Steven Johnson and Tim Harford on the Messy Wonder of Creativity

“There is something about the playful state of mind that makes us more likely to stumble across interesting new ideas, to have new experiences.”

Steven Johnson is the bestselling author of ten books on the intersection of science, technology, and media theory. He writes regularly for The New York Times, Wired, The Wall Street Journal, among other ullublications, and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages and adapted into an Emmy award-winning PBS series. On the eve of the publication of his most recent book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, Steven joined Tim Harford for a Heleo Conversation on the power of delight in shaping history. Tim, a London-based economist and journalist, is the author of Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. Read on for their lively discussion on the power of cotton underwear, the creativity strategies of Brian Eno, and the reasons for keeping a messy desk.

Tim: A moment from Wonderland that stuck with me was when you say there’s no time in human history where ladies undergarments have caused more political upheaval than with the case of the Calico Madams.

Steven: I should just stop you right there because it makes the book sound much racier than it actually is…

Yes, when I talk about the way in which the history of play and amusement is bound up in the birth of a global economy, one of the next big stages, after the spice trade, is the craze for cotton, particularly for calico and chintz that had been developed in India.

This craze for cotton erupts among the elite—largely women—of London. Some of it has to do with the patterns and the beauty of it. The dying technique, which had been developed over hundreds and hundreds of years, enabled these beautiful multicolored patterns that were resistant to washing. They would stick around, which was not very common.

But some of it has to do with the simple fact that these cotton undergarments were just softer. They’d been wearing wool against their skin in rainy, cold London for…

Tim: Yeah, woolen underwear.

Steven: Wool and underwear is not a winning combination. So all of a sudden there was this craze for soft, beautiful cotton. This sets off a huge political backlash, because it’s devastating to the traditional British wool industry. What you effectively get is this “Make England’s Wool Industry Great Again” kind of movement, with all these very gender-driven protests about these women that they would call Calico Madams. There were hundreds of pamphlets written, all these angry screeds. Eventually, Parliament actually banned the importing of cotton. It was a massive economic crisis, triggered by the taste and the fashion of this new fabric.

Of course, it sent off a signal to a whole generation of inventors and engineers who started thinking, “Well, maybe we could make cotton here.” That really starts the Industrial Revolution.

Tim: Right, you make an argument that is quite striking and controversial. The traditional narrative of the Industrial Revolution is first there’s this demand for cotton, so you get machine looms, and then you get other kinds of machines, and steam engines, and more and more stuff. Then, in the end, “What are we going to do with all this stuff? We’ve got to sell it.” Then you get retail. You get the department store. That comes along in the late 19th century, a hundred years into the Industrial Revolution.

You say, “No. Retail comes first.”

“Economics is still struggling to deal with delight. Delight is kind of the output that we don’t want to ask too many questions about.”

Steven: If you go back and look at the history, you find that what seems to have set the craze for cotton in motion is the emergence of these new kinds of stores in London that were specifically designed to be experiences of themselves, really to be Wonderlands. Instead of just bartering and having this very crude commercial experience, you would go in this luxurious environment, and you would sample the dresses, or you would look at these beautiful fabrics. The whole environment of the store was designed to be part of the pleasure, in addition to what you were buying. In fact, you could go and just shop, and if you didn’t buy anything, it was still fun.

What’s funny is there are all these quotes from people, mostly men, who were completely baffled by this. Defoe writes a whole screed like, “Why are these tradesmen wasting all this money putting up fancy curtains when they could just sell their goods as efficiently as possible?” They just couldn’t understand why shopping itself would be a pursuit. And it’s through these stores that the virus, in a sense—a love for cotton, a passion for calico and chintz—ends up spreading through the body politic. Really, it’s shopping first, industrialization second. Which, if you look at history that way, it ends up turning everything on its head a bit.

Tim: I was reading Defoe’s account of what was going on, and he says, “Well, they must be spending all this money to prove to people that they’ve got a really big inventory.” He argues they’re proving they’re not fly-by-night merchants. It can’t just be that they would spend this money because people love the curtains. The funny thing is he anticipated mainstream economic thought by a century or two, because this is what I was taught, as an economist. Economics is still struggling to deal with delight. Delight is kind of the output that we don’t want to ask too many questions about.

