Video Of The Week: How Play Made the Modern World

I got to spend a fair bit of time with my friend Steven Johnson this past week, in preparation for our crypto talk on Thursday night and before and after that talk.

Steven has this wonderful quality of being able to observe both history and the present and make connections between the two and also to weave those observations into narratives that make for great stories.

A persistent theme in his work is the role of play in the advancement of society. He argued in Everything Bad Is Good For You that playing video games and watching TV are actually educational and productive uses of our time. And in Wonderland, he argued that play led to many important societal advances.

This talk at RSA, delivered in the wake of Wonderland, is a great articulation of the value of having fun to moving society forward.

I enjoyed it very much and I hope you do too.

#VC & Technology

Comments (Archived):

  1. Ben Giordano

    Great, thank you. The power of imagination can’t be engineered and does its work when we do not consciously know what is happening.

  2. sigmaalgebra

    REALLY cute white rabbit!!!!!Sorry, guy, play did not “make the modern world”. Instead, as the modern world was made, there was also some water, food, clothing, shelter, bread, milk, cream, butter, cheese, brass, iron, steel, steam, electricity, …, and play.Or, instead of play, there were much more important causes of the changes that became “the modern world”:E.g., are hungry and want to eat. Well the Little Red Hen has hot, fragrant loaves of bread just out of the oven, so line up and pay up.But the hen needed flour. So, some people grew some wheat and ended up with grains that needed to be “milled” into flour.So, get a big, stone wheel and roll it on the grains and make flour. But need to power the wheel. When give up on doing that yourself and delegate it to women, children, slaves, whatever, look for something better.So, try power from horses. GREAT, horses are much stronger than humans!Then look for something better and notice, right, could locate next to a stream, build a dam, have a head of water, and let the water flow over a wheel, a “water wheel”. GREAT! “Look, Ma, no human labor, no horses, just falling water!!”But what to do away from a stream? Okay, burn wood or coal, heat water, make steam, have the steam under pressure, and drive a steam engine!!!! “Look, Ma, no stream needed. Can mill wheat anywhere can get some wood or coal to burn!!!”.Then discover that it’s much nicer just to have an electric motor power the milling, get the electric power from someone else, let them worry about the coal and steam engine, giant dam, Diesel engine, gas turbine engine, nuclear fission water heater, etc.So, here is an explanation in terms of some serious utility, not just play or other trivialities.But, yes, as a child, I did a lot with play: The main goal was to make some things, really as part of a drive to get some security from having more adult-like competence and control of what affected me. So, I went for hours and hours with high concentration working with wood, metal, wheels, chains, old lawn mower engines, chemicals, mathematics, etc. E.g., the high school course in plane geometry was great play for me, good far beyond anything about the course intended by the teacher. So, for the subject, I just ignored the teacher, slept in her class, then dug into the book, ignored nearly all the exercises in the section of the book for that day (they were too easy), went to the challenging supplementary exercises in the back of the book, and with great joy solved them ALL. They were like eating caramel popcorn and plenty easy enough except for one — it took a weekend. It was all play for me!!! But the real driver was seeking competence, control.Yes, IIRC there was a coffee house involved in some work of mathematicians Ulam, Kuratowski, Banach, etc. back in Poland, but of course no way did the coffee or the coffee house play a significant role in Ulam’s “tightness” in measure theory, Kuratowski’s point set topology, or Banach’s complete, normed linear spaces. E.g., when I worked with those topics, I had no coffee and was far from a coffee house! I used Ulam’s tightness to show that some multi-dimensional, distribution-free statistical hypothesis tests were not trivial tests and used the Hahn-Banach result to give a proof of a quite general version of the Neyman-Pearson result in statistics. Point set topology was a nice victory: As a ugrad, I got a famous, challenging text, studied it with some high effort, and gave a lecture a week to a prof. No coffee involved!Sadly, Steven Johnson is letting his emotions go wild, chasing butterflies and moonbeams, straining over gnats and ignoring elephants.Uh, for the question from the audience about toys for boys being different from toys for girls, one of the most important role for toys and play is growing into the security of adult competence. Well, early on boys know that they are small versions of daddy, and girls, mommy. So, for girls, part of that adult competence is being like the girl’s mother. So, toys for girls commonly emphasize being a mommy, that is, motherhood, child care. Boys want to be like daddy and see that daddy is not a mommy, not a mother, doesn’t get pregnant and bear children. More generally, right from the crib, the girls are interested in people and the boys, things. So, the adult roles are different; the interests of the boys and girls are different; the toys for boys and girls are different.Sure, some girl can try to be a lot like the boys, get more interested in things, less interested in people, and less interested in motherhood. Then, with Mother Nature and Darwin watching, she will likely be a weak, sick, or dead limb on the tree and have her genes removed from the gene pool; then future generations will get fewer questions about why toys for boys and girls are different.

