Moving beyond weekend entertainment and global tourism

It might come as a shock to us, but our ways of leisure, relaxation and entertainment are killing us, our cities and our earth as much as our ways of working and doing business


R Swaminathan | October 27, 2017

#Entertainment   #Urbanisation   #Urban Life   #Quantum Urbanisation   #Leisure   #Urban India  

Two conversations in two different countries with two different people unearthed a fundamental question about leisure and relaxation. I was in Singapore last month and was travelling by train with my software engineer sister from Simei to Tanah Merah.

A really creative poster about Pungol Park in the absolutely clean and nearly silent train caught my attention. Singapore is right in the midst of an ecological ‘aha’ moment where it wants to transform itself into one big garden. The poster enticed and entreated Singaporeans to spend their time pursuing ‘family leisure’ at the Pungol Park: cycling, trekking, jogging, smelling the flowers and generally spending time doing yoga and tai chi. I was impressed and told my sister so. Turning parks into urban forests and getting people to think about it not just as a green space but as a flexible platform amenable to a host of enjoyable outdoor activities is an absolutely audacious piece of place making. It’s one thing to talk about urban forests, sustainability and ecology and another to actually put it in practice and get people right behind it.  My sister’s response, however, caught me completely by surprise. “Where is the time for it all?” she asked. “You need a good, long holiday just to go through one park.” 
Just about a month later I was in Sweden back at the University and greeted my colleague and friend asked him how his summer was. A little bit of Swedish context is necessary here. Swedes eagerly await the summer. The eagerness is amplified by the fact that their summers are really short – literally from end of April to the middle of August – and winters are long, hard, windy, snowy and cold. There is a deep-rooted cultural ethos that earmarks summer as a special time to relax, rejuvenate, take in the sun, metaphorically and figuratively, and do so with friends, family, music, food-laden tables. All of this happens as much as possible in the outdoors. My colleague is a well-known folk musician, ethnomusicologist and anthropologist settled in Visby in the island of Gotland (Please click on link to know more about my colleague: Visby is a UNESCO heritage city. It is so popular on the Swedish and the European tourism circuit that it ends up swelling to over 3,00,000 people in the summer. Usually it’s a sedate 23,000 people during the other nine months. Now that the context is set, it’s time to come to his surprising response to my question. “Where’s the time?” he said. “It was exhausting. I am now ready to take a holiday,” he added, of course with a laugh.

Needless to say, both their surprising responses resulted in a detailed conversation. The long and short of what I gathered from my sister in Singapore and my anthropologist-ethnomusicologist friend in Sweden – two different people from two different worlds with almost identical responses to almost identical questions – were two-fold. Work is global. 24/7. 365 days. Smartphones and tablets aren’t really helping. Hours are long, and getting longer. Yet leisure activities have increased and the spaces for them too. Leisure is also global. The hours available for leisure are also long, and getting longer. 24/7. 365 days. And, smartphones and tablets are not really helping. The big picture that emerged from both conversations is that there isn’t much difference between work and leisure. Like two sides of the same coin, both leave people exhausted, fatigued and feeling run down. Ironically, leisure ends up having the same intensity, texture and feel that one associates with jobs, employment, swipe cards and practically no down time. The big insight from the big picture was that leisure is also work, an irony, and an industry, even more of an irony. We know it intimately, but by a different name. We call it the entertainment industry and it permeates almost every aspect of our urban life.

Unpacking two big leisure questions: Weekend entertainment & package tourism

Carefully and methodically unpacking the big insight, as any serious city enthusiast should and will, leads us to two big questions. First, despite the notion and imagination of leisure becoming so prominent in our daily lives, with new concrete manifestations of it emerging rapidly that range from virtual and augmented reality to chocolate spas and mineral oil baths, why are people still so exhausted and fatigued after a holiday? Secondly, why and when did leisure become so time consuming and by default not relaxing? The answer to these two questions requires us to do two things simultaneously and within a particular context. The first is to characterise leisure as it exists and manifests today. The second is to contrast it with traditional ethos and roots of leisure among communities, families and daily life. The overarching context is systems thinking.

