Tag: Steven Johnson

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

Are Cities More Innovative?

Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “The larger a city, the greater the variety of its manufacturing, and also the greater both the number and the proportion of its small manufacturers.”

The benefits that cities offer to smallness are just as marked in retail trade, cultural facilities and entertainment. This is because city populations are large enough to support wide ranges of variety and choices in these things. And again we find that bigness has all the advantage in smaller settlements. Towns and suburbs for instance are natural homes for huge supermarkets, and for little else in the way of groceries, for standard movie houses or drive ins for little else in the way of theatre.

There are simply not enough people to support further variety, although there may be people(too few of them) who would draw upon it were it there. Cities, however, are the natural homes of supermarkets, and standard movie houses, plus delicatessens, Viennese bakeries, foreign groceries, art movies, and so on, all of which can be found co-existing, the standard with the strange, the large with the small. Wherever lively and popular parts of the cities are found, the small much outnumber the large.

“Cities, then,” writes Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, “Cities, then, are environments that are ripe for exaptation, because they cultivate specialized skills and interests, and they create a liquid network where information can leak out of those subcultures, and influence their neighbors in surprising ways. This is one explanation for superlinear scaling in urban creativity. The cultural diversity those subcultures create is valuable not just because it makes urban life less boring. The value also lies in the unlikely migrations that happen between the different clusters.”

And Samuel Arbesman, in The Half-life of Facts, adds: “Larger groups of interacting people can maintain skills and innovations, and in turn develop new ones. A small group doesn't have the benefit of specialization and idea exchange necessary for any of this to happen.”

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Still curious? If you want a deeper understanding, read Growth in Cities.

The role of error in innovation

The British economist William Stanley Jevons in 1874:

It would be an error to suppose that the great discoverer seizes at once upon the truth, or has any unerring method of divining it. In all probability the errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one. Fertility of imagination and abundance of guesses at truth are among the first requisites of discovery; but the erroneous guesses must be many times as numerous as those that prove well founded. The weakest analogies, the most whimsical notions, the most apparently absurd theories, may pass through the teeming brain, and no record remain of more than the hundredth part.

From Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:

“The errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one.” This is not merely statistics. It is not that the pioneering thinkers are simply more productive than less “vigorous” ones, generating more ideas overall, both good and bad. Some historical studies of patent records have in fact shown that overall productivity correlates with radial breakthroughs in science and technology, that sheer quantity ultimately leads to quality. But Jevons is making a more subtle case for the role of error in innovation, because error is not simply a phrase you have to suffer through on the way to genius. Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions.

Thomas Khun makes a similar argument for the role of error in Scientific advancement.

And, of course, without error evolution would stagnate. We'd be nothing more than a perfect copy, incapable of adaptation. Luckily, however, DNA—whether in the code itself or in copying mistakes—is susceptible to error so we are always testing new combinations out. “Most of the time,” Johnson writes, “these errors lead to disastrous outcomes, or have no effect whatsoever. But every now and then, a mutation opens up a new wing of the adjacent possible. From an evolutionary perspective, it's not enough to say “to err is human.” Error is what made humans possible in the first place.”

Still curious? Susan Rosenbery found that “stress” dramatically increases the mutation rates of bacteria.

An Introduction to Creativity

Professor Sanjay Bakshi teaches MBA students “Behavioral Finance & Business Valuation (BFBV)” and “Financial Shenanigans & Governance” at MDI, Gurgaon. He was kind enough to put together a list of reference material for Farnam Street readers (books/videos) that he uses on the subject of creativity.

Creative Whack Pack (see some hand-picked examples)

An illustrated deck of 64 creative thinking strategies that will whack you out of habitual thought patterns and enable you to look at your life and actions in a fresh way. Use the cards alone or with others to seek innovative solutions to issues.

