Edition 81

The Leisure Principle

  • Published 1st August, 2023
  • ISBN: 978-1-922212-86-3
  • Extent: 196pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes spelt out a vision of the impending utopia. Work, he said, will become a thing of the past. ‘For the first time since creation,’ he predicted, ‘man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to occupy the leisure which science…will have won for him.’ 

So where did this vision of future past go? Like baco-foil suits and meals of protein pills, it proved to be a concept that withered on the vine. Instead of an excess of free time to be enjoyed at leisure, a radically different regime now dominates the developed nations: the leisure principle. 

The leisure principle is one of work hard to play hard, a rigorous pursuit of monetarised hedonism: YOLO, live your best life, have a good time all the time

From the ecstasy of the digital to the monied spectacle that is sport, the gamification of everyday life to the flourishing hierarchy of influencers, Griffith Review 81: The Leisure Principle sets out to scrutinise the terms and conditions of this contemporary compact and consider how we came to cede so much just to amuse ourselves to death.  

In this Edition

Revolutionary wave

This was the late ’60s, early ’70s and surfing in Wales was regarded by the parent generation as delinquency. It was for losers, layabouts, rogue males. In those early days Welsh surfers numbered around one hundred, congregated on half a dozen beaches down fifteen miles of coastline west of Swansea, known as the Gower. I knew each one of those surfers by the styles they deployed on the waves. So idiosyncratic was early Welsh surfing that out on the road if you saw a car with boards on the roof coming at you, both drivers would pull over for a chat.

The defence

The history of computer science is bound up with the game of chess, whose innate complexity and clearly defined rules make it the ideal proving ground for artificial intelligence. And yet the game not only survived the defeat of Garry Kasparov in 1997 by IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue, but also seemed to flourish in its wake. According to International Chess Federation figures, more people are playing the game than ever before, and not merely over the internet. Now, as a new generation of AIs aces the Turing test – according to which a machine may be deemed intelligent if the human interacting with it can’t tell if it is a machine or not – it might be worth taking a closer look at chess as a social and creative phenomenon that speaks to the limits of ‘smart’ machines.

Virtue signals

The sheer speed and volume at which data is processed, coupled with popular imaginings of the infallibility of machines, means that predictions produced by such processes are imbued with the aura of objectivity. As a result, hard decisions – acting in contexts of radical uncertainty, and having to determine winners and losers – become easy ones based on limited considerations directed towards improving the lot of as many individuals as possible while doing least harm. In other words, big data transforms the need to act politically into the possibility of acting only technically.

Upping the ante

As it turned out, Centrebet’s move online – coupled with the many other betting innovations it pioneered – led exactly to where Daffy hoped it would: a prodigious pot of gold. He says the company went from taking ‘fifty or sixty bets in one day’ to taking ‘five or 600,000 bets on a Saturday night from all over the world’. By the turn of the millennium, its annual turnover was in excess of $100 million and it had become – in the words of Piers Morgan, its then general manager – ‘one of the leading sports betting organisations in Australia, if not the world’.

The geography of respect

Starting in 2019, Parks Victoria closed or restricted access for climbers to much of Gariwerd-Grampians while it assessed cultural heritage and worked with Traditional Owners and conservation experts to develop the Greater Gariwerd Landscape Management Plan (GGLMP). These closures drew strong reactions from many climbers. They saw Parks Victoria’s actions as impinging on their rights, and its apparent focus on climbing as a risk to cultural heritage and environmental integrity as overblown.

In the fullness of time

Our devices and data are more than extensions of our physical bodies. The so-called ‘human-centric’ approach to designing wearable and carriable devices means that they disrupt traditional divisions between work and leisure, production and consumption. It’s difficult not to feel the incursion of work-logics into leisure times and spaces as normal. Stretched for time, couples, families and friendship groups are starting to organise themselves using tools like Slack, Jira, Trello and Asana – that is, in the same way as workplaces. 

Oh, the shame of it

Modern leisure emerged in the West in the early 1700s when French and English cities developed new forms of society built around urban amenities – parks, cafés, fairs and shopping districts – servicing an expanding class of people with discretionary time and income. Public museums as storehouses of national culture appeared a little later in the nineteenth century where they contributed to the development of so-called ‘rational recreation’, a species of serious leisure intended to ‘civilise the masses’.

Hump day

The day they discover the meaning of life, Prue wakes with a headache. Across the kitchen table, Sam says I can’t believe it over and over again.
Prue sips her coffee and only half listens. ‘They what?’
‘See here, it says they’ve finally discovered the meaning of life.’ Sam thrusts the screen in her face.
Prue glances, seeing only bold text and underlined paragraphs. ‘Who is they?’
‘That group of geniuses. Genius Inc. The ones who got together and cured cancer.’
‘Ah. Genius Inc.,’ Prue says. ‘The ones claiming to solve all the big unanswered questions.’ How could she forget? It was all anyone could talk about for months.
‘Yeah. And I mean, they are. They cured cancer. They’re clearly capable.’ Sam buttons his shirt with shaking hands.
‘Curing cancer is one thing. Discovering the meaning of life is quite another.’

Lying on grass

Jamie wishes he could be more like Todd. Not because Todd’s excellent, but because he figures out what he wants and does it. As they pull out bits and pieces from the skip to build their drum sets, Jamie thinks about how he wants to be free, but doesn’t know if that’s something a person can ‘do’. After a while they’ve constructed two sets side by side at the front of the driveway. They’re not buckets, tins or lids: they’re tom drums, snare drums and cymbals.


We are absorbed in our work until we are not. Mostly we take breaks together, sitting outside in the sunshine waiting for our thoughts to settle, waiting for our lives to begin. Gus and I have both applied for the same scholarship. We’ll find out at the end of the month. Eve is organising a group show and wanted my latest painting as the centrepiece, but I won’t finish it in time, so I drop out. 
‘I’ve got something ready,’ says Gus.
Easy enough to find someone to fill my place.

The rise and decline of the shopping mall 

Perhaps it is instructive to consider how archaeologists of the future may conceive malls. How might they seem, these empty labyrinths – like rituals that had to be endured in order to receive goods and services? As great monoliths, colosseums constructed for our entertainment? As places of worship? Or perhaps malls will seem more like pyramids do to us: mysteries to be unravelled when the tracks of global trade and communication have faded…

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