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Wonderland summary

Steven Johnson

How Play Made the Modern World

4.4 (35 ratings)
17 mins

Brief summary

'Wonderland' by Steven Johnson explores the history of technological advancements and how different inventions and innovations have shaped our modern world. It highlights the interconnectivity between these breakthroughs and how they've contributed to the creation of complex systems we use today.

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    Humans’ hardwired desire for play has been an underappreciated driver of progress.

    When we think of innovation and progress in human history, the easy assumption to make would be that necessity or utilitarianism played a part at some point.

    But in reality, many important inventions have been sparked in the crucible of play. A little bit of fun has gone a long way!

    Consider the Banu Musa brothers. They were Islamic scholars in ninth-century Baghdad. As two of the best engineers of their time, they published groundbreaking work on mechanics and hydraulics in The Book of Ingenious Devices.

    They described their self-built machines and introduced principles that laid the groundwork for innovations such as the steam engine or the jet engine, which would not be built until centuries later.

    Useful though their ideas became, the Banu Musa brothers began by just messing about. In fact, they spent most of their time trying to entertain others by constructing frivolous trinkets and toys.

    They built automated dolls, self-playing instruments and even a mechanical peacock that dispensed water and soap when its feathers were pulled.

    There’s a powerful conclusion in this anecdote: fun and play have shaped history far more than one might assume – and for good reason; the human brain is predisposed to engineer discovery through play.

    First of all, the brain loves surprises.

    Whenever we encounter novelty, our brains give us a shot of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which provides us with a natural high. Consequently, we're wired to want to explore our surroundings and seek out new experiences. It’s through this mechanism that we might be led to important discoveries or unique creations as a result of mere curiosity or happenstance.

    Second, our brains just work differently when we’re playing. We suspend our disbelief and our minds start to make previously unimagined associations.

    It’s in this freewheeling and playful mode that our minds are at their most creative.

    In the next blink, we’ll examine what discoveries humans have made while at play.

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    What is Wonderland about?

    Wonderland (2016) argues that the role of play and fun in human history is undervalued. We have been told by history books that wars, revolutions and monarchs are the drivers of history, and we thus tend to overlook more mundane factors in favor of powerful figures and famous movements. However, the pleasure we derive from bone flutes, board games, the color purple or alcohol have likewise contributed greatly to invention and progress.

    Wonderland Review

    Wonderland (2016) explores how playfulness and imagination have shaped the world we live in. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • Offers fascinating insights into how innovations and inventions have been driven by unconventional thinking and creative experimentation.
    • Explores the interconnectedness of ideas and showcases how the collision of different disciplines and cultures sparks innovation.
    • Presents a compelling narrative that combines historical anecdotes and contemporary examples to make the exploration of creativity and innovation both informative and enjoyable.

    Who should read Wonderland?

    • People who like having their usual perspectives challenged
    • Inventors and creatives looking for inspiration
    • Anyone who wants to know how small ideas become big innovations

    About the Author

    Steven Johnson is the best-selling author of ten nonfiction books. These include How We Got to Now, Where Good Ideas Come From and Everything Bad Is Good for You. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

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    Wonderland FAQs 

    What is the main message of Wonderland?

    The main message of Wonderland is that innovation is driven by collaboration and the exchange of ideas.

    How long does it take to read Wonderland?

    The reading time for Wonderland varies depending on the reader's speed. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Wonderland a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Wonderland is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in how innovation and technology shape our world. It offers insightful examples and practical insights.

    Who is the author of Wonderland?

    The author of Wonderland is Steven Johnson.

    What to read after Wonderland?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Wonderland, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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