In these seductively erudite 300 pages, Steven Johnson makes the contrarian case for a more glass-half-full theory of ingenuity. He argues, mostly persuasively, that the major advances in technology and culture have been more often the result of our craving for distraction and for delight rather than for survival ... In some ways, this book is a compendium of all those other books that take a single product or invention – the colour purple or movable type or cinnamon – and make them the singular focus of history ... If there is a linking narrative to many of these tales it is the understanding that value is always located in rare beauty ... Play is addictive because it offers the potential for a different result each time we engage in it. In this sense it is interesting, or perhaps alarming, to note Johnson’s suggestion that the advances in AI are currently being accelerated by a 'curiosity reward,' which encourages software to explore data containing surprising results and ignore more predictable regions. Game on.
Wonderland makes a swashbuckling argument for the centrality of recreation to all of human history. The book is a house of wonders itself. Marvelous circuits of prose inductors, resistors and switches simulate ordinary history so nearly as to make readers forget the real thing ... If Wonderland inspires grins and well-what-d’ya-knows of legitimate wonder — and it does — it also liberates its audience to wantonly savor them ... This is not a book to be a stickler about; that would be like pontificating about microbrews instead of just getting drunk. But for sterner historians, it’s worth noting that our ringmaster in Wonderland plays fast and loose with his central definition ... My resistance to optimism, never formidable, dissolves by the “Wonderland” preface. But optimist-pessimist is a useful enough binary of character, and Johnson must read differently to pessimists, who might fight the intoxicating Wonderland, arguing that 'fun' is a tool of the surveillance state, petrochemical dealers or something equally sinister. No matter. Intoxication is the way of Johnson. His loyal readers will cotton to the idea — calico to it! — that the future lies in the fun, and thus that the future is fun.
Wonderland is no mere diversion. It is a rare gem: a serious (occasionally too serious) take on a seemingly frivolous subject ... This is an ambitious book. Johnson’s goal is nothing short of upending our innovation narrative. For starters, we have the sequencing wrong. Trivial pursuits don’t follow serious endeavors, they precede them and, crucially, inspire them, even if unintentionally. Play is prologue. This is not a self-evident thesis, which is why, I suspect, Johnson goes to such lengths to hammer it home. He revels in the slow reveal. At first, his historical anecdotes feel digressive. Why is Johnson prattling on about some cave bear that met its demise 43,000 years ago in what is today Slovenia? But a reader will follow a good writer anywhere, and so we follow. Usually (not always), Johnson delivers ... Our illogical, enduring fascination with play remains one of life’s great mysteries. That is precisely what makes the subject so fascinating, and Wonderland such a compelling read.