Sam Leith Sam Leith

The game of life

In his delightful Wonderland, Steven Johnson demonstrates that having fun is the key to human progress

In the introduction to his new book Steven Johnson starts out by describing the ninth-century Book of Ingenious Devices and its successor, the 13th-century Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanisms by the Arab engineer al-Jazari. Here were books of extraordinarily advanced technology. The latter contained sketches of

float valves that prefigure the design of modern toilets, flow regulators that would eventually be used in hydroelectric dams and internal combustion engines, water clocks more accurate than anything Europe would see for 400 years…

But in both books, Johnson says, ‘the overwhelming majority of the mechanisms […] are objects of amusement and mimicry’: they are toys. A point to conjure with.

Steven Johnson is an able and witty writer about the culture of technology, whose breakthrough book was the excellently titled Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. It made the case that all the things we are accustomed to think of as brain-rotting, down-dumbing emanations of modernity, such as videogames, telly and surfing the internet, are in fact the chief drivers of the so-called Flynn effect, which sees the average western IQ ticking ever upwards. Their increasing complexity is cognitively challenging, he argued, and therefore helps make — as Molesworth would put it — ‘grate branes’. It was a wonderful provocation; and, as I once heard him remark ruefully, far more people wrote op-eds about it than actually bought and read it. They were probably too busy playing computer games.

In Wonderland he advances another slickly counterintuitive hypothesis. It is that one of the most important drivers of human progress is fun, leisure, novelty, the impulse to delight: aka, mucking around. The utilitarian account of human progress, he argues, concerned chiefly with work, market efficiencies and the hierarchy of basic human needs such as shelter, food and nookie, misses several tricks.

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