Steven: You see all these situations where people come up with something that is delightful, and often that delightful thing is discovered in another part of the world. This is part of the theme of delight driving globalization. People realize that people are willing to spend money on it, and so a whole system of capitalism develops around that object of delight to make money off of it, or to exploit people to produce it, as in the case of cotton.

We focus on that economic system, or that system of exploitation. The fact that the whole chain began with this moment of wonder and amazement is often forgotten. I think that’s a mistake.
It’s important to tell the history of industrialization and to tell the history of slavery, for instance, and the story of cotton, but it’s relevant that it started with this initial kernel of play and wonder and delight. It’s buried beneath all that complicated history. It’s one of the things that makes us human, that we’re capable of being amazed, and stretching our appetites to find new things, new flavors.

One of the things that came up in my research is that for a long period of time, pepper was one of the most valuable commodities in the world. It was more valuable than gold. This is really striking because in all the variations of pepper, all the plants that produce mild to spicy peppers, basically what they are doing is triggering a set of biochemical sensors on the tip of your tongue that are designed to detect the presence of fire and of high heat. When we talk about spicy food being hot, it’s not a metaphor.

Millions and millions of years of evolution have adapted this system in our sense organs to detect a threat of physical heat. There’s this alarm going off every time you taste a chili pepper that’s millions of years of evolution saying, “Run away! Your mouth is literally on fire.” Yet somehow we’re able to override that alarm, and turn that pain into something that we savor and enjoy, and widen the boundaries of what is acceptable and pleasurable to us. That widening is a beautiful part of our history.

Tim: To what extent is what you’re describing, a desire for entertainment and delight, producing the demand? “I want purple clothes. I want comfortable underwear.” To what extent is the joy of tinkering around and playing with interesting things producing the supply of innovation, or are we talking about both? Is it both blades of scissors cut the paper?

Steven: It’s probably both. This is one of the places where I think there’s a lot of overlap between what I was talking about historically in Wonderland, and what you’re arguing in Messy which is, on the one hand, there are things that are developed because they’re delightful and they get into circulation, and that sparks innovation. On the other hand, there is something about the playful state of mind that makes us more likely to stumble across interesting new ideas, to have new experiences. That’s something that has a lot of implications beyond just understanding the history, but understanding how we want to structure our schools and our work environments.

I had a conversation a little while ago with Alison Gopnik, the great child development psychologist, and she was talking about how one of the things you see in animals is that the more clever, resilient, adaptable, and human-like in their thinking mammals are, the more time they have in their childhood phase for play.

“The friend of creative work is attention. The enemy of creative work is boredom. When you put people in these stressful, random situations, they pay attention.”

If you’re trying to engineer a brain to wrestle with and solve problems in a world that is constantly changing, and that is not programmable in advance, play is a terrific way to train that brain.
In a way, that is also a big theme of your book, Messy, right?

Tim: Yes. Messy is about how interruptions, disruptions, complications, awkward strangers, all sorts of disorder—mess, basically—makes us anxious, and we don’t like it, but actually it helps us solve problems. It makes us more creative. It makes our societies more resilient. One of the most fascinating characters while I was researching the book was Brian Eno—who I think you also interviewed for one of the Wonderland podcasts?

Steven: Yeah.

Tim: He’s an amazing character. Among many other things, he collaborated with U2 on Achtung Baby. He collaborated with Coldplay, with the minimalist composer Phillip Glass and, most famously, with David Bowie on three of David Bowie’s great albums of the 1970s, including Heroes. Why do all of these people want to work with Brian Eno? The answer is because he messes with their minds. He is a chaos monkey in the studio. One of his favorite tricks is to pull out a deck of cards that he has called the Oblique Strategies, and they have random instructions on them. It might be, “Focus on the most embarrassing detail and amplify it.”

Another one is, “Everyone swap instruments.” You’re one of the greatest guitarists in the world, go play the drums. I asked him, “Why do you do this?” He had various ideas, but the thing that really struck me was when he said, “The friend of creative work is attention. The enemy of creative work is boredom. When you put people in these stressful, random situations, they pay attention. It’s like going to an accident.” One of the albums he worked on, the draft title was Planned Accidents. He inflicts accidents on these musicians, and suddenly they are creating.

