Book Review: Wonderland, by Steven Johnson

Dr. Mark Gatenby, Associate Professor at the Southampton Business School, gives his verdict on Steven Johnson's Wonderland.
Dr. Mark Gatenby, Associate Professor at the Southampton Business School, gives his verdict on Steven Johnson’s Wonderland.


Steven Johnson likes to take the long view. His latest book Wonderland: How play made the modern world is a long view of something we often consider to be short-term fun, inconsequential, and childish; that thing is play. This 297 page book, the latest in a series by Johnson on the history of innovative, is organised into six lengthy chapters: fashion and shopping, music, taste, illusion, games, and public space. As we have come to expect from Johnson the writing is fluid and lively, with a tone that is wise and reflective.


I should admit from the outset that some of the chapters took me off guard and needed time to settle down with. This is no bad thing, but is less common with non-fictional texts where the story has already partly been told. When you think ‘play’ you think sports, theatre, and children. You tend not to think about retail stores and fashion, or the global spice trade. This is perhaps a limitation of ‘grown-up’ public imagination than with the concept itself. These chapters add fresh perspective and new connections to episodes of human history that many know, but not in the way that Johnson tells them. There are echoes of James Burke’s (1978) Connections in the eclectic link making and the rapid zooming in and out of technological progress. A browse through the index reveals coverage of topics as wide as advertising, automata, Baghdad, baseball, caffeine, colour, gay bars, medicine, pepper, rubber, shoplifting, and slavery.


The essence of the book is that we would not have the modern world – with its material comforts and incredible diversity – without an endless playful energy guiding human life. Johnson wants to place playfulness at the heart of human history, and in particular the history of globalisation, commerce, and consumer society. In this way, the book draws on a wide range of perspectives from geography, political economy, history of science, entrepreneurship, and sociology. The book speaks to a North American audience and uses this lens on world events. Whether the Europeans or North Americans got their first is part of the geopolitical and cultural subtext. But, given the long view, why should we even care about the origin of isolated inventions? Play is less fundamentally about competition and more about discovering what if.


Johnson’s notion of play is difficult to pin down. The headline title wonderland is more embracing and evocative than the subtitle. I want to suggest that ‘adventure’, ‘exploration’ or ‘experiment’ are more appropriate terms to characterise many of the episodes, particularly in the first half of the book. ‘Play’, as generally conceived, is more familiar in the chapter on games. One question I have here is whether play is something individuals do on their own and in small groups, or if it can be part of the wider culture? Can we think of a playful city or a playful nation? I think Johnson points to individualism as an important enabling principle for playfulness because without the idiosyncrasies of improvisation and personality play becomes predictable routine and standard practice. It is important to note that Johnson frequently refers to institutions as well as biographical accounts of individuals.


On the topic of man versus machine, a wonderland of play is not the natural home of computers and robots. This is an uplifting message for human beings in a world increasingly rushing towards visions of technological determinism. Johnson even closes the book by saying:


‘perhaps we have been wrong to worry about what will happen when the machines start thinking for themselves. What we should be really worried about is what will happen when they start to play.’ (p. 262)


Another way of viewing the idea of play is as non-serious activity, and in this way is it ‘childish’. But this means it is also disobedient and free-spirited. A central tenet off the book is that play is an important method to push back on the boundaries and rules imposed on us in all spheres of life. A recurrent theme is that the most playful individuals and companies like to break ‘the rules’. A memorable section is the story about the growth of coffee houses in 17th century England. With the rise of local political movements and opposition to central authority, Charles II attempted to ban coffee houses with the “Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses”, calling them “very evil” and a poisonous distraction from “lawful calling and affairs” (p. 232). There was public uproar and the ban lasted only a week! I appear to be safe (and within my civil rights) writing this book review from a cafe right now.


This issue of ‘seriousness’ of work and life, sometimes called ‘gravitas’, is something I have thought about in recent years. It appears that in some institutional contexts an easy put-down for someone wanting to find new ways of doing things, of innovating, of thinking more freely and creatively is that they are ‘immature’, ‘green’, ‘young’, or some other reference to youth. I find the distinction between ‘childish’ and ‘childlike’ helpful in this context. The former is impetuous, vulnerable and narcissistic; the latter is restless, imaginative, and optimistic. The inconvenient truth for those wanting to stop the playful spirit, and something Johnson brings into plain relief, is that, as with human survival and the birth of children, the childlike drive is part of what human beings are. Play cannot be stopped.


For elites, play is a threatening force and something that that needs to be stopped, and this is true whether you are trying to organise a local club, a multinational company, or a nation state. If you have ever taken a formal leadership or managerial role within an organization you will know the irritating, uneasy feeling you experience when those you are attempting to control or coordinate undermine your authority with simple playfulness. What starts out as a joke, role playing, or satire soon becomes a routine, a movement, a new power structure. In this way, play is perhaps the most effective method of political resistance – infinitely more powerful than direct competition and war. This is why comedy is often feared by economic and political elites to the extent that these actors even attempt to be part of the joke or even the joker themselves (think of Boris Johnson in UK politics, no relation to the author). Play is quite simply, from a perspective of the powerful and privileged, one of the most subversive human traits in human history.


So to be human is to play, but what is at the heart of this activity? In the conclusion Johnson finds a reductionist explanation: that as pleasure seeking creatures we want to find ways of maximising the release of pleasure-forming chemicals in the brain. Dopamine, one such chemical, is associated with something called a “novelty bonus” – the reward we receive by experiencing surprise or discovery, the pull of the ‘new’. This is plausible, at least as an explanation for a non-specialist audience. From my own life experience, there does appear to be something deep and vital about the pull of the new. You find this in babies and children as well as adults. But the psychological explanation is nothing without the broad-sweeping themes of travel and discovery we find in the main six chapters. I personally most enjoyed the chapters on games and public space. I was taken by stories of early innovations in theme parts, museums and drinking places. I spent time in several cafes and pubs while reading the book. It would not have been the same to read it from my living room sofa or office. Some of the stories about toys and games, such as the invention of the board game Monopoly, were also entertaining and insightful. If you are interested in how things come into being, if you want to understand more about what guides human creativity, and you like to take the long view, this book will be a great addition to your bookshelf.


This review is based on the book and a talk about the book given by Johnson at the RSA in London, which I attended with Zak from Co-design on 15th February 2017. You can listen to a recording of the talk[1] yourself.



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