Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World

This celebration of fun (336 pages) was published in November of 2016 by Riverhead Books. The book takes you to delightful places around the world. David read Wonderland and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.


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How Play Made the Modern World

Steven Johnson

This book is built around an idea that will make you feel good about the world: Delight is an essential driver of historical change. Play is a key to progress. If you want to see the future, go where people are having fun.

Author Steven Johnson has written extensively on the intersection of science, technology, and personal experience. He frames this exploration of joy-fueled innovation with six categories — fashion and shopping, music, taste, illusion, games, and public space. Each chapter is rich with information about how innovations in each category developed, how they changed the world, and how they all started with people being delighted.

He explains how every clove on Earth began on a chain of islands off the coast of Indonesia — and how, in 1700 BCE, a trade network transported those cloves 6000 miles — without either maps or compasses. He takes us to Baghdad at the height of the Islamic golden age to describe the fantastic toys they made: robotic elephants and singing fountains. Then he draws a line from there to the invention of computers, which led to video games, amateur robotics, and artificial intelligence. He introduces us to a 16th-century Italian gambler and rake who figures out the fundamental laws of probability, which continue to influence insurance and airplane design today.

This book’s best gift might be how it changes the way we think about delight.

What if we lived in a world that globally recognized delight and play as a critical, significant part of life? Not just a pastime but a worthy pursuit. What if you turned on CNN and the reporter said, ‘100,000 people were delighted today when a beautifully painted zeppelin floated over Minneapolis.’

What can we do to create that world?

Roughly forty-three thousand years ago, a young cave bear died in the rolling hills on the northwest border of modern-day Slovenia. A thousand miles away, and a thousand years later, a mammoth died in the forests above the river Blau, near the southern edge of modern-day Germany. Within a few years of the mammoth’s demise, a griffon vulture also perished in the same vicinity. Five thousand years after that, a swan and another mammoth died nearby.

We know almost nothing about how these different animals met their deaths. They may have been hunted by Neanderthals or modern humans; they may have died of natural causes; they may have been killed by other predators. Like almost every creature from the Paleolithic era, the stories behind their lives (and deaths) are a mystery to us, lost to the unreconstructible past. But these different creatures — dispersed across both time and space — did share one remarkable posthumous fate. After their flesh had been consumed by carnivores or bacteria, a bone from each of their skeletons was meticulously crafted by human hands into a flute. — Steven Johnson

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