Book Review: “Wonderland” by Steven Johnson

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

In popular historian Steven Johnson’s latest,he writes about How Play Made the Modern World [2].

His overall theme is not that humans are playful, but that play is productive (of both bad and good), and that many innovations and revolutions appear first as toys or amusements. He has a lot of interesting points, as well as some misunderstandings and blind spots.

While necessity is the mother of invention, “if you do a paternity test on many of the modern world’s most important ideas or institutions, you will find, invariably, that leisure and play were involved in the conception, as well.” ([2], p. 12)

Chapter 1: Fashion and Shopping

Marketing is sometimes seen as a development that was engendered by the (over) productive capacities of industrialization, Johnson argues that the industrial revolution was driven by the development of consumer demand, primarily for “unnecessary” goods, and the desire for fashionable novelties (such as calico and other textiles) and the emergence of “shopping” as a leisure activity.

Not everything is good and nice, of course. The desire for cotton clothing created international supply chains, ecological disaster, and the horrors of slavery. These global events and trends were driven, he says, by the “fun” of having fashionable clothing, found in fancy shops.

Chapter 2. Music

The thrust of this chapter is to note that humans created many technical innovations in music making at a very early date. Johnson correctly says that music has an outsized place in human culture, because humans enjoy music, even when it doesn’t meet any particular survival imperative.

His main point traces how musical automatons demonstrated the concept of programmable machines, of “software” in medieval times. “For almost a thousand years, we had that meta-tool in our collective toolbox, and we did nothing with it other than play music”. (p. 79)

(Strangely, Johnson has no mention of Leonardo’s automata.)

I have to say that he has a somewhat confused view of the archaeological evidence that music making developed a long time ago, at the same time as survival skills of hunting and keeping warm.

“This chronology is one of the great puzzles of early human history. It seems to be jumping more than a few levels in the hierarchy of needs to go directly from spearheads and clothing to the invention of wind instruments.” (p. 67)

His “puzzle” hinges on his characterization of music as “abstract”.

But music is anything but abstract, it is all about rhythm, movement, and the body. [3, 4, 8]

Johnson not only misunderstands the relationship between music and movement (dance)—muscular speed, agility, and precision are obviously crucial survival features, even if they don’t leave fossils—he apparently assumes that music requires instruments. The fact is, people sang, clapped, stomped, and made music in many ways with their bodies, in groups as well as alone—though this leaves no archaeological trace.

For people already deeply and constantly musical, inventing a drum or a flute is not such a big leap, nor is it a “puzzle”.

Chapter 3. Taste

Here, Johnson discusses the role of the spice trade in the development of global empires, trade, and exploration.

He documents that spices never were utilitarian although many believed they had medicinal benefits/ Mainly, spices were exotic, and, at a time when you couldn’t visit (and didn’t even know where to find) the mysterious spice islands, you could taste the excitement.

The desire for these tastes and presumed magical benefits drove long distance trade across cultures, incentivized exploration (including, famously, Columbus), and led to the development of technology (e.g., for long distant shipping) and financial innovations (e.g., joint stock companies). The greed for spice also caused piracy, wars, and horrific genocide around the world.

Chapter 4. Illusion

Johnson considers various “entertainments” based on optical illusions and technical developments such as magic lanterns.

The primary case is optical illusions, especially the persistence of vision, which originated in toys and amusements, and is the key principle that underlies cinema, TV, and video games.

He makes a good point about how this and several other techniques were combined to create cinema, which became a profound art form in the twentieth century, capable of moving millions to tears (or to march to war or to buy things).

I’m not sure I completely agree with his analysis of the psychology here. He assumes that persistence of vision is non-adaptive (which is probably wrong), and that people innately perceive cinematic imagery as moving 3D worlds. In fact, there are individual differences in immersion, and cultural and experiential effects in interpreting these stimuli. You have to learn to see moving pictures as representations of 3D reality.

It just isn’t a simple as he makes out.

I also think he overstates the uniqueness of contemporary celebrity, characterized by people who are famous simply because they appear on TV (i.e., in an optical illusion). This is an interesting point, though I think it is historically dubious. Much of contemporary celebrity is a matter of scale, and some is a matter of ubiquity—there is only one village now in which to be famous, and it is huge. In other words, it’s the ‘mass’ in mass media, not the medium.

Johnson misses some other interesting offshoots that might add to his point. For one thing, there is feedback and cross-fertilization between cinema/video and other art forms. For example, contemporary literature is beginning to adopt styles that are cinematic and even ‘video game’-ish,

Furthermore, digital production techniques are having profound cultural effects, far beyond the impact of cinema alone. This technology has created new experiences with virtual avatars, creating and living a “second self”, and even an “exodus to the virtual world” [1] .

They also contribute to political practices, and the very question of the nature of “facts”. With the ubiquity of computers and social media, this freewheeling attitude toward “narrative” has come to dominate many social interactions, where we say, “on the internet no one can tell you are a dog”.  All this from an optical illusion.

