The Value of Play As a Driver of Innovation

Innovation does not always have to be the result of serious study and agonizing progress. As Steven Johnson so eloquently argues in Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, many of the activities and endeavors we have undertaken for pleasure have fueled an exceptional amount of innovation and discovery.

The story of play, of how it fits into the human experience, can teach us how to embrace the possibilities that can come of being frivolous. Initially, play might seem like an indulgence, but it can lead to some amazingly consequential developments. As Johnson writes:

History is mostly told as a long fight for the necessities, not the luxuries: the fight for freedom, equality, safety, self-governance. Yet the history of delight matters, too, because so many of these seemingly trivial discoveries ended up triggering changes in the realm of Serious History.

Play and Technological Innovation

The desire to both amuse and be amused can lead to the development of technology that has wide-ranging applications.

Johnson traces a direct line between devices described in The Book of Ingenious Devices, by three brothers known as the Banu Musa in Baghdad in 760 CE, and the programmable software that drives our computer-based culture. Play is the connection that links the inventions from ancient pictures of self-playing instruments to the relatively recent development of the internet.

Some of the devices described in the book were programmable in a very rudimentary sense. And it was this idea that contained the seeds of the future. “Conceptually, this was a massive leap forward: machines designed specifically to be open-ended in their functionality, machines controlled by code and not just by mechanics.”

These machines were designed to entertain, but for this entertainment to come alive, some significant technological advancement needed to happen. We had to develop the working parts, the engineering know-how, the language to create machines that could move on their own, and a whole host of other innovations. Johnson traces “how long the idea of a programmable machine was kept in circulation by the propulsive force of delight” until the skills and technology developed gave us such things as the typewriter, the frequency hopping technology used on navy ships, and Bitcoin.

This power of play to inspire technology that does more than entertain reminds us that there is no specific prescription for innovation. New ideas can come from a chain of thoughts and circumstances that are not obvious in terms of what they produce. Take the story of Charles Babbage, considered one of the fathers of modern computers. His mother took him to a Mechanical Museum, a place to be entertained by artistic, whimsical devices. He was taken up to the attic to see rare specimens, the most captivating of which was a mechanical dancer.

The encounter in [the] attic stokes an obsession in Babbage, a fascination with mechanical devices that convincingly emulate the subtleties of human behavior. He earns degrees in mathematics and astronomy as a young scholar, but maintains his interest in machines by studying the new factory systems that are sprouting across England’s industrial north. Almost thirty years after his visit to [the Mechanical Museum], he publishes a seminal analysis of industrial technology, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, a work that would go on to play a pivotal role in Marx’s Das Kapital two decades later. Around the same time, Babbage begins sketching plans for a calculating machine he calls the Difference Engine, an invention that will eventually lead him to the Analytical Engine several years later, now considered to be the first programmable computer ever imagined.

“Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions,” Johnson explains, “it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms.”

For most of us, play is a special time away from the ordinary tasks we undertake every day. It can open us up to possibilities because it requires an atypical engagement with our surroundings. Sometimes, this openness provides a space for innovation.

Play is a gateway to possibility.

Play and Social Innovation

Johnson also demonstrates how play led to social innovation. Certain types of recreation, like attending theater performances, seeing exhibits of the weird and wonderful, or visiting amusement parks, are play experiences that we partake in as a group. When we started doing this, it was revolutionary because those groups were made up of equals. The usual social hierarchies were temporarily suspended, as all audience members were there to have the same experience of entertainment, diversion, and wonder. It was equally thrilling for rich and poor, women and men.

This shared play experience set up new possibilities for social interaction. The ability to come together in a leisure environment with no particular agenda other than to enjoy it unleashed collaboration. “Escaping your lawful calling — and your official rank and status in society — not only created a new kind of leisure, it also created new ideas, ideas that couldn’t emerge in the more stratified gathering places of commerce or religion or domestic life.”

Take, for example, the development of the bar. “The birth of the drinking house also marked the origins of a new kind of space: a structure designed explicitly for the casual pleasures of leisure time. The tavern was not a space of work, or worship; it was not a home. It existed somewhere else on the grid of social possibility, a place you went to just for the fun of it.” Johnson argues that these spaces, these places we went to just for fun, gave birth to movements of democracy, of equality. In an interesting example, he describes how taverns were directly responsible for the colonists’ success in the American Revolution.

The pursuit of play gave us the ability to organize ourselves differently, to make connections with people we would not normally have interacted with. Not that this ability necessarily transformed each individual, but it changed our ideas of what was proper and right, gradually allowing the concept of the common space to become critical to how we design our cities and organize our societies.

A Final Musing on Play

Why is play so powerful? Johnson explains that “humans — and other organisms — evolved neural mechanisms that promote learning when they have experiences that confound their expectations. When the world surprises us with something, our brains are wired to pay attention.”

And the whole point of play is to be surprised. The unknown factor is part of what entertains us. Play is a gateway to possibility. Whether it’s through new music, a new spectacle, or a new round of a board game, play can get our senses tingling as we wonder what we will experience in the coming minutes. This is why Einstein called play the essential feature of productive thought. Seneca was also a fan of combinatorial play.

Play can transport us out of the realm of “things we already know” (the route to work, the importance of saving money and of brushing our teeth) and into the realm of “things we haven’t yet figured out.” And it is here that innovation happens.

It is in this sense of the concept that Johnson suggests that play is a gateway into the future. “So many of the wonderlands of history offered a glimpse of future developments because those were the spaces where the new found its way into everyday life: first as an escape from our ‘lawful calling and affairs’ and then as a key element in those affairs.”

Exploring play is about understanding that innovation can happen when we are driven by enjoyment. Innovation doesn’t always have to be a serious pursuit. So if you are in a creative funk, fresh out of good ideas, try playing.

Footnotes