  3. LE

    Did anyone ever doubt that play has an upside?Sorry I stopped at 15 minutes of the very entertaining video. Yes Stephen is a gifted writer and storyteller. And yes he writes entertaining books. And he is a very engaging speaker. I wish I could do that. But it’s way to easy and very simplistic to try and reverse engineer a positive benefit by going back in history books and finding (cherry picking) appealing arguments to support some thesis. [1] I get it. The idea is to sell books. And if I could do this (and earn a living) I’d do that as well. (Sentences 1-4 are my way of showing respect as is the sentence preceding this..)That said this NY Times review (I will definitely pick from the NY Times (which I read btw) when it supports my position) pretty much sums things up:…So to repeat: Did anyone ever doubt that play has an upside? I didn’t. I am making a living now because I played on computers, played with photography, played with RC Model Helicopters (among other things). [2] I played (as others did) taking apart mechanical objects. So what is the big discovery here exactly? (Once again hats off for being able to write a book and earning a living about this topic). Never forget when my mom walked into the bedroom and said ‘you’re playing’ when I was banging away at the teletype.[1] The issue is never just the upside it’s the downside that has to be considered. For example there are tremendous upsides of war and what comes out of that. Look at what we have because of battles with both Germany and the Soviet Union? But there are also plenty of downside. Right? And with play it’s the same thing as vices. In moderation everything is cool. The problem becomes when it’s not in moderation. Or when downside is not factored in. And many fun and appealing things for a portion of the population become detrimental to others without will power and self control. (Gambling, drugs, video games, play, alcohol). Or to third parties.[2] Surprise surprise for a young guy even learning how to hide the Playboy’s from your parents has benefits in terms of growing as a person.

    1. PhilipSugar

      I think one of the points is that it is not just all about the numbers. (This coming from a business and engineering person) I have said this a ton. I really do like his stories. He is a good story teller, I love telling stories. He loses me on the political side, but well I can listen to different points of view.You know who uses the numbers the worst???? Doctors. I have a friend whose business is to simply tell people what is on the drug labels when they decide to take a drug. Lipitor? No proof that it reduces the chance of a heart attack, but proof it causes impotence, and a reduction in cognitive thinking……..mmmm

      1. LE

        I really do like his stories. He is a good story tellerI agree he is fun to listen to. But that’s entertainment to me and there are many things that I can do entertainment wise. Same critique of the nightly news. More info-tainment than actual news. Also I question info that is presented whereby you get sucked in and it’s not even possible to vet the finer points of what you are ‘learning’. It like a motivational speech. Nothing is ever that simple with history period. People can’t even agree on the President in current times or the last one. Who knows what the truth is.Doctors believe what is told to them. It’s baked into them by both the type of person that becomes a doctor (generally) as well as their training. For example a doctor will take a third party statement about something much more seriously than a guy running a pizza shop. A doctor will apply and infer the same seriousness because that is the way they have been trained. When the roofer visits the doctor to sell him a roof different than visiting the pizza guy (where pizza guy is a place holder for someone who isn’t a doctor but not like a doctor could be local widget maker..)Same with some computer types. I am in a discussion with my computer guy about GDPR. In their brain it’s a way bigger threat than in my brain (for what I do). They are more numbers and I am more nuance. My nuance is based on many years of actually operating and dodging risks. And being a small fish. Not to say I can’t make a mistake but there is a reason for the way I think like I do and the computer guy thinks like he does. Computer guy is more like ‘oh if you go 58 in a 55 zone you will get a ticket!!’. Possible but not highly likely.

        1. PhilipSugar

          This you see with a ton of people that are used to playing by the rules.It is what makes many startups successful.Poster child: PayPal. You can’t do that! In all caps!!! Yup.Uber: Yup.Airbnb: Yup.If any was a part of a big corporation with attorney’s???? Nope.

