Steven Johnson’s history of what we do for fun

Tell ’em what you’re going to say, tell ’em, tell ’em what you said. I believe that’s the formula that many preachers follow when they give their sermons. The bit from a book below is from the “tell ’em what you’re going to say” bit, in other words the Introduction (pp. 8-11), of Steven Johnson’s Wonderland, which I ordered from Amazon back in October, and am now starting to dip into:

Delight is a word that is rarely invoked as a driver of historical change. History is usually imagined as a battle for survival, for power, for freedom, for wealth. At best, the world of play and amusement belongs to the side bars of the main narrative: the spoils of progress, the surplus that civilizations enjoy once the campaigns for freedom and affluence have been won. But imagine you are an observer of social and technological trends in the second half of the eighteenth century, and you are trying to predict the truly seismic developments that would define the next three centuries. The programmable pen of Jaquet-Droz’s Writer – or Merlin’s dancer and her “irresistible eyes” – would be as telling a clue about that future as anything happening in Parliament or on the battlefield, foreshadowing the rise of mechanized labor, the digital revolution, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

This book is an extended argument for that kind of clue: a folly, dismissed by many as a mindless amusement, that turns out to be a kind of artifact from the future. This is a history of play, a history of the pastimes that human beings have concocted to amuse themselves as an escape from the daily grind of subsistence. This is a history of what we do for fun. One measure of human progress is how much recreational time many of us now have, and the immensely varied ways we have of enjoying it. A time-traveler from five centuries ago would be staggered to see just how much real estate in the modern world is devoted to the wonderlands of parks, coffee shops, sports arenas, shopping malls, IMAX theaters: environments specifically designed to entertain and delight us. Experiences that were once almost exclusively relegated to society’s elites have become commonplace to all but the very poorest members of society. An average middle-class family in Brazil or Indonesia takes it for granted that their free time can be spent listening to music, marveling at elaborate special effects in Hollywood movies, shopping for new fashions in vast palaces of consumption, and savoring the flavors of cuisines from all over the world. Yet we rarely pause to consider how these many luxuries came to be a feature of everyday life.

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. I have called this phenomenon “the hummingbird effect”: the process by which an innovation in one field sets in motion transformations in seemingly unrelated fields. The taste for coffee helped create the modern institutions of journalism; a handful of elegantly decorated fabric shops helped trigger the industrial revolution. When human beings create and share experiences designed to delight or amaze, they often end up transforming society in more dramatic ways than people focused on more utilitarian concerns. We owe a great deal of the modern world to people doggedly trying to solve a high-minded problem: how to construct an internal combustion engine or manufacture vaccines in large quantities. But a surprising amount of modernity has its roots in another kind of activity: people mucking around with magic, toys, games, and other seemingly idle pastimes. Everyone knows the old saying “Necessity is the mother of invention,” but if you do a paternity test on many of the modern world’s most important ideas or institutions, you will find, invariably, that leisure and play were involved in the conception as well.

Although this account contains its fair share of figures like Charles Babbage – well-to-do Europeans tinkering with new ideas in their parlors – it is not just a story about the affluent West. One of the most intriguing plot twists in the story of leisure and delight is how many of the devices or materials originated outside of Europe: those mesmerizing automata from the House of Wisdom, the intriguing fashions of calico and chintz imported from India, the gravity-defying rubber balls invented by Mesoamericans, the clove and nutmeg first tasted by remote Indonesian islanders. In many ways, the story of play is the story of the emergence of a truly cosmopolitan worldview, a world bound together by the shared experiences of kicking a ball around on a field or sipping a cup of coffee. The pursuit of pleasure turns out to be one of the very first experiences to stitch together a global fabric of shared culture, with many of the most prominent threads originating outside Western Europe.

I should say at the outset that this history deliberately excludes some of life’s most intense pleasures-including sex and romantic love. Sex has been a central force in human history; without sex, there is no human history. But the pleasure of sex is bound up in deep-seated biological drives. The desire for emotional and physical connections with other humans is written into our DNA, however complex and variable our expression of that drive may be. For the human species, sex is a staple, not a luxury. This history is an account of less utilitarian pleasures; habits and customs and environments that came into being for no apparent reason other than the fact that they seemed amusing or surprising. (In a sense, it is a history that follows Brian Eno’s definition of culture as “all the things we don’t have to do.”) Looking at history through this lens demands a different emphasis on the past: exploring the history of shopping as a recreational pursuit instead of the history of commerce writ large; following the global path of the spice trade instead of the broader history of agriculture and food production. There are a thousand books written about the history of innovations that came out of our survival instincts. This is a book about a different kind of innovation: the new ideas and technologies and social spaces that emerged once some of us escaped from the compulsory labor of subsistence.

The centrality of play and delight does not mean that these stories are free of tragedy and human suffering. 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. The quest for delight transformed the world, but it did not always transform it for the better.

Wooden sheep out east

So there I was, out east, exploring what was happening to the canals in the Bow, Hackney Wick part of London, photoing photos like this, …:

When, rather suddenly, I came upon this:

All that grubbing around the canal being to create the sort of place where Desirable Apartments can be constructed, and Desirable Apartments need Desirable Sheep Sculptures.

