Steven Johnson’s Wonderful World

Author Shows the Connection Between Play and History

The summer of 2016 will forever be remembered for Pokémon-Go, the mobile game app that exploded onto the global scene and then flamed out as quickly as it ignited. However, according to author and innovative thinker Steven Johnson, “Pokemania” likely has more long-term ramifications than its three-months of popularity would suggest. “The chains of effects are almost impossible to predict,” said Johnson in a recent interview with The Independent. “But if you’re looking for what people are going to do next, look at what people are doing for fun — [like last] summer with Pokémon-Go. In 20 years, if we’re all walking around with augmented reality, staring at the world with digital information overlaid around that universe, we’ll look back and say, “Yes, this started with kids running through the streets trying to capture imaginary monsters.”

In his latest book, Wonderland, How Play Made the Modern World, Johnson explores this concept through six topics — fashion and shopping, music, taste, illusion, games, and public spaces — past times initially created to satisfy leisure desires that became the seeds of some of the most tremendous advancements in the world. For example, in the Fashion and Shopping chapter, he makes an excellent argument that the soft fabrics desired by the English in the 17th century ultimately led to the Industrial Revolution. I recently spoke over the phone with Johnson about how our pursuit of pleasure has shaped the history of the world.

I recently read your new book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World. I found it riveting. Oh, good. You know, it hasn’t even come out yet, so you’re like the fourth person I’ve talked to who wasn’t involved in the production of it. [Laughs] So that’s good to hear. I’m glad you liked it.

It’s so interesting the threads that you follow. With fashion, for example — where it starts and where it ends up. How did you come to these conclusions? A lot of my books have had this tendency to take [a far], you think you’re starting in 15th century Italy and end in whatever. So it’s a little bit of an old trick of mine. But what I’m psyched about in Wonderland is that kind of balance between continuing on this crazy journey across time and space, but also building a macro-argument that is unified. So hopefully, if it works, you’re jumping around a lot but it’s all in the service of this kind of larger point that’s always kind of lurking in the background. And that’s the thing I’m happiest about in this book.

It achieves that. As a research and writing process, [I had] all the chapters just from my general knowledge or other research I’ve done in the past. I had like one or two little nuggets of a story that I knew could be one of the anchors to each of the chapters. I mention this in the acknowledgements, the story in shopping and fashion about [Emile Zola and the Paris department stores]. I had studied that in grad school 24 years ago, my old mentor…taught this class on the 19th century novel. We talked about Zola and then he brought up this crazy story and it was just stuck in the back of my head for 24 years. [Laughs] And then when I was thinking about writing a chapter about fashion/shopping, that was the first story on the top of my head. So then I thought “How do I get to there” and “Where do I take off from there?” I sort of backed into the department store, but then thought, “Wait, what really came before the department store?” And then I got that whole riff about the English, London, early shops, and then that became kind of the centerpiece, and then I thought, this is what set the industrial revolution off. Each chapter was like that — I had something, some little foothold that I knew already, and then it was the detective work of just following the links off in different directions, which you know, is incredibly fun to do.

Were you surprised by where they took you? Oh, all the time. It is like detective work in the sense that [you might] think there’s something really interesting here, and then you spend five days digging and dinking around and then you finally realize “Nope!” [Laughs] Or maybe the link is just a little too far-fetched. There are a couple points [in the book] where the threads converge. In the coffee house section, where they’re inventing the insurance business in Lloyd’s Coffee House, and they’re basing it on the laws of probability, that [Gerolamo] Cardano had come up with, gambling, in the Games chapter. And they’re using it in part to insure the ships that are taking the calico and chintz cloth …[laughs] and it’s like all [the chapters] just kind of converging in one great coffee house.

How did you pick the six chapters? Did you have more that you left out? I had four right out of the gate. Initially I thought it’d be fun to write about play and leisure.…So once I started thinking about this play theme, I was like okay…I’m gonna write that chapter on illusion. Then I had already written a bunch about coffee houses, and then I had the department store stories…So I had four key ones and then the question was what else was I going to do….I always wanted to write about music…I handed [the book] in without the music chapter then I was like, “Wait, there’s one more chapter.” And briefly I liked the chapter so much I thought it should go in the beginning of the book and then I was like, “No.” [Laughs] I’ll put it second.

