Give Steven Johnson a Doritos chip and he’ll give you the world.
One of the first writers to grasp the potential of the web, the founder of online magazines Feed and Plastic.com, and more recently the media site outside.in, writes deeply human, playful books about the history of technology and science. He tackled cognitive neuroscience in Mind Wide Open, video games in Everything Bad Is Good for You, and the nature of innovation in Where Good Ideas Come From.
A bona fide brainiac with a talent for boiling down complicated ideas for mass consumption, Johnson also wrote the 2014 bestseller How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, which was made into a six-part PBS documentary. Here is a clip from Johnson's treatment of "Sound":
Johnson has released a sequel of sorts called Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, which looks at innovations in six areas – fashion and shopping, music, food and taste, illusions, games, and public space.
Throughout, he argues that what drives innovation is our capacity for play, for being delighted by surprising and new things.
That’s where the Doritos comes in: In one chapter, Johnson traces the number of mind-boggling breakthroughs in economics, science, transportation, and global diplomacy required before we could assemble all the ingredients that go into one chip.
Johnson, 48, who lives in Marin County, Calif., with his wife and three sons, will talk about Wonderland at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
You write that Wonderland is a sequel to How We Got to Now. Both look at the history of innovation, and both are divided into six topics. What is different this time?
It has a similar structure. But with Wonderland, there is an overarching argument. That was the thing I really wanted to do that’s very different, to try to make a case for a theory that one of the forces that drive change in society, which we don’t talk about as much as we should, is this force of delight or of play that’s the centerpiece of the book.
In the chapter about fashion, you say that the delight people felt for a new shade of purple discovered 4,000 years ago, called Tyrian purple, led to massive innovations in transportation and technology. The dye could be made from only a certain species of sea snails, and when the color became popular, sailors had to explore farther and farther to find more snails. It’s a nice story, but aren’t the innovations you mention driven by economic forces?
I’m not trying to say that the economic model of history is wrong or other models that emphasize other elements. … All of these things are part of the story, for sure. I’m trying to say that in addition to those, there is the force of delight. The question is: Well, what started the process and led eventually to the development of new markets? What started it was this interesting moment of “Wow, that’s a beautiful shade of color. I’ve never seen that purple before.” I think if we don’t tell that part of the story, we miss a full account of what actually happened.
It’s a novel way to read history, and I guess it does explain why we pursue with such passion all these pastimes and activities that aren’t useful in any way or necessary for our survival.
Yes. And it turns out this feeling of delight or wonder and surprise, this playfulness, really does show up all over the map in all these different places. And I think if you look at history through that lens, you will realize that it is a very profound part of who we are as a species.
We have this appetite for delight and playfulness, and we’ve always had it. If you go back, you see it in brass flutes made 45,000 years ago, and in the jewelry and early ornamentation, which is 80,000 years old, maybe 100,000 years old. As soon as we became toolmakers, we were using that ingenuity to come up with things that were beautiful, not just functional.
Where does the instinct for delight come from? Is it something biological? Do we have some kind of receptor for aesthetic pleasure?
I think an outgrowth of our deep-seated wiring is to be interested in surprising things. And what culture adds to that is to come up with more elaborate ways to surprise you over time, but to surprise you in a safe context. When the surprise is that a tiger is jumping at you to devour you, or a bomb dropping on your house, that’s bad surprise.
Surprise in safe, controlled environments … is interesting and appealing to our brain for deep-seated, long, evolutionary reasons. But it has to be constantly reinvented.
Because it quickly stops being surprising. And that’s where innovation comes in?
Right. So that appetite forces us to invent all the ways to amuse ourselves over time, and that is what leads to these breakthroughs and innovations.
The book opens in ninth-century Baghdad with the Banu Musa, these three brothers who wrote The Book of Ingenious Devices, which contained designs for toys that employed revolutionary engineering and technological concepts centuries ahead of their time. How prophetic were they?
The most important thing the brothers came up with is the [musical] instrument that plays itself. It was an automated flute player.
Like a mechanical doll or robot?
Yes. And what made it so powerful is that the music that was played by the instrument was programmed by a rotating cylinder that had pins in it. It’s like the music box but on a much larger scale. Each pin corresponds to one note. And if you wanted to create new songs, you … recode it by putting in a new cylinder. That was arguably the first truly programmable machine in history.
So this is the distinction between hardware and software, so instrumental in the development of the programmable looms used in textile mills in the 18th century — and eventually to the computer?
Your chapter about games suggests that chess had a part to play in changing the way society was actually organized in early modern Europe. Seriously?
I write about this [13th-century] monk Jacob Cessolis from Lombardy in Italy who wrote a best-selling book about chess. ... [It] was this weird combination of a guide to chess, like, you know, how to become a better chess player; and this sermon that had a theory of how society should be organized. And he saw chess as an allegory for this organization, which takes into account the new world of laws and contracts.
The traditional model of society used biological metaphors, and it was about how your role in the world comes from your relationship to the king, who had a direct relationship with God. Now, people were starting to see their social roles and relationships in terms of contracts, where we all are independent of each other and our relationships were governed by a legal system. Cessolis saw chess as a perfect way to explain this model. And something about that metaphor … really resonated with people. The book was a runaway success long before printing, and it was translated widely.
You also tackle social change in your chapter about public space, in the discussion about taverns.
Which is very significant when it comes to Philadelphia.
The tavern was a space explicitly devoted to fun. People enjoyed themselves and socialized across class barriers. They broke the rules a little. Historically, this space for fun, which is half public, half private, has played a role in advancing revolutionary ideas, the most famous example being the American Revolution. The tavern network in the colonies was really the space where the most revolutionary ideas were brought up. The tavern was where the Declaration of Independence was read out loud, and [Thomas Paine’s] Common Sense was read aloud there.
The American Revolution probably would have happened had taverns not existed, but it would have taken a very different shape.
Steven Johnson, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Central Library, 1901 Vine St. Free. Information: 215-567-4341, www.freelibrary.org/authorevents.