Have you noticed how upmarket sculpture, and also upmarket toys, made of wood, make it very clear that they are made of wood? The woodenness is emphasised. Downmarket sculpture, and downmarket toys, are as realistic as they can be made to be, with the how of it left entirely behind. I veer into toys, because this sheep looks a lot like a toy, I think.

I see a connection between this emphasising of the particular material that the Thing is made of, in sculpture and toys, with Impressionism. Posh paintings, like Impressionist Paintings, make it clear that they are indeed paintings, made of paint, as well as paintings of something. I mean, take a close-up look. Paint! Paintings for peasants just look as much like what they are trying to be of as possible.

Giving the green light to a cement mixer

For me, a complicated day. What spare time I had was spent paying attention to sport, basically to take my mind off all the complications.

So, here’s an illuminated cement mixer, which I photoed outside the Royal Festival Hall way back in 2007:

Art, I assume. But so long ago that I could not persuade the internet to tell me about it. Plenty of cement mixers and plenty of RFH scenes, but no sign of this particular combination of both.

2007 was way before I had a camera that truly suited me. That was still five years away. But these photos came out pretty well, I think. It helped that they were photoed at just the moment when daylight was about half gone, which allowed the artificial green light to make its presence felt but not to be the whole story.

One for the “You Are Here” collection

Nowadays, cameras can tell you exactly where you were when you took a photo, as well as exactly when you took it. But I can’t be doing with all that. I prefer taking photos like this one as I do my out-and-abouting, that say, as this one does, “You Are Here”:

And that one says it in French. Excellent.

We’re in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, in the bitterly cold February of 2012. Even remembering how cold that visit was makes me shudder now. But the Pompidou Centre itself was warm enough, and the views in it and from it were most diverting.

I have quite a few Paris postings here now, but have yet to transfer any of the postings from the old blog that I did about that earlier 2012 trip . My favourite, from a more recent and much warmer visit, featured my all time favourite food photo.

Ship in a bottle in Trafalgar Square

Ten years ago, I photoed this, in Trafalgar Square, on the plinth where they keep having different sculptures:

But I immediately forgot about it, and only learned about it again now.

But, the internet being the internet, I was quickly able to find out all about it.


I’ve been feeling down in the dumps lately, and I came to realise that the permanent photo on my computer wasn’t helping. It was of a boarded up house in Brittany, and it was there because that seemed appropriate for the times we are all trying to live past. But, because it was so appropriate it was also deeply depressing, just like the times we are all trying to live past, and it was making those times, for me, even worse.

So, I changed the photo to this:

That’s quite a proclamation there, I think you’ll agree:


This sign is still, so far as I know, to be seen in one of my favourite spots in London, which is the top of the Tate Modern extension. I must have photoed literally thousands of photos up there, and in a lot of them the evening sunshine is bouncing about in there in highly confusing ways, what with all the glass partitions there are there. The above photo, one of many I have photoed of this slogan, is chosen so as to be clear what’s going on. Some of the others are major puzzles, I can tell you, but this one is simple and readable. You know where you are with it.

This slogan was installed in Tate Modern in 2018, it having previously been elsewhere. As prophecies go, let’s just say we’ve all seen better, and it’s meant to be ironic. But despite its comically extreme inaccuracy, I have found it to be strangely soothing, and a great improvement on the boarded up house.

So numerous and complicated have been the photos I have photoed in this place that I haven’t known how to display them. The answer is just to make a start, and keep on doing it. More to come, I (almost) promise.

TATE MODERN IS CURRENTLY CLOSED. I really miss the place. Most of what’s in it always looks very ignorable, so I mostly ignore it, but I do like this sign.

A Fake Ancient bridge with buildings on it in Scotland

I encountered this amazing place …:

… on account of it being advertised at, of all bizarre places, This Is Why I’m Broke. Not the whole thing to buy, you understand, just a stay there for the night.

It’s a late nineteenth century concoction. Fake Ancientism, in other words, at its considerable and Scottish Baronial best.

The above bridge was attached to Blackcraig Castle, both that “castle” and this bridge being the work of Patrick Allan-Fraser.

Also featured at TIWIB, and changing the subject somewhat, this gadget looks like it might come in rather handy.

The President of Turkmenistan expresses his love of dogs with a golden statue


Says Eurasianet:

The new monument that was commissioned several years ago puts the Alabai in exalted company at the forefront of state propaganda.

The Alabai being a breed of dog. The statue, which is in the middle of a roundabout, celebrates the entire breed, rather than any individual dog.

Previously the only animal to be celebrated in local sculpture was the Akhal-Teke horse. …

So, aside from dog statues, how has Turkmenistan been doing lately? Not so well, it would seem:

Berdymukhamedov’s professed love of native animals, expressed through poetry as well as more encyclopedic works, has only grown as the country slides deeper into an economic crisis …

Don’t take your people’s minds off their miseries with foreign wars. Do it with a dog statue!

