Steven Johnson

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July 26, 2019 11:56 PM (CDT)
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As Simon Schaffer puts it, Merlin “prowled the borderlines of showmanship and engineering,”

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Delight is a word that is rarely invoked as a driver of historical change. History is usually imagined as a battle for survival, for power, for freedom, for wealth.

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When human beings create and share experiences designed to delight or amaze, they often end up transforming society in more dramatic ways than people focused on more utilitarian concerns.

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follows Brian Eno’s definition of culture as “all the things we don’t have to do.”) Looking at history through this lens demands a different emphasis on the past: exploring the history of shopping as a recreational pursuit instead of the history of commerce writ large; following the global path of the spice trade instead of the broader history of agriculture and food production.

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Some of the most appalling epochs of slavery and colonization began with a new taste or fabric developing a market, and unleashed a chain of brutal exploitation to satisfy that market’s demands. The quest for delight transformed the world, but it did not always transform it for the better.

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But if you are trying to figure out what’s coming next, you are often better off exploring the margins of play: the hobbies and curiosity pieces and subcultures of human beings devising new ways to have fun.

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You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.

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the mall could never be. Disney and Gruen wanted the energy and vitality and surprise of the big city, without all of the hassle. It turns out that a little bit of hassle is the price you pay for energy and vitality.

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Routing services belowground; clearing out automobiles from entire downtowns; building mixed-use dense housing in suburban regions; creating distinct mass-transit options to fit the scale of the average trip—these are all provocative ideas that have been explored separately in many communities around the world. But, to this day, no one has built a true Progress City,

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Wave forms, integer ratios, overtones—none of these concepts were available to our ancestors in the Upper Paleolithic. And yet, for some bizarre reason, they went to great lengths to build tools that could conjure these mathematical patterns out of the simple act of exhaling.

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Since tones generated by that first bone flute resonated in our ears, we’ve been chasing new sounds, new timbres, new harmonies. And that pursuit led to countless technological breakthroughs

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That exploratory, expansive drive is what separates delight from demand: when we are in play mode, we are open to new surprises, while our base appetites focus the mind on the urgent needs of staying alive. Understanding that distinction is critical to understanding why play—despite its seemingly frivolous veneer—has led to so many important discoveries and innovations. The question of why the Homo sapiens brain possesses this strange hankering for play and surprise is a fascinating one, and I will return to it in the final pages of this book. But for now, we need to establish just how far those playful explorations took us.

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The water clocks the Banu Musa built were automated. But their “instrument” was endowed with a higher-level property. It was programmable. Conceptually, this was a massive leap forward: machines designed specifically to be open-ended in their functionality, machines controlled by code and not just mechanics.

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Babbage borrowed a tool designed to weave colorful patterns of fabric, which was itself borrowed from a tool for generating patterns of musical notes, and put it to work doing a new kind of labor: mechanical calculation.

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When his collaborator Ada Lovelace famously observed that Babbage’s analytical engine could be used not just for math but potentially for “composing elaborate . . . pieces of music,” she was, knowingly or not, bringing Babbage’s machine back to its roots, back to the “Instrument Which Plays by Itself” and Vaucanson’s flute player.

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Fittingly, punch cards were replaced as input devices by keyboards, and as storage devices by magnetic tape: both technologies, as we will see, that were originally designed to play or record music.

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successors. But when you step back and look at the history from a wider angle—from the Banu Musa through the music-box curios to Vaucanson and his flute—you can’t help noticing how long the idea of a programmable machine was kept in circulation by the propulsive force of delight, and not industrial ambition: first the patterns of sounds, produced by instruments that play themselves, then the patterns of color on a cloth.

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The entrepreneurs and industrialists may have turned the idea of programmability into big business, but it was the artists and the illusionists who brought the idea into the world in the first place.

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But by the time the Remington No. 1 hit the market in the 1870s, the musical roots of the typewriter had been washed away, lingering only in the word keyboard itself. The typewriter keyboard was poised to reinvent the way humans communicate. But the idea for this now indispensable tool began in song.