When someone uses the word ‘leisure’ today, it usually means to go out of either home or office, both articulated and imagined as nodes and hubs of non-leisure,  to a space or a place that’s been specifically imagined and constructed for a set of activities that are meant to soothe and balm everything from frayed nerves to bruised egos. It’s this specific contouring of spaces and places that constitutes the foundation of weekend entertainment, the collective voyeurism of package tourism and the overall entertainment industry. Let’s take a simple manifestation as the first reference point. By itself a pub, a theatre or a cricket stadium are all spaces. Just from the viewpoint of potentialities a pub could as well have been a theatre and a theatre could have as well hosted an indoor cricket match. What makes a pub a pub and a theatre a theatre is the way it’s converted into a place by architecting and creating specificities that define and characterise it. So, a pub will have high bar stools, a bartender and most important of all alcohol of various persuasions. In short, you will go to a pub with a certain imagination of how you are going to spend your leisure time. And every imagination, let me assure you, will have drinking and its associated different degrees of buzz at its core. This imagination can power weekend entertainment as much as global tourism. Think any kind of island tourism and it will have the usual pictures of martinis, fit bodies, beers, tropical fruits and palm trees with the sea and sun as the backdrop.

Let’s complicate this simple manifestation by picking up a more technological and by default sophisticated manifestation as a second reference point. A movie night or a day-long gaming session inside a home or office does not have the simple contours of a pub or a theatre. Simply put, a home is primarily a home and an office an office. Yet, technology allows a space to be unfolded and repacked in two ways. One, it allows for sub-spaces within a larger space to be created, much like how in a general purpose mall a separate space can be earmarked for medical and pharmaceutical goods. Two, it allows that sub-space to be architected and converted into a ‘timed’ place, much like how a traditional community centre used to be converted into a marriage hall for three hours in the olden days. Once the time is over, the place and sub-space collapse back into the larger space. So, a movie night or a gaming session converts spaces within a home into a hybrid place where elements of a pub, a theatre, a restaurant can be mixed up and customised. Much like how one can use the same Lego blocks to create different toys depending on mood and inclination. The difference between a traditional community centre and a home is this: technology. Technology – in this case a Chromecast or an Xbox – lowers both opportunity and real costs so drastically that transforming an already earmarked space and place into a ‘timed’ place isn’t really as difficult as transforming a community space into a temporary marriage hall.

Let’s complicate this even further and pick up two scaled-up and detailed versions of the first manifestation, a place specially constructed for a set of leisure activities. They are like pubs, theatres and cricket matches, only much larger, more layered and not just a space and place, but a worldview in itself. Each of these versions is connected to the other with each being a logical extension and an advancement of the former. An entertainment centre is an amalgamation, a platform that aggregates a pub, a restaurant, theatre, spa, child care centre and anything else that you can possibly think of. Unlike a standalone place for leisure, an entertainment centre potentially allows for both time and space to be transcended. In plain and simple terms, it means that one can potentially spend as much time as one wants to – within the spectrum of human possibility – in an entertainment centre. A theme park of the kind found in Singapore, Hong Kong or in the several cities of the US and Europe is a substantial evolution of the entertainment centre. While the entertainment centre literally extends time and space, allowing people to immerse themselves in leisure, a theme park collapses both into a single form transporting people into an alternative reality that can be accessed for however long one wants and whenever one wants – from a day to yearly passes – creating a world that’s imaginary and make believe, but experientially real and concrete. Think all the 3D/4N packages from Euro Disney tours in France to Universal Studios tours in Singapore. Also think businesses like Cox & Kings and Kesari Travels.

Understanding entertainment of today & leisure of yesterday for quantum urbanism of tomorrow

All these manifestations have their roots in systems thinking that powers classical urbanism, about which I have written at length in the first piece of the series (Please refer ‘Quantum Urbanism Step One: Dismantle Systems Thinking Once and for All’ in July 16-31, 2017 issue of Governance Now). Systems thinking inform a framework of sense and meaning – a specific logic – that analyses, evaluates and reorganises daily life into a series of linear and neatly boxed packets. So work is different from home as home is different from leisure as leisure is different from relaxation. In reorganising life into packets, systems logic permeates and transforms all these packets into economic opportunities amenable to specific business models. In architecting life as a series of business models and people as a set of segmented markets with different paying capacities, leisure itself becomes a market offering. As a market offering it connects with other leisure market offerings and becomes what we know as the entertainment industry. It isn’t really a surprise that leisure, entertainment and tourism are seen as one and the same thing, and all three are also seen as urban. So, a Goa Trance music festival is about music, record companies, drinks, food, hotels, hospitality, transportation and, of course, entertainment and tourism.

