07:26
TED Studio

Steven Johnson: How play leads to great inventions

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Necessity is the mother of invention, right? Well, not always. Steven Johnson shows us how some of the most transformative ideas and technologies, like the computer, didn't emerge out of necessity at all but instead from the strange delight of play. Share this captivating, illustrated exploration of the history of invention. Turns out, you'll find the future wherever people are having the most fun.

- Writer
Steven Berlin Johnson examines the intersection of science, technology and personal experience. Full bio

(Music)
00:12
Roughly 43,000 years ago,
00:16
a young cave bear
died in the rolling hills
00:19
on the northwest border
of modern day Slovenia.
00:22
A thousand years later,
a mammoth died in southern Germany.
00:25
A few centuries after that,
a griffon vulture also died
00:29
in the same vicinity.
00:33
And we know almost nothing
about how these animals met their deaths,
00:35
but these different creatures
dispersed across both time and space
00:39
did share one remarkable fate.
00:43
After their deaths,
a bone from each of their skeletons
00:46
was crafted by human hands
00:50
into a flute.
00:52
Think about that for a second.
00:54
Imagine you're a caveman,
40,000 years ago.
00:56
You've mastered fire.
00:59
You've built simple tools for hunting.
01:00
You've learned how to craft
garments from animal skins
01:02
to keep yourself warm in the winter.
01:05
What would you choose to invent next?
01:07
It seems preposterous
that you would invent the flute,
01:10
a tool that created
useless vibrations in air molecules.
01:13
But that is exactly
what our ancestors did.
01:17
Now this turns out
to be surprisingly common
01:21
in the history of innovation.
01:24
Sometimes people invent things
01:26
because they want to stay alive
or feed their children
01:28
or conquer the village next door.
01:31
But just as often,
01:33
new ideas come into the world
01:34
simply because they're fun.
01:36
And here's the really strange thing:
01:39
many of those playful
but seemingly frivolous inventions
01:41
ended up sparking
momentous transformations
01:45
in science, in politics and society.
01:47
Take what may be the most
important invention of modern times:
01:51
programmable computers.
01:54
Now, the standard story is that computers
descend from military technology,
01:56
since many of the early computers
were designed specifically
02:01
to crack wartime codes
or calculate rocket trajectories.
02:04
But in fact, the origins
of the modern computer
02:07
are much more playful,
02:11
even musical,
02:12
than you might imagine.
02:14
The idea behind the flute,
02:15
of just pushing air through tubes
to make a sound,
02:16
was eventually modified
to create the first organ
02:19
more than 2,000 years ago.
02:22
Someone came up with the brilliant idea
of triggering sounds
02:24
by pressing small levers with our fingers,
02:27
inventing the first musical keyboard.
02:30
Now, keyboards evolved
from organs to clavichords to harpsichords
02:33
to the piano,
02:37
until the middle of the 19th century,
02:38
when a bunch of inventors
finally hit on the idea
02:41
of using a keyboard
to trigger not sounds but letters.
02:44
In fact, the very first typewriter
02:48
was originally called
"the writing harpsichord."
02:50
Flutes and music led
to even more powerful breakthroughs.
02:55
About a thousand years ago,
02:59
at the height of the Islamic Renaissance,
03:01
three brothers in Baghdad
designed a device
03:03
that was an automated organ.
03:05
They called it "the instrument
that plays itself."
03:08
Now, the instrument
was basically a giant music box.
03:11
The organ could be trained to play
various songs by using instructions
03:15
encoded by placing pins
on a rotating cylinder.
03:19
And if you wanted the machine
to play a different song,
03:23
you just swapped a new cylinder in
with a different code on it.
03:26
This instrument was the first of its kind.
03:29
It was programmable.
03:33
Now, conceptually,
this was a massive leap forward.
03:35
The whole idea of hardware and software
03:38
becomes thinkable for the first time
with this invention.
03:41
And that incredibly powerful concept
03:44
didn't come to us as an instrument
of war or of conquest,
03:47
or necessity at all.
03:50
It came from the strange delight
of watching a machine play music.
03:52
In fact, the idea of programmable machines
03:57
was exclusively kept alive by music
for about 700 years.
04:00
In the 1700s, music-making machines
04:05
became the playthings
of the Parisian elite.
04:07
Showmen used the same coded cylinders
04:11
to control the physical movements
of what were called automata,
04:14
an early kind of robot.
04:18
One of the most famous of those robots
04:20
was, you guessed it,
an automated flute player
04:22
designed by a brilliant French inventor
04:25
named Jacques de Vaucanson.
04:27
And as de Vaucanson
was designing his robot musician,
04:30
he had another idea.
04:33
If you could program a machine
to make pleasing sounds,
04:35
why not program it to weave
delightful patterns of color out of cloth?
04:39
Instead of using the pins of the cylinder
to represent musical notes,
04:44
they would represent
threads with different colors.
04:49
If you wanted a new pattern
for your fabric,
04:52
you just programmed a new cylinder.
04:54
This was the first programmable loom.
04:57
Now, the cylinders were too expensive
and time-consuming to make,
05:00
but a half century later,
05:04
another French inventor named Jacquard
05:06
hit upon the brilliant idea
of using paper-punched cards
05:08
instead of metal cylinders.
05:13
Paper turned out to be
much cheaper and more flexible
05:15
as a way of programming the device.
05:18
That punch card system inspired
Victorian inventor Charles Babbage
05:20
to create his analytical engine,
05:25
the first true programmable computer
05:27
ever designed.
05:30
And punch cards were used
by computer programmers
05:31
as late as the 1970s.
05:34
So ask yourself this question:
05:37
what really made
the modern computer possible?
05:39
Yes, the military involvement
is an important part of the story,
05:43
but inventing a computer
also required other building blocks:
05:47
music boxes,
05:51
toy robot flute players,
05:52
harpsichord keyboards,
05:54
colorful patterns woven into fabric,
05:55
and that's just a small part of the story.
05:58
There's a long list of world-changing
ideas and technologies
06:01
that came out of play:
06:04
public museums, rubber,
06:06
probability theory, the insurance business
06:08
and many more.
06:10
Necessity isn't always
the mother of invention.
06:11
The playful state of mind
is fundamentally exploratory,
06:15
seeking out new possibilities
in the world around us.
06:19
And that seeking
is why so many experiences
06:22
that started with simple
delight and amusement
06:26
eventually led us
to profound breakthroughs.
06:29
Now, I think this has implications
for how we teach kids in school
06:33
and how we encourage innovation
in our workspaces,
06:37
but thinking about play
and delight this way
06:40
also helps us detect what's coming next.
06:43
Think about it: if you were
sitting there in 1750
06:47
trying to figure out
the big changes coming to society
06:49
in the 19th, the 20th centuries,
06:53
automated machines, computers,
06:55
artificial intelligence,
06:57
a programmable flute
06:59
entertaining the Parisian elite
07:00
would have been as powerful a clue
as anything else at the time.
07:03
It seemed like an amusement at best,
07:07
not useful in any serious way,
07:10
but it turned out to be
the beginning of a tech revolution
07:13
that would change the world.
07:17
You'll find the future
07:18
wherever people are having the most fun.
07:20

