Wonderland is a refreshing take on a world (and people) that takes itself (themselves) entirely too seriously at times. The premise of the book is that many significant advances in society got their start in amusement—our amusement.
According to the author, the book is “a history of play, a history of pastimes that human beings have concocted to amuse themselves as an escape from the daily grind of subsistence.” The book calls upon the reader to press pause and consider how many luxuries of the past came to be embedded in our current everyday lives. More importantly, this book is about innovation: the new ideas and technologies and social spaces that emerged once some of us escaped from the compulsory labor of existence.
Of course, I loved it. And how could I not? The book is an exploration of the intersection of joy and innovation.
Before I jump into the fun stuff, let’s be clear: the pursuit of delight has transformed the world but not always for the better. We, humans, are a destructive bunch. It’s good practice to consistently remind ourselves that unbridled pleasure can ultimately lead to pain and destruction.
Johnson states, “Some of the most appalling epochs of slavery and colonization began with a new taste or fabric developing a market, and unleashed a chain of brutal exploitation to satisfy that market’s demands.” This is as true today as millennia past (e.g., sex-trafficking, destruction of land and wildlife, opioid epidemic.)
With the realities aired and acknowledged, let’s shift gears to the focus of Wonderland: the centrality of play and delight and their role in ingenuity.
The book is divided into six sections:
Fashion and Shopping
Regardless of the area, one phenomenon turns out to appear consistently throughout the history of humanity’s trifles, according to Johnson:
The guilty pleasures of life often give us a hint of future changes in society, whether those changes take the form of English ladies shopping for calico fabrics in London in the late 1600s, or ancient Roman feasts laden with spices from the far corners of the globe, or carnival hucksters promoting strange optical devices that create the illusion of moving pictures, or computer programmers at MIT in the 1960s playing Spacewar! on their million-dollar mainframes.
Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions, it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms. The institutions of society that so dominate traditional history—political bodies, corporations, religions—can tell you quite a bit about the current state of the social order. But if you are trying to figure out what’s coming next, you are often better off exploring the margins of play: the hobbies and curiosity pieces and subcultures of human beings devising new ways to have fun.
Each chapter of the book explores the playtime activities that spawned the world as we know it today. It’s utterly fascinating. For example, the bone flutes of the Upper Paleolithic that predated musical instruments of today to the Banu Musa from the Islamic golden age who created a technical how-to guide for building a machine entitled “The Instrument Which Plays by Itself” that demonstrated the mastery and drive for automation and has linkages to computers today as the first programmable machine.
Johnson’s point is repeatedly made throughout the book: “The entrepreneurs and industrialists may have turned ideas into big business, but it was the artists and illusionists who brought the idea into the world in the first place.”
Wonderland isn’t a particularly fast read or sexy one; it is a curious one that is both fascinating and thought-provoking. And one that will prompt you to reframe the world as you know it today, giving credit to those whose early ingenuity set the foundation for subsequent creative exploration and innovation.
Hear Johnson speak about the book here:
Or listen to his TED Talk on Where Good Ideas Come From here:
If creativity inspires you, innovation drives you, and joy heals you, you will absolutely love this book.