How Play Made the Modern World

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Steven Johnson is a gifted writer of history, with a real knack for pulling together oddball yarns from various sources, making unexpected connections, and drawing surprising conclusions. I was inspired to read his latest book by a glowing review from Virginia Postrel in Reason.

Not that I'm a Steven Johnson fanboy. The last book I read by him was back in 2005 and I was less than impressed. But this one is better.

It is wide-ranging, but the overall theme is expressed by the subtitle: a lot of what we see around us today, the technological miracles, unimaginable prosperity, and ongoing breakneck innovation, has its roots not in sober and dismal business backrooms, but in "play": people not searching for better ways to deliver the essentials of food, clothing, and shelter, but instead coming up with entertainments, luxuries, fripperies, pleasures, and general fun.

Johnson devotes a chapter to a subtopic: fashion/shopping; music; spicy food; illusion; games; and various forms of "public space" (e.g., saloons and coffeehouses). In each he relates various examples of how the craving for enjoyment, rather than more serious topics, drove innovation, trade, and breathtaking social change.

A particularly telling anecdote from chapter one tells the story of how ingenious mechanisms to simulate human movement had their origins in current-day Iraq (which, in turn, had swiped a lot of their inspriration from the inventions of Ancient Greece). A thousand years later, this resulted in mechanical dolls (close to robots), one of which is a lady who is programmed to walk across a room. Years later, the inventor takes an eight-year-old boy up to his attic for the still-functional Walker.

And that boy was Charles Babbage.

Good story, and the book is packed with them. And play-inspired events interact in unexpected ways. Example: Combine (1) the field of probability, birthed by gamblers looking to gain an edge on their opponents and (2) the coffeehouse, a wildly popular "public space" caused by the unexpected pleasures of tasty drinkable caffeine. The result: the first modern insurance company, Lloyds of London, born out of the realization that you could make a business out of betting on the likelihood of ill fortune.

Not that it's perfect, there are a lot of blind spots. Johnson talks about the drives at the dawn of modern capitalism, but doesn't mention Deirdre McCloskey. There are nods toward the concepts of cultural evolution, but I've read a lot about that recently from Matt Ridley, Kevin Laland, and Joseph Henrich; I didn't notice any citations of them in Wonderland. His discussion of how "open spaces" (fueled by booze and, often, illicit sex) could have used a nod to Thaddeus Russell. Also MIA: Virginia Postrel. There's no excuse.

Last Modified 2024-06-03 6:04 PM EDT

URLs du Jour


■ A two-verser today, because one verse cannot hold the truths expressed in Proverbs 26:18-19:

18 Like a maniac shooting
    flaming arrows of death
19 is one who deceives their neighbor
    and says, “I was only joking!”

I love the imagery, the overblown simile, and the realization that yes, they had those guys too, back in Ancient Israel.

Also reminds me of the great Venezuelan nightclub comedian Fericito:

■ Rich Lowry has a pretty good clickbait headline for his column: The Worst Word in American Politics. Spoiler: it's "rigged". And it's an excellent worst-word contender.

It is a word of grievance and conspiracy. It is a word of institutional distrust. It is a word of larger forces beyond our control taking advantage of us. It is a word that says, “We wuz robbed — and we will make the bastards pay.”

In short, it is the perfect term for a fevered era in our national life.

I can think of phrases I despise: "asking the rich to pay their fair share"; "health care is a right". But as single words, I'm not coming up with anything better than "rigged".

■ The latest kerfuffle, as reported by Reason's Robby Soave: Report: Trump Gave Russian Ambassador 'Highly Classified Information' About ISIS. Who knows?

Many will no doubt interpret this revelation as yet more evidence that Trump is at best a Russian stooge, and at worst, a willing participant in a vast conspiracy orchestrated by Moscow. An independent investigation, which Reps. Justin Amash and Eric Swalwell have called for, still seems like the best way to resolve the question. In the meantime, gross incompetence and stupidity, exacerbated by a sociopathic need to make inappropriate boasts (the best intelligence, everyone says so), still seem like the most logical explanations. One might have expected that in the wake of the Access Hollywood tapes, Trump had learned his lesson about making rash statements to random public figures, but apparently not. Or maybe the lesson he learned was that he truly can get away with anything.

Jonah Goldberg notes the denials coming from the Administration, and sugggests: Trust But Verify.

I don’t know if the Washington Post story is accurate, but I do think its entirely plausible. Put aside whether the story is properly sourced and all that. When you heard the news, did you think it could be true?

If your answer is yes, think about that for a moment. That right there is a problem.

In my case, my answer was yes.

■ For some reason, I was thinking about Sophia Wilansky this morning. If you don't remember who Sophia Wilansky is, perhaps this recent article from the left-wing Jewish site Forward will jog your memory: The Jewish Lessons We Can Learn From This Young DAPL Protestor.

On Sunday evening, May 21, The Shalom Center will honor Sophia Wilansky, an extraordinarily heroic young activist who was acting on the best of Jewish tradition and values as a Water Protector at Standing Rock when she was cruelly wounded — her left arm shattered — by the militarized police.

Right. The young lady was badly injured during pipeline protests in October 2016 when … well, something nearly blew her arm off. Her side said "something" was a concussion grenade thrown by law enforcement; the Other side said, I'm pretty sure it wasn't and speculated about propane canisters being rigged improvised as anti-cop weaponry.

Well, this is pretty easy to clear up, right? I mean, this is an era of ubiquitous video. Well, a grand jury has been convened, and Wilansky's side is curiously reluctant to come forward with any solid evidence: Dakota pipeline protester will defy grand jury to “keep his dignity”. Jazz Shaw quotes the LA Times:

Steve Martinez, 42, a pipeline protester from Williston, N.D., has been ordered to testify regarding the arm injury of Sophia Wilansky, 21, of New York, according to his attorney, Ralph Hurvitz. Protesters maintain she was injured by a grenade thrown by police, but authorities say she was hurt by a small propane tank that protesters rigged to explode…

Martinez had been scheduled to testify before the grand jury Wednesday, but Hurvitz said the matter was delayed to Feb. 1. Martinez made a statement outside the courthouse, saying he would refuse to cooperate and was prepared to go to jail if found in contempt of court.

“Losing my freedom is a small price to pay for keeping my dignity and standing up for what’s right,” he said.

Jazz Shaw is skeptical, and so am I.

■ I rarely blog about sports, and I detest the intersection of sports and politics. But I like Jason Gay of the WSJ, and he writes on a lousy sports city, asking for a "little love": Winning? Not Much in Washington, D.C.

I know: it’s hard. No matter what your politics are, it’s difficult to see the daily goings-on inside the nation’s capital as anything other than a third-rate reality show, thick with cowards, liars and ninnies. Yes: I said “ninnies.” When Washington’s ineptitude isn’t busy dimming our faith in democracy it’s ruining human civility, public dialogue, newspaper comments sections, and of course, social media, where half of everyone’s friends have been turned into insufferable, frothing polemicists. Remember the old days, when people logged onto social media to post pictures of stray dogs, beach vacations, and 1-year-olds face-planting into birthday cakes? Opening Twitter or Facebook in 2017 is like letting a colony of vampire bats into your house—vampire bats who have watched too much terrible cable news.

Jason's occasion for writing (yesterday) was the game-7 NBA conference semi-final showdown between the Washington Wizards and the Boston Celtics. It was not good for the Wizards.

Last Modified 2018-03-29 1:22 PM EDT