Why did you decide to not put it first? Because the introduction is very mechanical, it’s all about automatons and engineering stuff. And the music chapter actually has quite a bit of that too because you get into the instrument that plays itself, and the typewriter…So all that stuff about the physics of sound in the beginning, I just felt that it was too engineering and physics for a chapter and a half to be in that mode. I thought that if we go into shopping and fashion at the outset, it’ll be, “Oh, we did some robots and now we’re talking about the color purple,” and that’ll shake things up a little bit.

So how did you, with these nuggets of stories, come up with the connection of play? Well, there’s definitely a kind of blurring of some categories that you have to accept. When people are actually playing games, that fits in a clear definition of “play,” and when people are sitting chatting in a coffee house, that’s kind of a different thing than when people are shopping for fun…It’s useful, I think, to broaden the definition enough to incorporate all these things. We have similar broad definitions of things we think of as driving historical change. People want power in lots of different ways. And we think of the quest for affluence or security or whatever. Those are big categories that contain a lot of other sub-categories that are part of the traditional story of history works and how change happens in society. To me, it was worthwhile to do an equivalent kind of blending together of some slightly different things but putting them under the umbrella of “things we don’t have to do.” That we do for fun, for different reasons, because it’s such a part of our story.

I’m working on this adaptation of putting the Spice chapter and the Fashion chapter together, because so much of it is really the story of globalization, right? And in the context of the election, in a weird way, the forces that brought the world together were in many cases initially the allure of delight and wonder and this new taste and this new lovely fabric. And now, they are both part of what it means to be human and what it means to be delighted by things and a lovely part of who we are. At the same time, these desires have triggered all these changes that fill people with anxiety. Bringing the world together but also bringing the world into competition with itself in all sorts of new ways, and we’re still living in the kind of turmoil of all that.

You can make the argument that cotton for at least two centuries was the worst thing that had ever happened … particularly when you think about human slavery. And yet at the same time there’s something wonderful that we enjoy things … It’s not just about “It’s great to have lovely fabric,” but it’s great to encounter things that were created by people living on the other side of the world, and grow to love those things. And the hardest thing is to keep in your head is that both those things are true — that the complexity and the turmoil and the displacement and the exploitation and the wonder and connection and delight are all true at the same time.

I think what the book does so wonderfully is capture how complex and nuanced people’s decision making is. In hindsight, of course, you can see how this little decision or esthetic desire puts history on its course. The chains of effects are almost impossible to predict, in some cases. But if you’re looking for what people are going to do next, look at what people are doing for fun. It was that sort of thing all summer with Pokémon-Go. In 20 years from now, if we’re all walking around with augmented reality, staring at the world with digital information overlaid around that universe, we’ll look back and say, “Yes, this started with kids running through the streets trying to capture imaginary monsters.” That was the first time this was mainstreamed. It started with a game, and people just did it for no other reason other than that it was fun. And it turned out that increasingly it became a mainstream serious activity. And that’s the way new ideas often come.

What’s your lecture going to be about? There are 50 distinct stories that I could tell, in this book, I would think. And so the question is, which ones are the best ones to try and share with an audience? Which ones can convey that macro-argument effectively, also illuminating something or entertaining in some kind of interesting way. What happens is [I] kind of consolidate around 10 different stories that [I] can do on the fly, and then forget the other 40. [Laughs]

You’ve written so many books. Wasn’t your last one only in 2014? Here’s the crazy bit — I actually just handed in the first draft of the next one like three weeks ago. This last year, I wrote two books in 21 months. Which is not normal for me, that was an unusual stretch. But I’d been under contract for this book that I just finished for seven years and I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, so once I finished Wonderland, I just jumped into this other one to get it done. So, yeah, it has been kinda crazy.…I really like to write so I’m just kind of happiest when I’m writing, and I’ve built up a kind of system that just enables me to kind of plug away and just get stuff done. But I almost never write anything for magazines…I’m optimized for books. [Laughs]

411: Steven Johnson will present stories from his new book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World Tuesday, November 29, 7:30 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or see


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