  4. Vendita Auto

    Not for me, come over as another consultant flogging books on echo chamber conference rounds “having fun to moving society forward” most people I know are busy working long hours making ends meet.Might I add my personal recommendation re fun moving society forward. I just finished reading “Deaths End” part of the Cixin Liu trilogy “Three Body Problem” Never thought I would go back to sci-fi after Asimov left the table, Cixin Liu is on par with the best literary hackers…………. try reading it beats the hell out of wonderland in terms of inclusive fairy stories…….truly

  5. jason wright

    “Everything bad is good for you.”Um, well, too much of a good thing can be bad, but *everything* bad is good is counter intuitive and not correct in my experience. I see friends who have overexposed themselves to bad and the outcome has been…bad.Things that are hard can be good for you. They can also be bad. There’s no neat and tidy narrative or maxim here. I sense that the medium is the message in this message.

  6. Guy Lepage

    Great talk. It’s funny.. At art school and as I was mentored as an art director. Play is the number one thing to stimulate creativity. When I visit tech companies offices I seldom witness what I would call “true” play as taught from my creative learnings.Ad agencies are the best at attracting the most talented creatives hands down. This is a result of their culture and freedom in such a high stress environment. Play is the number one item that makes or breaks an agency. Without the best creative minds in the world you won’t be able to attract clients let alone keep them. Large businesses pay a premium to access these creative minds.I’ve seen agencies do all sorts of things to attract creatives… Offer them what ever they want. You enjoy cars, here’s a Porsche. You enjoy kickboxing, here’s an office 3x the size of others so you may kickbox in your office. You enjoy socializing at the pub, here’s a bottomless beer fridge, etc…I’ve often wondered what you’d get if you amalgamated the hard rigidity of a tech engineering office with that of the lose playful environment of an ad agency. Would be pretty special to see.

    1. PhilipSugar

      I don’t know. We have all tech people. They built a game room without my permission. 174 arcade games from the 1970’s and 1980’s (many were not born then) Some of our best meetings happen there Friday afternoon’s. Atmosphere results from culture. Culture does not result from atmosphere.I have found many people at ad agencies are prima donnas who plain and simple do not get shit done, and treat technical people like bus-boys for lack of better term. They go up and down very quickly, because quickly good technical people are not willing to put up with their shit.

      1. Guy Lepage

        Hm.. Which ad agency does not get shit done? I definitely would like to know because I have sat down with at least 25 of the top agencies and it’s a well known theme about how tough it is for the creatives (creative directors, art directors, copywriters). If you make just one mistake you are usually fired. And since reputation is everything and everyone knows everyone else in the industry it’s extremely difficult to find work in that city you were fired from after.To me, what you’re discribing does not sound like a top 50 ad agency but a small shop that probably does not get it. Maybe I should have been more clear. I was talking more about the top 100 large ad agency firms.

        1. PhilipSugar

          Ummmm WPP Billings down 4% reported profit down 7%…..I guess they are not that big.

          1. Guy Lepage

            Sorry. My bad again. I meant traditional agencies. WPP is a newer digital agency. I sold a business to them. They definitely do not do things the same way as a traditional agency. They do not care about hiring the best Sorels just wanted to eat everything up as fast as possible. Did not care about the work.

          2. PhilipSugar

            This is a much better discussion in person. 🙂 You can always find me or call me. I’d think we would find much more agreement than disagreement.

        2. PhilipSugar

          The one thing the internet and technology has done as make it more important to actually do, versus say what you are going to do. That is the ultimate dis-intermediary of “creative types” Think I care about what Amazon advertisements look like??? Ummm, nope I care about what cooler gets the highest rating. Do I care about Igloo’s brand???? Nope. Bought mono-price. Love that name. No branding, no creatives.

          1. Guy Lepage

            Yeah, again, WPP is not a traditional agency. Not really known for the best creatives in the world.

  7. Kirsten Lambertsen

    Steven sounds like a guy I can get on board with. Gonna watch this later. And it sounds like I need to read him, too!

  8. cavepainting

    It is not so much play as the the ability to get so deeply immersed in something without fear, resistance, or resentment and with full volition and choice.Whatever we do with this level of immersion reaps rewards. Play has all these qualities and is hence incredibly impactful, especially so when play involves creation and not just consumption (although we cannot classify creation as good and consumption as bad because creation cannot occur without consumption and they feed off each other).

  9. Kelly Campelia

    Was just having a conversation with my partner about this very topic! In school, I was only focused on studying the subjects directly at hand and living in the library. When I started working, I was only focused on whatever felt directly related to the project at hand. Thankfully I was able to wake up and figure out – for all my studying and hard work, I was one of the dumbest people around. And the people succeeding around me – the people I was envious of – were the people who refused to be confined with rules and expectations — they lived and “misbehaved” and talked to people and played all the time. They somehow ended up knowing a lot more than me. This was a hard lesson to learn.