Of course, then when I read Wonderland, I thought, “I missed something very important, because while one of the opposites of boredom is attention, another of the opposites of boredom is fascination with an incredibly engaging game or toy.” That’s of course a much more pleasant way to create.

Steven: There’s a point where I try to talk about what unites all these different things. It’s a book about spices, and video games, and chess, and ladies underwear. What they all share is that when they first appeared, they were surprising. There was something new about them.

If you go back and look at really early childhood studies, human beings have a very strong instinctual response to surprising experiences. Like ten-day-old babies, when you show them things that confound their expectations, however limited those expectations are, you can see them pay attention. We know now from neuroscience, we have a very elaborate system partially modulated by dopamine to pay attention to things that do not match our predictions about the world, and to give us this jolt of alertness, like, “I need to pay attention to this.” The reason why we would evolve that makes a lot of sense.

“When Bono tries to play the drums, it’s very surprising. It’s terrible, but it’s surprising.”

Basically what happens with culture is that it is a constantly-moving goal post. One generation’s surprise is the next generation’s quotidian. It’s the thing that your parents did. That’s not surprising at all, so if you’re going to trigger this response, you have to keep coming up with new stuff. It creates this constantly expanding cultural sphere of new ideas and innovation. What Eno is doing in that situation is saying, “Okay, U2, you’ve been playing together forever. You’re no longer surprising to each other.” But when Bono tries to play the drums, it’s very surprising. It’s terrible, but it’s surprising. Eno would always say when he mixes up the instruments, they do technically sound worse, but there’s some spark there that happens… That’s the mess. That’s the creative mess.

Tim: That’s the mess. It is partly, of course, that people are afraid to do something new because the record companies say, “Just do what you did last time. It was great.” The band sort of also wants to do what they did last time, and so you need to be pushed out of this state. Of course, what you’re describing is a situation where people are being pulled out of this stasis by the fascination of something new.

Steven: In the John Peel lectures, Eno defines art. “Art is all the stuff that we don’t have to do.” You have to have food. You do not have to have cinnamon. We have to have some kind of clothes, but we do not need to have an elaborate designer outfit.

All the stuff we don’t have to do that, nonetheless, is a huge part of our lives. We spend ridiculous amounts of time thinking about these things. Sometimes that leads us into frivolous behavior, and a lot of wasted time, but sometimes that leads us to making interesting, powerful connections with people around the world and having new experiences that are one of the great delights of being alive.

Tim: I have a question about Space War, but before I ask that question, tell us about what Space War is.

Steven: Space War is the first video game. It was designed in 1961. They had this new computer—I think “mini-computer” was the technical term for it, but it was literally the size of a closet. It was huge. Calling it a mini-computer was ridiculous.

For the first time, a computer had a monitor. These MIT engineers—programmer was almost not a term yet—were getting this new computer that had a screen, and they were like, “What are we going to do with this technology? How can we showcase it?”

They decided to create a game. It was basically the progenitor of Asteroids, the game that I grew up playing as a kid. You had a little spaceship, and you could fire against another spaceship, and you rotated around this sun. And it was one of the most important pieces of software written in the 1960s.

It triggered a whole wave of breakthrough ideas in the relationship between computers and software and programming. It was one of the first open-source programs—people kept adding features to the game. It was one of the first instances where you had an avatar representing you on the screen, the way you have a mouse pointer in a graphic interface today. You had a prototype version of a mouse, like a joystick. People designed simulations of the actual stars in the night sky, so it was one of the first non-military applications to have real-world mapping on it.

All these ideas came out of this game, and it ultimately led Stewart Brand, who watched people play this game so addictively, to realize that computers were not just for the military and for IBM, but they were going to be for ordinary people. He wrote this essay for Rolling Stone that starts with the legendary line, “Computers are coming to the people.” The second line is, “That’s the best news since psychedelics,” because it was 1972.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates read that essay, and Jobs went to work for Atari, and the rest is history. That game led to so much of the modern digital sphere, but the way it started, if you looked at it, you’d be like, “Well, that’s just silly. That’s just people wasting their time.”

Tim: The question I had about Space War was based on a moment from Steven Levy’s great book from the early 1980s, Hackers. One of the early players of Space War, who programmed the expensive planetarium plugin, was an avid player. Every day he’s playing Space War, playing, playing, playing. Then one weekend he goes home to a suburb of Boston, and it’s a cold night, clear. He steps off the train. He looks up at the sky, and a meteor shoots across the sky. He grabs for the controller, and the first thing he thinks is, “Where’s my spaceship?” Then he realizes, “Oh, no, no. That’s actually the sky.”