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The very first long-distance wireless networks were the “talking drums” of West Africa, percussive instruments that were tuned to mimic the pitch contours of African languages. Complex messages warning of impending invasions, or sharing news and gossip about deaths or marriage ceremonies, could be conveyed at close to the speed of sound across dozens of miles, through relays of drummers situated in each village.

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Inventions are almost never solitary, isolated creatures; they depend on other inventions that complete them, or endow them with new applications that their original inventors never considered. The phonograph on its own was a true breakthrough, capturing the actual analog wave forms of music and human speech for the first time. But it required another, parallel technology to reach mainstream success. A pianola was at its core an actual piano, with hammers hitting actual strings; it generated sound loud enough to fill a clamorous parlor or saloon. But the phonograph was amplified only by the passage of the sound waves through a flaring horn. You had to lean in to hear it, and in a room with any sort of ambient noise, the sound was effectively inaudible. The phonograph was far more versatile than the pianola; you could hear singers, brass bands, orchestras, or poetry. It just wasn’t loud enough. It needed amplification, which arrived via two related inventions: metered electric currents and vacuum tubes. The second you could plug in the phonograph, the pianola’s days were numbered.

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After dining together several times in the fall of 1940, Lamarr and Antheil began working on the frequency-hopping project as a team. It may well have been the most bizarre partnership in the history of invention: the movie star and the experimental composer/advice columnist, working late into the night in the Hollywood Hills, brainstorming cutting-edge ideas for naval communications protocols.

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playing the organlike parts on “Here Comes the Sun.”) But as with any paradigm shift worth the title, brilliant mistakes or generative dead ends propelled the change almost as forcefully as the success stories.

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By the 1950s, she had built up enough political capital inside the BBC to successfully argue for the creation of the BBC Radiophonics Workshop, an influential sound-effects lab that endured for forty years.

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There were hundreds of provocative electronic instruments under development during the sixties, many of which produced more direct descendants than Oram’s machine. But none of those devices have the striking family resemblance that modern software tools share with the Oramics machine. The physical medium Oram devised was obsolete almost as soon as it was invented. But the interface she devised belonged to the future.

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particularly with technology that involves some kind of code. Yes, the Department of Defense helped build the Internet. But the pinned cylinders of the music boxes gave us software. When it comes to generating new tools for sharing and processing information, the instruments of destruction have nothing on the instruments of song.

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Ternate, Tidore, Moti, Makian, and Bacan—have long been known by another name: the Spice Islands. Until the late 1700s, every single clove consumed anywhere in the world began its life in the volcanic soil of those five islands.

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The geography of Islam in the twenty-first century is, in effect, the afterimage of a much earlier map: places where Muslims turned a profit introducing delightful new flavors to the taste buds of consumers.

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The Dutch East India Company—the very first corporation to issue publicly traded stock—was founded to exploit the immense profitability of the spice trade. Modern economists estimate that the Dutch markup on nutmeg and clove was as much as 2,000 percent.

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history of the spice trade rival the Dutch domination of the Spice Islands that began in the early 1600s. When the Bandanese population had the audacity to challenge the suggestion that a handful of Europeans should have exclusive rights to the islands’ bounty, the Europeans went into a fury of mercantilist genocide that was breathtaking in its speed and efficiency. In what the historian Vincent Loth called “one of the blackest pages in the history of Dutch overseas expansion,” the Dutch, led by Governor-General Jan Pieterszoon Coen, managed to kill thirteen thousand Bandanese natives of the island Lonthor in a few weeks of organized savagery. Coen brought in Japanese mercenaries to assassinate the Bandanese elite, forty of whom were decapitated, their heads displayed on spikes to stifle further dissent. In a matter of decades, the indigenous population of the Bandas had vanished from the islands, most of them murdered. In their place, the Dutch imported slaves and convicts to work the plantations, creating vast riches for the Dutch East India Company. Whatever your opinion of the modern multinational corporation may be, it is an undeniable fact that the institution’s early roots were nourished by the blood of human beings, first in the Spice Islands and then in the slave plantations of the Caribbean, the American South, and other tropical locales that happened to be cursed with good soil, regular rains, and abundant sunshine.

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The newfound geographic diversity of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper—and the increasingly efficient means of harvesting them—soon demoted spices from luxury item to commodity.