If one were to contrast this particular structure with traditional notions of leisure and relaxation, three stark divergences stand out. First, leisure and relaxation were predominantly communal, communitarian and collaborative in nature and scope. Typically, leisure wasn’t contoured as a different set of activities. Neither did leisure and relaxation derive its sense and meaning as bipolar opposites of work and jobs. So, an Eid or a Diwali was as much about family, community and friends, as it was about bonding, business and opportunities. Leisure and relaxation were by-products and weren’t explicitly chiselled out. Second, home and work weren’t watertight compartments. By default, then, food wasn’t subdivided further into several constituent components, for instance a pub for drinking and a pâtisserie for desserts, and neither was entertainment contoured in a specific manner. Home could as well be a great place for food and play, as could a shop or a street. Third, the distinction between urban and rural was never the predominant lever used to define leisure and relaxation. Consequently, summer holidays could as well be spent with grandparents in their villages as it could be spent with cousins in foreign cities. The concept of leisure and relaxation did not involve an imagination that required a sophisticated conceptual architecting of spaces and complex notions of place making. 

Reclaiming leisure and relaxation for people & communities

If entertainment is an industry that powers leisure and relaxation of today, then it isn’t a surprise that both my sister and my colleague not only feel that there isn’t enough time, but actually feel exhausted after taking a break. The tone, tenor and texture of leisure and relaxation is similar to the tone, tenor and texture of work considering that both have been tailored by systems thinking and use the same logic of business models and market dynamics. In short, if work is never ending, 24/7, 365 days a year, then leisure is the other side of the coin and is also never ending, 24/7, 365 days a year. Both are architected by systems thinking and one cannot exist without the other. Ironically, both are in more ways than one exactly like the other. One can as well mistake leisure for work, seeing how carefully structured, detailed and layered that it has become, and quite aptly one can as well mistake work for leisure using the same yardsticks.

Quantum urbanism has the real and concrete potential to stop this ever-tightening embrace between work and leisure and reclaim the space back for people and communities to organically incorporate it in their daily lives. The potential comes from three sources of the increasing quantumness of urban life. The first comes is technology and the manner in which it is simultaneously decoupling the tight conventional relationship between people and jobs and creating new loosely coupled ties that allows people to be selectively engaged with the formal economy. I have referred it to as the ‘uberisation’ of work in my previous pieces in the series and this phenomenon as a whole is often referred to collectively as the emergence of the gig economy. By making work ‘flexible’, the space for leisure and relaxation by default is also made autonomous, relatively immune to systems thinking, allowing it to seep back into our daily lives, homes and into communities in a natural manner. A typical case in point are the re-emergence of book reading clubs, art and pottery groups and the revival of old board games.

The second is the increasing awareness about the need to determine the origin of everything that one is producing, consuming and distributing. This collective urge is most prominently seen in the field of food and its associated activities. This urge translates into a local and hyperlocal awareness that in turn informs communities and groups to become emphatically rooted to the local environmental context and the global ecological urgency. Localisation, of course, promotes the local context more than the global, which is a good thing. It allows traditional forms of leisure and relaxation to come to the fore again. A typical case in point is the revival of environmentally sustainable local practices, traditions and food systems around the world. Many of local and hyperlocal manifestations are now powering new forms of leisure, relaxation and ecotourism that are fundamentally different from the models espoused by the global entertainment industry.

Climate change and its twin challenges of sustainability and resilience are as much about work, jobs, employment and large fossil-fuel powered factories and conveyer belt production systems as it is about global entertainment industry, massive cross-country tourism, global and gourmet cuisine and large leisure, entertainment and hospitality hotspots that consume physical, environmental and human resources. Think cruise ships, the multinational crews, different ports of call and their environmental footprint. The typical imagination and notions of leisure and relaxation are no longer sustainable both from the point of view of business models and from the perspective of environmental sustainability. The carbon footprint of the entertainment industry, especially of global tourism, is massive. A typical Indian family’s three-week trip during the peak summer season to a European destination burns up as much fossil fuel as a poor family will use for cooking three square meals for five years. Similarly, the ecological footprint of cruise tourism contributes as much towards global warming, if not more, than some of the polluting industries. It’s within this context that entertainment, leisure and relaxation is also being imagined in hyperlocal forms.

Quantum urbanism allows for newer imaginations to evolve as hybrids between the older and more traditional forms of leisure and relaxation and the emerging consciousness about our rootedness to earth, environment and its sustainability. Leisure and relaxation is necessary, but not at the cost of earth and its survival. It is time that we, as a humanity, start reconfiguring our urban ways of life and living so that neither are we continuously exhausted and fatigued and nor is our one, only and absolutely precious earth. 

Next: The city and its houses: Rethinking shelter for people and communities

Swaminathan is visiting research fellow at Uppsala University Sweden where is part of the project ‘Future Urbanisms’. He is also research director of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP), Ashoka University.

(The column appears in the October 31, 2017 issue)



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