View of Old London Bridge from the West

Found this here:

Painted in 1650. it’s this.

I particularly like how this shows the architectural dominance of old St Paul’s, on the right, and even more so of the Tower of London, to the far left. These were, for many centuries, London’s Biggest things.

In 1666, the Great Fire damaged old St Paul’s so badly that they had to build a new one.

Until 1561, when it was struck by lightning, old St Paul’s had a spire. Blog and learn.

Bingeing on Haydn symphonies

Every so often, a combination of my ever more gargantuan classical CD collection, of my own shifting tastes in classical music, and of my particular life circumstances result in me experiencing musical binges, of various sorts over the years, during which I binge-listen to a particular category of music.

Sometimes a binge will focus on a single piece of music. At other times, as recently, it consists of constantly listening to a particular category of music.

When Lockdown began, at that now vanished time when I and millions of others were genuinely scared that our lives might be about to end prematurely, I found myself listening to, of all things, Haydn symphonies, again and again and again and again. I possess many CDs of Haydn symphonies. Here are about two thirds of them:

That’s a lot of Haydn symphonies, and there are about half as many again still on the shelves, which I also listened to. Plus I even bought another great box of them, because I already had one of the CDs in question and really liked it when I listened to it again.

Haydn is in many ways the “ideal type” of the Classical Music Composer. If you really like his orchestral music, then it can be said with confidence that you really like classical music. What makes me say this is that his music seems to me to posses an absolutely satisfaction with the musical means that were available for its making, and no feeling whatsoever that “art” means in some way feeling obliged to transcend these means, in the manner of someone breaking out of a prison or of dreaming of such a breakout. Put it like this. If Mozart or Beethoven had lived at a different and later time, when musical technology had expanded, you get the strong feeling that their music would have sounded very different and a lot more dramatic. With Haydn, I feel as if it would probably have sounded much as it sounds now.

This is especially true of his earlier symphonies, which I found myself preferring, during my binge. My habit was to assemble all the performances of Haydn symphonies by one conductor and ensemble, and then listen to them in chronological order. And I found that the later symphonies, to my ear, had a bombast and an assertiveness about them that I found, by comparison with the earlier ones, unappealing. Basically, the symphonies he wrote for his aristocratic bosses in Vienna and nearby places struck me as wonderful, utter perfection. But, the later symphonies that he wrote for bigger and less grand audiences, less old money and more new money, in places like Paris and London, London especially, felt to me like Haydn forcing himself to express feelings that his audiences felt more strongly than he did.

It may very well be that actually, Haydn felt horribly imprisoned when he wrote his earlier symphonies, and liberated when writing his later ones. But what I was hearing was a case of one kind of atmosphere, which I found perfectly (and I do mean perfectly) appealing, compared to another that was less congenial. Raucous brass instruments, and above all the percussion, started to interrupt the serene perfection of the earlier symphonies. Bang bang bang, wah wah wah. The later symphonies sounded to me, by comparison, to be bourgeois, in a bad way. Nouveau riche, rather than old riche. New money waving itself in the air, rather than old money simply taking its ease, without fuss or the need to assert itself too stridently. It was as if Haydn had moved from a world where he was in perfect command of his art, to one where he was stressing and straining after something that came less naturally to him.

The irony being that the official programmes of many of Haydn’s earlier symphonies are concerned with exactly such stressfulness and strain. There is even a famous group of earlier symphonies collectively know as the “sturm und drang” – storm and stress – symphonies. But these felt to me like serenely detached descriptions of such emotions, rather than any sort of effort to be engulfed by such feelings on behalf on an emotionally incontinent audience of upwardly mobile poseurs.

I suspect that finding myself being treated as a gentleman of leisure by Haydn, rather than as some sort of new man, a stresser and strainer after such things as “improvement” and “solutions” and “radical progress”, was exactly what I was finding so congenial. Lockdown demanded nothing of me. Literally, it demanded nothing. And, as the owner and operator of a CD player, I could pause the music at will with one touch of a button, which made me even more of an aristocrat than Haydn’s bosses were. How they would have loved to be able to push a button and pause their musicians in mid bar, while they, having been delayed by other business, sat themselves down and made themselves comfortable at the beginning of a musical performance, or while they needed to deal with a discreet interruption from an underling about something that needed a quick answer. And how the likes of Beethoven and Wagner, Wagner especially, would have been outraged by my pause button! My music, Wagner would have shouted, takes precedence over your little life! Shut up and listen, in darkness, and have your emotions aroused and sculpted by me, the Great Composer. I am not hear to amuse you with my art, you are hear to worship me and my Art.

Haydn, especially in his earlier Viennese, pre-bourgeois form, made no such demands upon me. And during the early, serious bit of Lockdown, he was, for me, the perfect musical companion.

If you have read this far, thank you. I hope you’ve already worked out that I am not asking you to agree with me about Haydn. Rather I ask you to think of whether you have had similar bursts of aesthetic enthusiasm, and to reflect on them, as I have on this recent one of mine.

The main thing about such episodes, I would say, is that they can’t be forced. You can’t decide to have one of these binges. They just happen.