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But perhaps the most extraordinary passage comes when she attempts to integrate the global reach of the spice trade into a broader story of Divine Purpose: God, she explained, saw fit to distribute the “good things of his creation . . . into the most remote places of the universal world . . . he having so ordained that the one land may have need of the other; and thereby, not only breed intercourse and exchange of their merchandise and fruits, which do so superabound in some countries and want in others, but also engender love and friendship between all men, a thing naturally divine.” Knowing the grim history that was to follow—almost four hundred years of colonial exploitation and slavery in pursuit of those “good things”—it is hard not to be cynical, if not outright appalled, by the talk of “love and friendship between all men.”

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“At all times, curiosity was a great leveler,” the historian Richard Altick writes in his magisterial work, The Shows of London.

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The process happened faster than it did in the days of West End illusion, but the underlying pattern was the same: early experiments, followed by explosive diversity, followed by radical consolidation.

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But cinema was not a classic Clayton Christensen–style disruption where an inferior but cheap new product wipes out a more fully featured but expensive rival.

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But, starting in the 1910s, directors like D. W. Griffith began tinkering with the close-up, a technique that brought the spectator into a kind of intimate relationship with the actors that no stage production could achieve. That was the moment when cinema left the world of amusement and became art.

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Those weeping spectators at the Snow White premiere signaled a fundamental change in the relationship between human beings and the illusions concocted to amuse them. Complexity theorists have a term for this kind of change in physical systems: phase transitions.

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Twelve frames per second is the perceptual equivalent of the boundary between gas and liquid. When we crossed that boundary, something fundamentally different emerged: still images came to life.

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There may well be a comparable threshold in simulated emotion—via robotics or digital animation—that makes it near impossible for humans not to form emotional bonds with a simulated being.

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The experimental tinkering of games—a parallel universe where rules and conventions are constantly being reinvented—creates a new supply of metaphors that can then be mapped onto more serious matters. (Think how reliant everyday speech is on metaphors generated from games: we “raise the stakes”; we “advance the ball”; we worry about “wild cards”; and so on.) Every now and then, one of those metaphors turns out to be uniquely suited to a new situation that requires a new conceptual framework, a new way of imagining.

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Magie had created the primordial Monopoly, a pastime that would eventually be packaged into the most lucrative board game of the modern era, though Magie’s role in its invention would be almost entirely written out of the historical record. Ironically, the game that became an emblem of sporty capitalist competition was originally designed as a critique of unfettered market economics.

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Both the game itself—and the story of its origins—had entirely inverted the original progressive agenda of Lizzie Magie’s landlord game. A lesson in the abuses of capitalist ambition had been transformed into a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit, its collectively authored rules reimagined as the work of a lone genius.

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if you were an aspiring futurologist in Cessolis’s day and you were looking for clues about the future of invention and commerce—perhaps even a future where virtual encyclopedias would be written and edited by millions of people around the world—a good place to start would be by studying the games people were playing for fun, and the evolution of the rules that governed those games.

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But long before Goodyear’s investigation, the Mesoamericans took the opposite path, driven not by industrial ambition but rather by delight and wonder.

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“Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death

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Eventually, between the juggling sessions and the unicycle tightrope rides, Shannon and Thorp designed a computer with twelve transistors that could be concealed in a box the size of a deck of cards. Instead of using cameras to track the ball’s motion, they designed special input mechanisms in their shoes; using their toes to activate microswitches that marked the beginning and end of the ball’s initial rotation around the wheel. Based on that assessment of the ball’s velocity, the microcomputer calculated the most likely landing spot, conveying the information with one of eight musical tones, corresponding to eight sectors of the roulette wheel. The mix of technology Thorp and Shannon assembled to crack the roulette game had not only never been seen before, it had barely been imagined.

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In Turing’s words, “A computer would deserve to be called intelligent if it could deceive a human into believing that it was human.” The deception of the Turing Test had nothing to do with physical appearances; the classic Turing Test scenario involves a human sitting at a keyboard, engaged in a text-based conversation with an unknown entity who may or may not be a machine.