Innovative Whack Pack (see some hand-picked examples)

Each card in the deck packs a two-sided creative punch. One side has a provocative insight about innovation from Heraclitus, the world’s first creativity teacher. These 2,500 year old ideas – such as “You can’t step into the same river twice,” “Everything flows,” “That which opposes produces a benefit,” and “Dogs bark at what they don’t understand” -will give you a fresh perspective. The other side contains a creativity strategy inspired by each insight.

Books:
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

The printing press, the pencil, the flush toilet, the battery—these are all great ideas. But where do they come from? What kind of environment breeds them? What sparks the flash of brilliance? How do we generate the groundbreaking ideas that push forward our lives, our society, our culture? Steven Johnson’s answers are revelatory as he identifies the seven key patterns behind genuine innovation, and traces them across time and disciplines. From Darwin and Freud to the halls of Google and Apple, Johnson investigates the innovation hubs throughout modern time and pulls out applicable approaches and commonalities that seem to appear at moments of originality. What he finds gives us both an important new understanding of the roots of innovation and a set of useful strategies for cultivating our own creative breakthroughs.

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future

The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers-creative and holistic “right-brain” thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn't.

Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity

Linkner distills his years of experience in business and jazz — as well as hundreds of interviews with CEOs, entrepreneurs, and artists — into a 5-step process that will make creativity easy for you and your organization. The methodology is simple, backed by proven results.

I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like: A Comprehensive Compilation of History's Greatest Analogies, Metaphors, and Similes

Describing something by relating it to another thing is the essence of metaphorical thought. It is one of the oldest activities of humankind—and one of the most impressive when done skillfully. Throughout history, many masters of metaphor have crafted observations that are so spectacular they have taken up a permanent residence in our minds.

Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently

Though indispensable, true iconoclasts are few and far between. In Iconoclast, neuroscientist Gregory Berns explains why. He explores the constraints the human brain places on innovative thinking, including fear of failure, the urge to conform, and the tendency to interpret sensory information in familiar ways.

Steve Jobs

At a time when America is seeking ways to sustain its innovative edge, and when societies around the world are trying to build digital-age economies, Jobs stands as the ultimate icon of inventiveness and applied imagination. He knew that the best way to create value in the twenty-first century was to connect creativity with technology. He built a company where leaps of the imagination were combined with remarkable feats of engineering.

Einstein: His Life and Universe (by Walter Isaacson)

How did his mind work? What made him a genius? Isaacson's biography shows how his scientific imagination sprang from the rebellious nature of his personality. His fascinating story is a testament to the connection between creativity and freedom.

Presentations:

Ted talks by Hans Rosling

Stats that reshape your worldview (2006)
New insights on poverty(2007)
New facts and stunning data visuals (2009)
Let my dataset change your mindset (2009)
Asia's rise — how and when (2009)
Global population growth, box by box (2010)
The good news of the decade? (2010)
The magic washing machine (2011)
Religions and babies (2012)

Steve Jobs Presentations (some examples below)

Apple Keynote — The “1984” Ad Introduction (1983)
Stanford Commencement Speech (2005)
iPhone Presentation (2007)
iPad Presentation (2010)
Steve Jobs Presents to the Cupertino City Council (2011)

Steven Johnson's Ted Talk

People often credit their ideas to individual “Eureka!” moments. But Steven Johnson shows how history tells a different story. His fascinating tour takes us from the “liquid networks” of London's coffee houses to Charles Darwin's long, slow hunch to today's high-velocity web.

Elizabeth Gilbert's Ted talk on “A Different Way to Think About Creative Genius”

The author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses — and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us “have” a genius. It's a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.

Tim Brown's Ted talk on “The powerful link between creativity and play”

Tim Brown is the CEO of the “innovation and design” firm IDEO — taking an approach to design that digs deeper than the surface.

TEDTalks : Creativity, fulfillment and flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2004)

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi asks, “What makes a life worth living?” Noting that money cannot make us happy, he looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow.”

Ken Robinson's TED talks

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we're educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.
schools kill creativity (2006)
Bring on the learning revolution! (2010)
Changing education paradigms 2010