I went to see Steven Johnson talk about his new book, Wonderland, all about how Play has spurred innovation throughout history. It was a fascinating talk, and like all the great ideas, once explained it felt obviously true.

He shared just a few examples of the stories that appear in the book – each a twist on the received understanding of how new technology arises.

The example that I’d heard before and I assume is fairly well-known is that of ‘encoded versatility’. That machines for producing complex mathematical calculations relied (and still do) on a separation between the basic apparatus (hardware) and the actual choice of exercise you put it to work on (the software, or we could call this a ‘program’!). But that separation was invented first for a very different purpose: creating musical automata, using rotating metal barrels with protrusions or indentations, like the ones you can still buy mini ‘plinky’ versions of today.

And then, in pursuit of pretty fabric, they found a way to encode weaving patterns on punched cards, rather than repeating, rotating barrels. That technology was fundamental to a couple of decade’s worth of computing equipment.

I think this is a particularly interesting example because whilst we now see how revolutionary computers can be, clearly the early calculating engines, whilst handy in limited circumstances, were not the game changer that modern universal computers are. So to me it seems strangely easy to see why people would be interested in the playful possibilities of technological innovations ahead of their more serious applications: namely, the pay-off comes much (much!) sooner.

This in itself raises an interesting question: why should that be?

One of Johnson’s earliest examples was of bone flutes. Why, when life is a struggle to survive, having to constantly hunt and gather food, while permanently alert to being attacked by predators, would you waste time on making musical instruments? To me the answer is: give these people modern agriculture and maybe after 20 years of hard graft they might see their work pay off. Give them a flute: and gratification is instant. You don’t even need to teach them to play it for it to be immediately fun, making squeaking atonal noise!

You forget your woes and that you have no food, and are transported elsewhere. So what is the nature of this excessive delight we get from play, that has the power to take us away from other miseries?

Johnson has an elegant definition of play: controlled surprise. We know our brains are hard-wired to make us stop and notice surprises – so that we notice the lion’s growl or the difference that cooking meat makes. He sees play as capitalising on that reaction, but doing so in a low-risk environment.

A really fascinating talk, and I can’t wait to read the book!

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