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About the Speaker:

Steven Johnson - Writer
Steven Berlin Johnson examines the intersection of science, technology and personal experience.

Why you should listen

A dynamic writer and speaker, Johnson crafts captivating theories that draw on a dizzying array of disciplines, without ever leaving his audience behind. Author Kurt Anderson described Johnson's book Emergence as "thoughtful and lucid and charming and staggeringly smart." The same could be said for Johnson himself. His big-brained, multi-disciplinary theories make him one of his generation's more intriguing thinkers. His books take the reader on a journey -- following the twists and turns his own mind makes as he connects seemingly disparate ideas: ants and cities, interface design and Victorian novels.

Johnson's breakout 2005 title, Everything Bad Is Good for You , took the provocative stance that our fear and loathing of popular culture is misplaced; video games and TV shows, he argues, are actually making us smarter. His appearances on The Daily Show and Charlie Rose cemented his reputation as a cogent thinker who could also pull more than his share of laughs. His most recent work, The Ghost Map, goes in another direction entirely: It tells the story of a cholera outbreak in 1854 London, from the perspective of the city residents, the doctors chasing the disease, and the pathogen itself. The book shows how the epidemic brought about profound changes in science, cities and modern society. His upcoming work, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, tells the fascinating stories of great ideas and great thinkers across disciplines. 

No mere chronicler of technology, Johnson is himself a longtime innovator in the web world: He was founder and Editor in Chief of FEED, one of the earliest and most interesting online magazines. He cofounded Patch, an intriguing website that maps online conversations to real-world neighborhoods, and outside.in -- and is an advisor to many other startups, including Medium and Jelly. He is the host and co-creator of the new PBS and BBC television series How We Got to Now, airing in the fall of 2014.

More profile about the speaker
Steven Johnson | Speaker | TED.com