experiences, here the magic circle becomes the binary condition that either preserves or dissolves play. The magic circle can be framed as the query: From what source is value determined? In breaking ties between play’s value and external sources, the magic circle of play permits the player to adjust the value of everything else as well. Inside the circle, value is generated from within; it is assigned by the player as she explores possible realities, realizing Bruner’s notion of “inner-directedness.” Outside the circle, we are no longer playing; even when we engage all of the aforementioned behaviors and characteristics, we are simply searching for a value we assume is already established.

Both activities (play and the workmanship of risk) share the notion that process is all-important, and both stand in opposition to the external assignment of value or quality. These activities are not alone; many authors have attempted to illustrate similar behaviors in other fields:

  • In discussing “technologies of foolishness,” political scientists and organizational theorists James G. March and Johan Olsen describes the role of playfulness in organizational management: “Playfulness is the deliberate, temporary relaxation of rules in order to explore the possibilities of alternative rules. When we are playful, we challenge the necessity of consistency…Playfulness allows experimentation.”1
  • Sociologists Harry Collins and Martin Kusch describe “polimorphic activity” as that which is intentionally variable, listing human conversation as a classic example.2
  • As described by anthropologist Eitan Wilf, the act of improvisation in jazz can be seen as the pursuit of newness for newness’s sake.3
  • Design theorist George Stiny, in outlining his theory of shape grammars, describes “embedding” as the ability for a human agent to identify (through vision) any number of possible shapes in an existing drawing.4
  • Also discussing shape grammars, mathematician Lionel March captures the importance of being able to break the rules, even while acknowledging their necessity: “a rule is no fetter…Bucking a rule is simply to follow another.”5

All of these activities stem from the belief that suspending predetermined value or quality (i.e., ignoring the rules) for the sake of alternative possibility is a worthwhile endeavor. Removed from their context, these activities can seem irrational or illogical, for they often eschew the tried and true in favor of the unknown. But intuitively, we understand that there can be something useful about this behavior. Jazz, for instance, would certainly not exist (at least, in the same form factor it does today) without improvisation. Conversation would become a dry, mechanical, efficiency-oriented process, devoid of much of its color and life – to say nothing of poetry, which often directly challenges our notion of word meanings. Design would also suffer, but as that requires extensive definition and explanation, it will be the topic of a separate post.

I believe that the characteristic shared by these activities – the temporary suspension of value for the sake of alternative possibility – can be summarized as the pursuit of risk. Again, here risk should not call to mind images of danger, but simply a lack of security due to a lack of predictability. Adopting this stance is certainly not something we do all the time; however, I believe it is an important part of our intelligence as humans. We are quite adept at dealing with ambiguity and multiplicity, not because we are always able to discover the truth in a situation, but because we often play a role in determining that truth. Encountering such situations is often uncomfortable – it is easier to rely on a known truth than to determine one yourself – and harnessing the ability to deal with them can take extensive training. But perhaps this explains why we have such respect for the arts, where our notions of truth are stretched the most.

The pursuit of risk encourages the understanding that things are continually in flux, and that value only exists when we assign it. This has its roots in philosophies of being that go back to Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, but rather than try to establish the usefulness of such a claim from the ground up, I think it will be more worth my time to argue for it from the perspective I know best: Design. I believe that it is this disposition that allows designers to play, and in doing so achieve a kind of creativity as-of-yet unachievable using computational measures. That is jumping ahead a bit, however, so for now we will end with a simplified definition: The pursuit of risk is the disposition that allows us to suspend value assignment and predictability in favor of alternative possibilities.

P.S.: James March makes a social plea for such a disposition in his description of technologies of foolishness. He argues for the importance in maintaining a “combination of attitudes and behaviors that describe the interesting people, interesting organizations, and interesting societies of the world.” By fostering a mindset that sees difference as interesting (rather than something to be explained), we create healthier appreciations for those that may not share our beliefs or values. With this, he reinforces the understanding that we should turn towards and embrace the complexity inherent in our multi-cultured societies, instead of attempting to strictly organize and categorize it. Such a notion may seem obvious, but all too often the opposite mindset arises – of binary division, polar extremes, little to no compromise, and deal-breaking beliefs. Although it was written 40 years ago, the need for this mindset is more important than ever, as evidenced by the vitriolic and hostile attitudes espoused in this country’s current presidential election.

  1. March, James G., and Johan P. Olsen. 1976. Ambiguity and Choice in Organizations. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget.
  2. Collins, H. M., and Martin Kusch. 1998. The Shape of Actions: What Humans and Machines Can Do. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
  3. Wilf, Eitan. 2010. “Swinging within the Iron Cage: Modernity, Creativity, and Embodied Practice in American Postsecondary Jazz Education.” American Ethnologist 37 (3): 563–82.
  4. Stiny, George. 2006. Shape: Talking about Seeing and Doing. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  5. March, Lionel. 1996. “Rulebound Unruliness.” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 23 (4): 391–399.

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