I’ve always admired Steven Johnson’s charisma (watch his Ted Talk, you’ll be smitten). So being able to hear the man himself speak for the launch of his new book “Wonderland” was, well, wonderful. And a delightful hour of entertaining tales, from defecating ducks to AI.
Play (as trivial as it may sound) is what’s been shaping the world
The evening began with a glass of wine – fun already! – and a quote from Brian Eno: “Art is everything that you don’t have to do”. Now I love this quote. Not only because it gives an unusual and simple, albeit pretty open, definition of art, but because it shows that necessity isn’t everything. That style over substance may not be such a bad shout after all. And there’s great value to be found in the beautiful, the ludic, the superfluous.
Which was a charming segue into Johnson’s argument, pushing the story even further, that it’s our desire to entertain ourselves and experience beautiful things that’s been responsible for the greatest innovations in human history. That “play” – which he purposely labels in turn as games, delight, music, prettiness, fashion, and more – is the mother of invention.
So off we went on a one-hour journey from Paleolithic age to present-day Silicon Valley where Johnson employed his talents of storyteller to demonstrate, amongst other tales, how women’s wonder for new fabrics inspired the industrial revolution. How the automaton of the Digesting Duck – a scandalous French invention! – was the grandfather of pattern making. And perhaps the most relevant to us now, how music keyboards gave the world the idea of using all ten fingers to control some sort of automated device.
But I found particularly insightful the explanation he gave as to why play is such an engine of progress.
Play is powerful because every time we engage with it, something different can happen
It’s the dopamine that does it! Imagine you’re a caveman hearing notes from a flute made of bone for the first time – a sound that’s new, different, enjoyable and therefore worth fiddling with. Switching on a little alarm in the brain that something interesting is happening and pushing you further down the exploration alley. Surprise and delight are powerful forces indeed, and the “curiosity reward”, says Johnson, what’s been accelerating advances in AI.
So what about the future? “You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun”, suggesting that we look at the latest game crazes such as “Pokémon Go” to see how it might inspire the way people use such technology for less trivial pursuits. But Johnson also reminded us that technology isn’t the be all and end all. And as we have a tendency to talk about innovation in terms of gadgets or software, we should think of it in terms of spaces, nurturing environments where serendipity can happen.
Which made me think on the way home. The world of adland is supposed to be fun, right? And we’re lucky to have to generate ideas for a living. But in the midst of helping sell products and make businesses profitable – which we’re absolutely here to do – are we still having fun? Because if “toys and games are the preludes to serious ideas” (Charles Eames), let’s make sure we, as an industry, create a space of play in which we can engage in our hobbies, experiment and play. Let the magic happen. Wonderful.
By Caroline Baron