A Book About Play Should Have Been More Playful


Title: Wonderland

Rating: 2 Stars

The thesis of this book is interesting. The conventional idea is that society advances through pragmatic events such as scientific breakthroughs or productivity improvements. This book proposes that many advances actually come from entertainment or play.

One example from the 17th century is the introduction of calico. The Europeans, previously to this, primarily wore scratchy, uncomfortable wool, even for their undergarments.

The softness of cotton proved to be an immediate hit, especially with the women of the day. From that came the rise of stores, but not just any stores. Instead of the typical store where the exclusive goal was to acquire goods, out of the calico craze came the arise of shopping as a destination in of itself.  Stores were designed such that you could quietly shop in them or even just relax. The prices were reasonable enough in these stores that they became destinations for not just the upper class, but the middle class as well. This started to lead to the breakdown of the strict social classes. The more complete shopping experience led to such developments as department stores and ultimately the consumer culture that we live in.

Not only that, but the insatiable demand for cotton led to the American agriculture evolving past tobacco. Cotton agriculture being so labor intensive, this in turn led to mass use of slavery, which of course, ultimately led to the Civil War.

Another example is music. There is some evidence that music might predate language. The harmonies that sound so natural to us might have its roots in the difference in registers between the male and female voice.

Much work was done to try to automate the generation of music. Very early (from about the 13th century), there were inventions that allowed instruments to play themselves. It was based on the concept of a notched cylinder. From there, in the 18th century, work was done to automate looms. This time, using something very similar to punch cards, looms could be ‘programmed’ to generate any design. Do you see where I’m going with this? From the looms, there came musical instruments like the clavichord and the harpsichord. During the 18th century rolling sheets of paper were developed to play pianos. Finally, this led to the development of typewriters to type letters, and of course to the modern day keyboard. It’s interesting that the phrase keyboard is still in use in the 21st century when its roots date back several hundred years.

Yet another example is spice. Spice was unknown in Europe. In fact, it was at one time only available in the Spice Islands, way the heck out in the Indonesian archipelago. What’s interesting is that, at that time, Europe really had no idea that the Spice Islands existed, let alone where. The spices passed through many hands before it ended up in Europe. At one time, spice was worth substantially more than gold. Therefore, the risk of perilous journeys to find spice was more than compensated by the potential riches of a successful trip. Thus, spices ultimately led to the age of European exploration, with all of the negative and positive consequences thereof. An equal argument can be made that ultimately the pursuit and trade of spices led us to our current era of globalization.

This is all interesting. Unfortunately, all of this information came out in the first couple of chapters. The later chapters to me were simply more uninteresting. The chapters on gaming and on public spaces just didn’t resonate as much with me. They seemed to be much more obvious in their connectivity to the modern age, thus not as compelling.

This was probably closer to a 2.8 score, but in keeping with my natural inclination to avoid the boring 3 score as much as possible, it fell back to a 2. I don’t regret reading it, but I was expecting more fun out of a book that proclaimed that play is the genesis of our modern world.


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