The importance of being frivolous
In the introduction to his new book Steven Johnson starts out by describing the ninth-century Book of Ingenious Devices and its successor, the 13th-century Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanisms by the Arab engineer al-Jazari. Here were books of extraordinarily advanced technology. The latter contained sketches of
float valves that prefigure the design of modern toilets, flow regulators that would eventually be used in hydroelectric dams and internal combustion engines, water clocks more accurate than anything Europe would see for 400 years…
But in both books, Johnson says, ‘the overwhelming majority of the mechanisms […] are objects of amusement and mimicry’: they are toys. A point to conjure with.
Steven Johnson is an able and witty writer about the culture of technology, whose breakthrough book was the excellently titled Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. It made the case that all the things we are accustomed to think of as brain-rotting, down-dumbing emanations of modernity, such as videogames, telly and surfing the internet, are in fact the chief drivers of the so-called Flynn effect, which sees the average western IQ ticking ever upwards. Their increasing complexity is cognitively challenging, he argued, and therefore helps make — as Molesworth would put it — ‘grate branes’. It was a wonderful provocation; and, as I once heard him remark ruefully, far more people wrote op-eds about it than actually bought and read it. They were probably too busy playing computer games.
In Wonderland he advances another slickly counterintuitive hypothesis. It is that one of the most important drivers of human progress is fun, leisure, novelty, the impulse to delight: aka, mucking around. The utilitarian account of human progress, he argues, concerned chiefly with work, market efficiencies and the hierarchy of basic human needs such as shelter, food and nookie, misses several tricks.
Taking this as his starting point, he hares off through six chapters that look at fashion and shopping, music, food, illusions, games and public spaces. And he starts, at least, at a gallop. He looks at the ancient appetite for Tyrian purple — a dye produced from a particular sort of sea-snail, and which answers no obvious human need, but the pursuit of which took Phoenicians out into the Atlantic, ‘a true threshold in the history of human exploration’. He considers the 17th-century appetite for cotton — spread, like the colour purple, through fashion and display —and the way it changed the face of global industry. He considers the spice trade, as a pathfinding globalising activity, and notes that the tastes of pepper, vanilla and nutmeg add nothing but the pleasure of the unexpected to human utility.
He points out that music is, strictly, useless — yet that bone-flutes with musical intervals we recognise now were being made 43,000 years ago and that their successor instruments, for nothing more than the delight and surprise of harmony, were implicated in some of the central innovations of the 20th century. Peer-to-peer networks, the notion of software (or programmable hardware — punch-cards originated in weaving programmes and player pianos), the idea of a live interaction between a human and a machine, the input devices that made the latter possible — all originated in play. He looks at how coffee-shops and taverns created social networks, and argues that the cradle of the American Revolution was the ‘third space’, as Starbucks later called it, of the east coast’s pubs. And he considers how at one point ‘even Christianity’s geographic footprint looked small beside the long stride of chess’.
He even takes us on a tour of the visual illusion industry over three centuries or so — panoramas, phantasmagorias and magic-lantern shows — to argue that our brains evolved to make sense of a series of images in a certain way, and that we came to delight in confounding or confusing our own brains. Optical illusions — peaking in the realisation that we interpret 12 frames per second as motion rather than a series of stills — gave us cinema and, finally, the modern concept of celebrity.
These are, as you’ll have noticed, a rather disparate set of data-points. The breadth and suggestiveness of Johnson’s thesis is a strength but also a weakness, and there’s a good deal of cherry-picking and post-hoc-ergo-propter-hockery at work. Or, at least, a sense that if an idea seems to rhyme with another it can be chalked up as a win for the author’s thesis.
For instance, he describes the cunning device with which the probability nerds Claude Shannon and Edward Thorp — gambling being the primal entry point to probabilistic maths — attempted to beat the odds at roulette in 1961. They treated roulette as a physics problem, and realised that if you could clock how fast the ball was moving around the wheel before it clattered into the fretted section, you had a good chance of figuring out roughly in which section of the wheel it was likely to land. After much tinkering, they ended up in Vegas with a miniature computer the size of a cigarette packet (well ahead of its time) in one of their pockets. Sensors in their shoes allowed a discreet toe-tap to register the speed at which the ball completed a circuit of the wheel, and the computer would register its calculation by way of a musical tone played through headphones. They cleaned up.
‘It might have looked like two men goofing off and trying to beat the house at roulette, but it was also something much more profound,’ writes Johnson. ‘An entire family tree of devices — iPods, Android phones, Apple Watches, Fitbits — descend directly from that roulette hack.’ Or, the reader might think, possibly not. Rather often, glancing similarities — or points as general as miniaturisation — are passed off as lines of causation.
But there is meat in here — not least in the suggestive argument Johnson makes in his conclusion that it isn’t play, exactly, so much as surprise or novelty that our brains respond to with such pleasure and interest. Here’s the at least cursorily neuroscientific argument that fun is not a marginal or unserious activity, but some sort of evolutionary desideratum.
And the salmagundi of anecdotes and examples makes this book rich. Johnson leaps with a cavalier glee between Habermas and Walt Disney. We meet Pierre Poivre, the original Peter Piper, who picked a peck of unpickled peppers — or, at least, smuggled cloves and nutmeg to transplant them in French colonial soil — and in so doing broke the fabulously lucrative and bloodily maintained Dutch spice monopoly. Having had most of his right arm amputated following a wound in a naval battle, he was, Johnson notes, ‘the most successful one-armed bandit in history’. We get the story of how the screen siren Hedy Lamarr teamed up with the avant-garde composer George Antheil (whose Ballet Mécanique, in its day, caused bigger riots than Stravinsky and ‘out-sacked the Sacre [du Printemps]’; also, he was an agony aunt for Esquire) — to design a guidance system for torpedoes.
We learn that Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream was ‘one of his many enduring contributions to American culture’. We share historical disappointment in off-brand panoramas (‘You are allowed to look through glasses at miserable models of places, persons and landscapes while two or three nasty people sit eating onions and oranges’). We learn, too, that nobody drank coffee for the taste in the 17th century — it was described by one enthusiast as ‘syrup of soot and the essence of old shoes’.
So even if you don’t buy the central thesis — or, rather, if the central thesis, like the illusion from an 18th-century phantasmagoria, seems so tenebrous and smoky as to resist pinning down — there is a fabulous amount here to be surprised by and interested in. It’s a book about delight that is itself delightful; and a happy reminder of the truth uttered by the late Kurt Vonnegut: ‘I tell you, we are here on earth to fart around, and don’t let anyone tell you any different.’