It was a powerful moment that tells us something about the dark side of some of this technology, because he was the first person to discover that the computer can just hack our brains and produce this Pavlovian response. I think that moment when he reached for the controller that wasn’t there, when he was actually looking at the wonders of nature, that was the precursor to everybody who’s ever anxiously checked their Facebook for updates, everyone’s who’s addicted to Xbox, all of the darker side of this.

Are you concerned that too much play nowadays is just optimized to make us very passive, and to control us, and we’re not experimenting in the way we used to?

“That idea that the external world, because of the way it’s designed, can make you a little crazy was a very new idea in the 19th century. Now we—particularly parents of young children who are playing video games—think about it every single day.”

Steven: It reminds me of playing Tetris, when you you’d walk out into the world and be like, “I could rotate that pillar and just turn it, fit it in there.”

It goes back, actually, to the shopping story. In those department stores that we were talking about, that arose in the late 19th century in places like Le Bon Marché, one of the things that started to happen is that all these well-to-do women started to steal from the big department stores, even though they had plenty of money. Suddenly, this wave of kleptomania went through Parisian society, and became a big issue. Zola wrote about it in one of his novels. There were all these studies of these women: “They don’t need to steal, and yet they seem to be stealing.” They couldn’t figure out what it was.

Then, eventually, they began to realize that the space of the department store was kind of making them crazy, that it was so designed to overwhelm them with all these goods that they could have, that it was messing with their brains on some level, just as Space War messed with our brains. As we move into worlds where our environments are engineered with a very nuanced understanding of what our brains are interested in, you’re going to see more and more of those kinds of over-steering or addictions. That idea that the external world, because of the way it’s designed, can make you a little crazy was a very new idea in the 19th century. Now we—particularly parents of young children who are playing video games—think about it every single day.

It is a very complicated thing. It’s not all just about delight and play and wonder. As I alluded to with cotton, you can’t tell the story of slavery without talking about cotton. On some level, when those women were getting those appetites for calico and chintz in London in 1680, they were setting in motion something that would lead to some of the most horrific events… You can make the argument that cotton was the worst thing to happen to the world for a century and a half. It’s certainly not just a story of celebration and delight without those downsides.

I wanted to ask you something that I kept thinking while reading Messy: did researching and writing a book about creative mess change your own work routine?

Tim: I’ve certainly gotten a lot more lenient on myself about my messy desk. I’m actually a very tidy person generally, but my desk is often pretty messy.

One of the things I discovered writing the book is that a messy desk is generally highly functional for most. It depends on exactly what you do, but for the kind of jobs many people do, where you’ve got miscellaneous information constantly coming across the desk, our tendency is we need to impose order immediately. Actually, imposing order is not a good idea when you don’t really understand what all this stuff is. I spoke to one of the experts on this. There’s a psychologist called Steve Whittaker who studies how we manage both digital and physical documents. He used to work for Lotus and AT&T Labs. Steve Whittaker told me about premature filing.

Steven: Terrible disease.

Tim: Premature filing—either with paper or with your emails and digital documents—is when the stuff comes in, and you’re like, “Oh my goodness. I have to get this off my desk,” but you don’t really know what category it belongs in. We’re always told, “Put everything in the right place.” Well, that’s fine if it’s a corkscrew. You can put the corkscrew in the drawer. But there’s no right place for the email, because you don’t yet understand what projects this email connects to. Actually, if you leave the email in your inbox, if you leave the paper on your desk, or some quite loose organizational system, it’s much more functional.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the most amazing men in history, also had this great self-improvement kick. As well as being president of Pennsylvania, signing the Declaration of Independence, inventing bifocals, setting up a library and an insurance company and a newspaper, and all the other things he did, he went through all these phases of self-improvement. And the one thing he always regretted at the end of his life: he was still messy. He wrote, in his autobiography, at eighty years old, “If only I’d managed to tidy up, I would really have got something done.”

It’s an incredible process of self-delusion. We keep thinking that if only we could tidy it, it would work better. Very often it’s not true.