The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It may look like fun but just messing around could lead to the next big thing

In his study of innovation, Steven Johnson is intrigued by the work of Victor Gruen, a European socialist and the unlikely father of the modern American mall. (Courtesy of WTTW Chicago)

Eric Weiner is the author, most recently, of “The Geography of Genius: Lessons From the World’s Most Creative Places.”

Of the many colorful characters who populate Steven Johnson's engaging new book, none is as deliciously eccentric as Jacques de Vaucanson. The 18th-century French inventor built an automaton called the Digesting Duck that, as Johnson recounts, "consumed grain, flapped its wings, and — the pièce de résistance — actually defecated after eating."

Most historians would dismiss de Vaucanson’s creation as an amusing curiosity. Not Johnson. He traces an unexpected but plausible route from the Digesting Duck to the first programmable computer.

Don’t let the defecating duck fool you. “Wonderland” is no mere diversion. It is a rare gem: a serious (occasionally too serious) take on a seemingly frivolous subject. The big idea that lies at its heart is as simple as it is unexpected: Play, in its various forms, matters, and in surprisingly productive ways. It’s not somber scientists who drive human ingenuity, nor the warrior class and its quest for a better spear. No, argues Johnson, it is the vehicle of play and its accompanying drivetrain, “the propulsive force of delight,” to which we owe a huge debt. If you want to know how we got here, look not to the research lab but to the playground — or wherever you find “people mucking around with magic, toys, games, and other seemingly idle pastimes.”

This is an ambitious book. Johnson’s goal is nothing short of upending our innovation narrative. For starters, we have the sequencing wrong. Trivial pursuits don’t follow serious endeavors, they precede them and, crucially, inspire them, even if unintentionally. Play is prologue.

This is not a self-evident thesis, which is why, I suspect, Johnson goes to such lengths to hammer it home. He revels in the slow reveal. At first, his historical anecdotes feel digressive. Why is Johnson prattling on about some cave bear that met its demise 43,000 years ago in what is today Slovenia? But a reader will follow a good writer anywhere, and so we follow.

Usually (not always), Johnson delivers. Sure enough, we discover that our ancestors crafted one of the hapless bear’s bones into a flute, one of the oldest artifacts of human ingenuity.

In Johnson's intellectual funhouse, everything is topsy-turvy. We learn, for instance, that during the Middle Ages, pepper was so prized that a pound of the spice was worth more than a pound of gold. We learn that film projected at precisely 12 frames per second marks the line between flat animation and a lifelike rendition capable of bringing tears to our eyes, as the debut of Disney's "Snow White" did in 1937. We learn that a player piano developed in part by the actress Hedy Lamarr ultimately led to the "spread spectrum" technology used in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

In Johnson’s revised history, not only does the sequencing shift, so does the cast of characters. Out is Eli Whitney and his cotton gin. In is Girolamo Cardano, a 16th-century Venetian card shark and pioneer of probability theory. Out is James Watt and his steam engine. In is Victor Gruen, a European socialist and the unlikely father of the modern American mall.

Christopher Columbus is a familiar character, but Johnson's take is anything but. On the Italian explorer's second journey to the Americas, he and his crew observed the local tribes of Hispaniola playing a game with an unusual ball, one that did something they'd never seen a ball do before: bounce. "Columbus and his crew didn't realize it at the time, but they were the first Europeans to experience the distinctive properties of the organic compound isoprene, the key ingredients of what we now call rubber," Johnson explains. It was this bouncing ball, posits Johnson, that lay the groundwork for the vulcanization process perfected by Charles Goodyear centuries later.

Our fixation on play and delight may have transformed the world, but, Johnson concedes, “it did not always transform it for the better.” The cotton and spice trades are just two examples of how one people’s amusements can be another’s anguish. On a lighter note, the opening of Le Bon Marché, the world’s first department store, in Paris in 1852 led to, among other things, the advent of shoplifting and overextended credit lines.

Throughout “Wonderland,” Johnson draws a straight line between seemingly disparate happenings, but in reality it’s never straight. Innovation is a messy, nonlinear affair, so intertwined are the ingredients that it’s virtually impossible to isolate any single one.

Thus the embedded flaw in the How-X-Made-the-Modern-World genre. X never acts alone. It’s always part of a larger ecosystem, what scientists call a complex adaptive system. And so, invariably, authors like Johnson are prone to overreach. Johnson’s assertion, for instance, that the extravagant draper’s shops of early 18th-century London “helped create the industrial revolution” is intriguing but not wholly convincing. Sure, those shops played a role, but so did the climate, the political situation and a host of other variables. In other words, it’s unclear whether the draper’s shops played a starring role or a supporting one, or merely had a cameo.

Johnson displays flashes of whimsy, describing the kaleidoscope, for instance, as the “PlayStation of the late Georgian era,” but those moments are rare. Despite its subject matter, or perhaps because of it, “Wonderland” is a sober, sturdy book. Johnson’s research is exhaustive and, at times, exhausting. A bit more levity would have helped the material go down more smoothly.

In the end, “Wonderland” is less about play than it is about playthings and the innovations they midwifed. Missing is any real sense of how play has shaped the world of ideas — our notions of democracy, free will, friendship, love and the like.

None of these shortcomings detract from what is a fascinating work of revisited history with all the narrative traction of a good mystery. The riddle is this: Why have humans devoted so much energy — and in some cases risked their lives — in pursuit of the nonessential? As Johnson points out, "no one needs the color purple." Likewise, he wonders aloud why music "appears to leap ahead of where it should logically be in the hierarchy of needs."

Johnson never fully solves the riddle, but who can blame him? It is unsolvable. Our illogical, enduring fascination with play remains one of life’s great mysteries. That is precisely what makes the subject so fascinating, and “Wonderland” such a compelling read.


How Play Made the Modern World

By Steven Johnson

Riverhead. 322 pp. $30