Wonderland

How Play Made the Modern World

[Amazon Link]

Steven Johnson is a gifted writer of history, with a real knack for pulling together oddball yarns from various sources, making unexpected connections, and drawing surprising conclusions. I was inspired to read his latest book by a glowing review from Virginia Postrel in Reason.

Not that I'm a Steven Johnson fanboy. The last book I read by him was back in 2005 and I was less than impressed. But this one is better.

It is wide-ranging, but the overall theme is expressed by the subtitle: a lot of what we see around us today, the technological miracles, unimaginable prosperity, and ongoing breakneck innovation, has its roots not in sober and dismal business backrooms, but in "play": people not searching for better ways to deliver the essentials of food, clothing, and shelter, but instead coming up with entertainments, luxuries, fripperies, pleasures, and general fun.

Johnson devotes a chapter to a subtopic: fashion/shopping; music; spicy food; illusion; games; and various forms of "public space" (e.g., saloons and coffeehouses). In each he relates various examples of how the craving for enjoyment, rather than more serious topics, drove innovation, trade, and breathtaking social change.

A particularly telling anecdote from chapter one tells the story of how ingenious mechanisms to simulate human movement had their origins in current-day Iraq (which, in turn, had swiped a lot of their inspriration from the inventions of Ancient Greece). A thousand years later, this resulted in mechanical dolls (close to robots), one of which is a lady who is programmed to walk across a room. Years later, the inventor takes an eight-year-old boy up to his attic for the still-functional Walker.

And that boy was Charles Babbage.

Good story, and the book is packed with them. And play-inspired events interact in unexpected ways. Example: Combine (1) the field of probability, birthed by gamblers looking to gain an edge on their opponents and (2) the coffeehouse, a wildly popular "public space" caused by the unexpected pleasures of tasty drinkable caffeine. The result: the first modern insurance company, Lloyds of London, born out of the realization that you could make a business out of betting on the likelihood of ill fortune.

Not that it's perfect, there are a lot of blind spots. Johnson talks about the drives at the dawn of modern capitalism, but doesn't mention Deirdre McCloskey. There are nods toward the concepts of cultural evolution, but I've read a lot about that recently from Matt Ridley, Kevin Laland, and Joseph Henrich; I didn't notice any citations of them in Wonderland. His discussion of how "open spaces" (fueled by booze and, often, illicit sex) could have used a nod to Thaddeus Russell. Also MIA: Virginia Postrel. There's no excuse.