If Necessity Is the Mother of Invention, Then Play Is Its Father

In a new book, Steven Johnson argues that many inventions, considered mindless amusements in their time, wind up leading to serious innovations later

Author Steven Johnson looks at many of history's "artifacts of the future" that hinted at huge technological, scientific and cultural breakthroughs to come in his new book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World. Nutopia Ltd.

Humans have been inventing ways to entertain themselves for eons. These amusements, from carving bone flutes to playing chess to cooking with new spices, shopping and drinking in bars, are often seen as just that.

But Steven Johnson, a bestselling author of ten books, including How We Got To Now and Where Good Ideas Come From, wants to upend that thinking. In his newest, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, he argues that these delightful pursuits are often the seed for groundbreaking innovations. The first music boxes, surprisingly, laid the groundwork for computers, and illusionists performing stunts in the 1800s are, in part, to thank for virtual reality systems. There’s no knowing what will come from the seemingly frivolous things we do today.

You have written about the patterns behind innovations across time and discipline, and how one invention can lead quite unexpectedly to a slew of others. So what made you turn to this topic, about play being the mother of invention?

It really came out of the How We Got To Now project, and that format of looking at parts of the modern world that we take for granted and tracing their history back to where these ideas and innovations came from. There are just so many great stories you can tell. The world is filled with things that have these interesting histories to them. With this book, I wanted to build on that structure, but to have an organizing argument.

I have always been interested in play. I wrote this book Everything Bad Is Good For You a million years ago that was defending video games and things like that. Back in my grad school days, I had spent a lot of time writing and thinking about department stores and shopping as a cultural institution in the 19th century. I had all of these different threads, between games and the history of shopping, the history of play, and the history of things that we did for fun. Initially, I thought that would be interesting in and of itself.

But the more I dug into the research, the more I realized that there was a really important and profound point here, which was that all of these seemingly trivial, seemingly frivolous pastimes had actually led to a disproportionate number of world changing events and ideas, political upheaval, or technological and scientific breakthroughs.

In making your argument, you look at six areas: fashion and shopping, music, taste, illusions, games and public space. How did you choose?

I had some footholds in each of them. In the public space chapter, I had already written about coffee houses multiple times. I knew that was a great example of a space that was designed for leisure. It was designed so specifically for leisure that English king Charles II tried to ban them. He thought people were wasting all of their time in coffee houses. But it turned out to be an incredibly productive space. In some ways, it created the Enlightenment. I knew I had an anchor there. I had the same thing for the department store. I had little bits.

You look at many “artifacts from the future” in the book. Things that are, as you say, “dismissed by many as mindless amusement” in their time but turn out to be critical to serious inventions later. Can you tell me about one of your favorite examples from history?

There is this guy [Girolamo] Cardano, an Italian mathematician who was also a gambler. He lived a somewhat sketchy life getting into scuffles and knife fights while gambling at dice games 500 years ago. Near the end of his life, he figured out a system for understanding and then calculating what the odds are that you’ll roll three sixes in a row or how much more likely that a 7 is than a 12 if you’re rolling two dice. He ends up basically writing down for the first time the fundamental laws of probability.

You pretty much have people designing the equivalent of "How to Beat Las Vegas" cheat sheets for gambling. They end up uncovering these fundamental laws of physics and probability, and those insights end up enabling a huge number of things in the modern world: the insurance business, the design of our airplanes, trading that happens on Wall Street, clinical drug trials. This guy comes up with this idea in the context of dice games, and then about 100 years later, a bunch of folks are hanging out in a coffeehouse in London, Lloyd’s Coffeehouse, and they start dreaming up the idea of creating a more robust insurance business based on this new math of probability. They are insuring these ships that are bringing over spices and fancy fabrics from India—calico and chintz—that are making the British East India Company so much money.

Tracing the connections between these objects of play and later innovations highlights what you call the “hummingbird effect.” Can you explain what this is?

The simplest way of describing it is when people come up with new ideas in society—sometimes it is technology, sometimes it is scientific principles, sometimes it is just new forms of culture—they are often introduced with a specific purpose in mind.

Ok, we’ve got this new social space of the coffeehouse where people will spend some money, relax and drink this delightful beverage that makes them more alert. But what ends up happening is you get these unpredictable ripples that come out from those transformations that end up changing parts of society that you would have almost never predicted in advance.

You introduce air conditioning to cool an industrial workspace, then you’re trying to cool people’s homes, and then suddenly people are like, well, if our homes are cool, we can go live in the South. So all of a sudden you have this mass migration to the southern part of the United States, which changes the electoral college, and it becomes the Sun Belt that is fundamental in electing Ronald Reagan as president. There is a direct connection between the invention of air conditioning and the Reagan presidency. It’s not the only explanation, but it’s part of the story, and you would have never thought, sitting there in Brooklyn with Willis Carrier as he’s inventing air conditioning, that this set of changes would ripple out from that invention. I call those changes the ‘hummingbird effect.’

So, what does the player piano have to do with coding?

You have the invention of the music box. Going through the 1500s and the 1600s, a lot of people get interested in programmable music boxes, where you have these little cylinders that are designed initially to play songs. You can pull the cylinder out and put a new one in, and it’ll play a different song. So the machine is open to different ways of behaving if you put new forms of code inside of it. That is an incredibly profound idea—machines that aren’t for a single purpose but open to new behaviors with different kinds of code.

Obviously now we live in a world where that idea has transformed every part of society, but that idea was kept alive purely by music for hundreds and hundreds of years. It was people being amused by these little automated music-playing machines, which are the antecedents of player pianos. All of it looked like just idle amusement, not something that was serious. It was cool. It was amazing engineering, but it wasn’t doing anything other than entertaining us.