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possess. Why were games so important to the history of computing? I suspect the answer is partially that games offer a clearly defined yardstick or score by which progress can be measured.

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For people who have been brought up and always lived in a Christian country, and also called themselves Christians, to be guilty not only of making Negro slaves their equals, but even their superiors, by waiting upon, keeping with, and entertaining

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If you wanted to see where race relations were headed, you had to go to a bar.

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It wasn’t enough to build a global network of roads, all leading to Rome; the Romans had to create a system whereby travelers could make it to the ends of the empire and back without relying on the kindness of local strangers, or sleeping in a field or forest.

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determinate factor in the way the events unfolded. Change that one variable, and the buildup to the War of Independence has to, at the very least, unfold along a different path, since so much of the debate and communication relied on the semipublic exchange of the tavern: a space where seditious thoughts could be shared, but also kept secret.

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but what made the drinking house so transformative had nothing to do with the contraptions it employed. The innovation, instead, was more social and physical: the idea of a space that was both open to the public but also closed off from the street, where one could comfortably alter one’s mental state for a few hours.

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A space originally intended for play and leisure became, improbably enough, a hotbed of dangerous new ideas.

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For Habermas, the public sphere was not simply architectural; it was also facilitated by new developments in media, particularly the rise of pamphleteering that was so central to Enlightenment discourse.

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His Majesty hath thought it fit and necessary that the said coffee houses be (for the future) put down and suppressed . . .

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Charles withdrew his proclamation only a week after proclaiming

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More than any other physical environment, the coffeehouse would nurture and inspire the commercial, artistic, and literary flowering of the British Enlightenment.

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But the cultural impact of the coffeehouses did not exclusively rely on their catering to specific niches. Many, like the London Coffeehouse, where Ben Franklin and Joseph Priestley held court in the 1760s, were intensely multidisciplinary in their interests, lacking the specialized focus of a corporate headquarters or a university department. They were spaces where intellectual networks converged.

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The inherent democracy of the coffeehouse was an achievement on its own, one that would play a role in political democratization over the course of the next century. But it also led to a staggering number of innovations: the first public museums, insurance corporations, formal stock exchanges, weekly magazines—all have roots in the generative soil of the coffeehouse.

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In the 1850s, a British showman and mountain climber named Albert Smith created a moving panorama that documented his own alpine conquests. Smith built a simulated Swiss chalet inside London’s Egyptian Theater, where rapt audiences watched the panorama unfurl as Smith narrated his exploits. The show—titled Albert Smith’s Ascent of Mont Blanc—played more than two thousand times to sold-out crowds during the 1850s.

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Inevitably, as more people fell in love with untouched wilderness, a growing chorus began to argue for preserving these spaces indefinitely. In April of 1872, an act of Congress declared a block of land in the territories of Wyoming and Montana “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” the first national park in human history. Today, Yellowstone National Park attracts more than three million visitors a year, and 1,200 national parks of comparable scale have been established in more than a hundred countries around the world.

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focus on the innovations or historical sea changes they helped bring about: public museums, the age of exploration, the rubber industry, stock markets, programmable computers, the industrial revolution, robots, the public sphere, global trade, probability-based insurance policies, the American Revolution, clinical drug trials, the LGBT rights movement, celebrity culture. Think, too, of all the tragic consequences that descend from our endless quest for delight: slavery and exploitation and conquest. The sheer magnitude of this influence is remarkable. How odd it is that slacking off on one’s “lawful calling and affairs” would set off so many commercial and scientific aftershocks. The pleasure of play is understandable. The productivity

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The surge of dopamine that accompanies a novel event sends out a kind of internal alarm in your mind that says: Pay attention. Something interesting is happening here. Bone flutes, coffee, pepper, the Panorama, calico, Babbage’s dancer, dice games, the Bon Marché—beneath all the surface differences between these objects, one common characteristic unites them all: they were surprising when they first appeared.

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The drive for novelty puts us into unexpected situations, or exposes us to new materials: taverns and coffeehouses, rubber balls and magic lanterns. Once exposed, we end up using those spaces and those devices as platforms for the ideas and revolutions of traditional history. Toys and games, as Charles Eames said, are the prelude to serious ideas.