Chapter 5. Games

This chapter has a lot to say about early computer games, which he correctly says led the way to what have become ubiquitous technologies—screens, animation, and interactive interfaces,

Why were games so important to the history of computing?” (p. 231), he asks. He thinks this is due to the importance of play for humans—people are playful, therefore they played with computers.

I think this misses the deep correspondence between computing and games, which was apparent to everyone from the very first moment.

Creating computer software is one of the greatest games ever invented: it is rule governed, but far too complicated for a human to dominate. You can make it do whatever you want, and the better you get, the more you can do. It is reactive, and can be unpredictable. It can be social, and it can be immersive. You can create your own worlds, languages, and even Artificial Life. These days, it’s even in color and 3D!

Of course we play with it! How could we not! Even the “serious” computer uses–programming, simulation, creating “virtual worlds”–is full of playfulness and fantasy

Johnson focuses mainly on interfaces, but game-like thinking, in computer simulation and “computational thinking”, have begun to dominate science and other intellectual activities [3],. In many fields, the “tool” is now the arena, the slave is now the master.

Chapter 6. Public Spaces

This chapter considers taverns, which have existed since Greek times. (118 taverns have been identified in Pompeii, he says.) The Romans not only built roads, they build thousands of taverns to service them.

It wasn’t enough to build a global network of roads, all leading to Rome, the Romans had to create a system whereby travelers could make to the ends of the empire and back without relying on the kindness of local strangers, or sleeping in a field or forest. The Romans build taverns every fifteen miles on the road, becoming a de facto unit of measuring the distance.” (p. 240)

Johnson’s main point is that “we tolerate bars and pubs as guilty pleasures….But the sentimental, communal appeal of the local dive usually overrides the puritanical scolding.” (p. 239) But, taverns are more important than this, he says. “What we rarely acknowledge, however, is the transformative role taverns and bars have played in our political history.” (p. 139)

He also extols the development of coffeehouses in London in the 18th century, as another egalitarian site—supercharged by the use of caffeine (replacing wine and beer).

The inherent democracy of the coffeehouse was an achievement on its own, one that would play a role in political democratization over the course of the next century. But is also led to a staggering number of innovations: the first public museums, insurance companies, formal stock exchanges, weekly magazines—all have roots in the generative soil of the coffeehouse.” (p. 259)

Much of the effect of coffeehouse life is what we now recognize is the effect of “serendipity” [5], social networking, and diversity [6]; which makes possible spontaneous collaboration and exchange of ideas in a (somewhat) diverse group.

Contemporary organizations seek to replicate these effects, and digital systems such as crowdsourcing [7, 9] and social settings such as coworking spaces. (Interestingly, coworking spaces are partly inspired by contemporary habits of working in coffeeshops.)

Conclusion – The Surprise Instinct (?)

Johnson concludes with a discussion of the human drive for novelty and surprise (and our dislike of boredom). This, he argues, underlies the desire for fun and frivolous pleasures described throughout the book. If so, then this particular biological drive has had profound evolutionary effects, leading to many aspects of our global culture, through the indirect path of “delight”.

Here, he is stretching. Yes, humans have a “drive” for novelty. So do many animals. We also have a “drive” for the security of routine. We also have lots of other “drives”, for sociability, for status and so on. These drives play out in many ways, and are culturally mediated. For that matter, people differ, and people change. See Abraham Maslow.

To link a basic neural “drive” to complicated things such as global trade is a huge leap. There is a long chain of non-neural factors, including culture, geography, and just plain luck.

On the other hand, I certainly agree with his denigration of history that attributes developments entirely to logical, economic, and pragmatic motives. Things happen for illogical reasons, including “fun”.

It is also interesting to see how toys and amusements may be the first use of novel technologies, which may bloom later into world shaking “disruptions”. I think he has a point, though I’m not sure exactly what conclusions to draw.

As a technologist, I have to say that part of the story is not how much people love to play, but how playful innovation itself is. We like to play around, and in the process, we invent things. Sometimes, the invention turns out to be deeply important, even though we weren’t trying to be deeply important.

Furthermore, sometimes it takes the right combination of inventions and the right setting for something to become important. We play around, creating toys and amusements, and sometimes we mash them up into something else.

If you want progress, then make space for play.

  1. Edward Castranova, Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality, New York, Palgrave Macmillen, 2007.
  2. Steven Johnson, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, New York, Riverhead Books, 2016.
  3. Thomas Levenson, Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1994.
  4. Steven Mithen, Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2006.
  5. Sebastian Olma, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0, 2012.
  6. Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007.
  7. Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, New York, Penguin, 2008.
  8. F.R. Wilson, Tone deaf and all thumbs?: an invitation to music-making, Vintage Books, 1987.
  9. Lior Zoref, Mindesharing: The Art of Crowdsourcing Everything, New York, Penguin, 2015.


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