Except that this guy [Jacques de] Vaucanson [in the mid-1700s] started to say, well, wait a second, what if we took that idea and instead of programming it to play music we programmed it to weave fabric with colored cloth? He started thinking about that idea. It didn’t really work, because of the mechanical cylinders, but based on his work, eventually [Joseph-Marie] Jacquard came up with the idea of using punch cards, and that became the Jacquard loom, which is an incredibly important device in the history of textiles. That idea then influenced Charles Babbage, who used punch cards to create the first programmable computer. Punch cards go on to be part of computing technology until the 1970s.

It looked, for 500 years, like this was just silliness, musical entertainment played by a little wind-up doll. But there was a seed of an idea there that ended up changing everything.

What do you mean when you say that play or games is “low rent” research?

That is a phrase from [writer] Stewart Brand. He talked about it in two contexts. It’s part of his wonderful book, How Buildings Learn. But I was kind of talking about it in the context of the very influential piece he wrote for Rolling Stone magazine in the early '70s about the first video game, which was called Spacewar!. Spacewar!, which I just actually played, was originally designed in 1961 on this early microcomputer, PDP-1. It really is the first video game. There were rudimentary forms of checkers and chess and things like that, but this was the first game that was identifiably a new game with a monitor. While it seemed like child’s play—you just have a little spaceship and you are shooting at other things—it was arguably one of the most important pieces of software written in the '60s. It introduced a whole set of conventions. Spacewar! was one of the first pieces of software that included an onscreen avatar that represents you the way a mouse pointer represents you on a graphic interface. The idea of a controlling device, like a joystick, to move that avatar around—Spacewar! was one of the first works to incorporate that kind of hardware, which becomes like a computer mouse. It was one of the first open-source software projects that people collectively added things to. All of these conventions that are now an important part of computing started with this game.

In telling the story about Spacewar!, Stewart had this analogy of hiring “low rent” approaches to innovation. In the “high rent” approaches, you were building something serious that is going to change the world. It is a very important product that you have engineered from the top down with the goal of going to the moon or curing cancer or providing electricity. Whatever it is, it has a very high-minded ambition, and it is approached in this very organized way. That’s great, and that is how change happens quite a bit.

But what he was saying is there is this “low rent” version where people are just mucking around for the fun of it as a hobby, and they get interested, in this case in video games, because it is fun and it captivates their attention and they think how can I make this better. They start noodling around, and their friends start noodling around, and they start swapping ideas. A project that is really just being advanced for the love of it, for the sense of delight it engenders in people, ends up introducing all of these great new categories that then influence serious history or serious projects that feed back to the “high rent” world. We tend to emphasize the “high rent” story, and the “low rent” story is often just as important.

How do we encourage more of this “low rent” research?

You have to start by recognizing how important it has been in the past, which is what I’m trying to do with this book. Then, I think there is a lot to think about in terms of the opportunity for play in education.  

When you watch kids playing, they will do incredibly high-level forms of thinking without realizing it. I used to play this video game called Dawn of Discovery with my sons. It simulates a spice trading empire. It’s a simulation game kind of like SimCity but [takes place] more or less in 1500. You control this empire and go off and do these incredibly complex things. I’d watch them play it. They are sitting there designing their cities, they are thinking about their budgets and their tax rates and whether they should build a navy or whether they should just engage in merchant behavior with other nations getting these spices. They are thinking about the social classes they are cultivating in their cities and whether they are affluent enough to build a cathedral. They are thinking like a city mayor, a sociologist and a military strategist all at once. They would do it for eight hours if I let them, because it’s in the context of a game. When you put things in that play structure, the human mind, for interesting reasons, is just drawn in and gets very creative and focused, despite the fact that there’s a lot to think about. They were playing this game when they were eight and nine—if I had sat them down and tried to read them a chapter from my book about the spice trade, they would be incredibly bored. But the game format just pulls them in.

“You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun,” you write. So where do you think the future is today?

Everyone is out there playing Pokémon Go. My kids are out there playing it and demanding to walk for miles and miles for the first time in their lives because they want to capture more imaginary monsters on their phones. I think we will probably all look back in 10 years, as we’re all walking around with all sorts of augmented reality telling us about the world we’re exploring, whether it’s the fastest way to walk over here or some interesting new thing available at the coffee shop over there, or where our friends are, overlaid on some kind of AR goggles that we’re wearing, and say, oh, this started with a game. It came into the world as a bunch of 12-year-olds and 22-year-olds running around chasing Pokémon, but it was the first hint of something that would become something much more mainstream. I suspect that will be one great example of play basically predicting the future.

You end the book on an interesting thought. Many people fear machines taking our jobs and thinking for themselves. But you think we should really worry when they start to play.

It was a little bit of a poetic line, I suppose. If you are just preprogrammed and following rules and living in a very structured, predictable world, you don’t really need play. But if you are living in a world that is constantly changing and that is constantly surprising you, having a playful mindset turns out to be very useful. General intelligence in human beings or in other mammals often corresponds to the amount of playtime they have in their childhood. When we are thinking about AI and machines and their intelligence, if we actually start to see them doing things just for fun that will be a sign that they have crossed over into something fundamentally different than just a programmed machine. In some sense, there will be some symmetry there. The idea of programmability came out of play, but it could eventually lead to machines that are actually capable of desiring and seeking out play on their own. That would be fitting, I suppose, although also somewhat terrifying.

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