Wonderland Podcast with Steven Johnson: Episode 10

For the Fun of It

Or, the play in great work

9 min read

In the final episode of the season, we explore ornamentation, the non-medical application of a device made with gold leaf, and how the MIT Media Lab stays creative.

Special guests: Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, and Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, a PhD at the Media Lab working on the DuoSkin project in collaboration with Microsoft Research.

Hosted by Steven Johnson
Produced by Kristen Taylor
Audio engineering & music editing by Jason Oberholtzer
Theme music by Steven Johnson

Listen to the previous episode: Sphere of Life (Or, Why Humans Are So Obsessed With a Bouncing Ball)

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STEVEN JOHNSON: This is the final episode of this season of the “Wonderland” podcast. I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey as much as we have. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to some of our earlier episodes, you might want to give them a listen. We looked at the promise and peril of adorable robots.

KATE DARLING: It’s true. They’re going to kill us with their cuteness.

STEVEN JOHNSON: I played a 50-year-old video game with my son.

Oh yeah OK, I can turn mine.

STEVE RUSSELL: OK, hit that, rotate.

STEVEN JOHNSON: And we went deep into the world of musical play with Brian Eno and Caroline Shaw.


STEVEN JOHNSON: But given that this is a series about play and innovation, it seemed fitting to spend our last episode thinking about one of the most playful and innovative spaces I know. The legendary MIT media lab.

I’m Steven Johnson and this is “Wonderland.” “Wonderland” is brought to you by Microsoft, and by Riverhead Books, publisher of my new book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World.

I’ve known Joi Ito for more than 15 years. We first met after he wrote an influential essay that tried to apply some of the ideas in my book Emergence to democratic politics. Even back then, he had a reputation as a brilliant thinker and a savvy angel investor, and a passionate gamer. His World of Warcraft guild was legendary. And so when it was announced that he’d be leading the MIT Media Lab a few years ago, it seemed like the perfect fit. He’s got a new book out, coauthored with Jeff Howe, called Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future. I caught up with him via Skype from a hallway at, no surprise here, the World Economic Forum at Davos.

JOI ITO: We have a lot of history at the Media Lab on thinking about learning and learning, creative learning, everything from Seymour Papert and Logo to Scratch, but there’s a group that developed Scratch called Lifelong Kindergarten, because we feel that the sort of interactive, playful nature of kindergarten is actually the appropriate learning environment that we unfortunately eliminate when we get into grade school. And so we we think a lot about what creative learning is, which is exceedingly important in an age where artificial intelligence and robots will start to take over those knowledge and skill base jobs that come from that learning, and so what we think creative learning requires, as we call them the four Ps, which is projects, peers, passion, play, and there’s a lot of pedagogy that shows just learning in textbooks out of context is very difficult for people to apply in the real world, and in fact working on projects is a great way to learn.

Peers, you know, learning from each other, learning from your friends, if you survey kids, a lot, often they will say that they remember better when they learned it from other kids, and obviously we know from experience that teaching other people is a really great way to learn. Passion is super important. Wanting to learn, and there’s so much stuff out there already on the internet, Youtube videos, online courses, but it’s really what drives you to learn, which we think is, a lot of it is projects and a lot of it’s peers, but fourth, and sometimes in many ways the most important, is play, because we know also there’s a lot of research that shows that pressure and anxiety, and rewards like money, drive people to more effectively solve problems that are linear. It’s well known, I think, and well shown, that playful approaches to problems tend, in addition to diversity, tend to have a much higher impact on creative problem solving, which will probably be more more and more of the domain of human beings as robots get better at the linear part.

STEVEN JOHNSON: How do, how do you in practice, like, create that culture of play? Like what does play mean in a revered academic institution like the Media Lab?

JOI ITO: Well I think it starts with, well it starts with the people at some level but a lot of it’s the culture, but we’re very sort of negative about measurement. We don’t do lectures. We call it learning through construction rather than instruction. And it’s much easier to be playful when you’re working on something in a collaborative sense rather than a competitive sense. You know, and, and obviously we have some competition, we have some things that look a little bit like instruction but, but we feel like the, the, the idea of sort of building things and doing things with each other enhances a sense of play. And, and once you’ve kind of built into the DNA and you create the environment, it should become infectious.

And so, you know, the reason the Media Lab’s survived for 30 years and has gone from working on human interfaces to networks to now we’re doing synthetic biology is that it’s really more about the culture and the process rather than it is about the specific topic.

STEVEN JOHNSON: To some extent is running a guild in World of Warcraft, do you think that that prepared you for the, for the Media Lab? I mean, do you see a connection between the kind of intellectual work one does, or play the one does in that space, and the kind of institution you’re trying to build?

JOI ITO: Absolutely. I think I dropped out of college to become a disc jockey in a nightclub because I felt like a nightclub had the diversity and the dynamic culture that taught me about how communities and culture work. And I’ve been fascinated with communities ever since. And communities are, are directly sort of at scale, a different, is government, and is, is, is markets, so it’s very important for me to understand it.

And the World of Warcraft is fascinating because, I remember when I had a point where I was thinking about this, I would be more devastated losing all of my items in the game than losing all of my physical things that I own. So it’s a game, but it’s very real to many people. And you know, when you spend thousands or tens of thousands of hours in the game, it becomes very much a reality, and so, but having said that, everybody’s doing it for fun. They’re paying money to be in the World of Warcraft, and this is why it’s like a nightclub, but not necessarily like a government, because you don’t just sort of show up there and you’re stuck there. You could always walk away, right? So like a good nightclub, how do you get people to put in the time, put in the energy and, they’re paying the money, but you want to get them to behave in a constructive way that helps everybody, and, and play is the thing that gets everybody excited. It’s, it’s the excitement. It’s the passion, and the Media Lab is just like that. The students and the faculty are, they don’t have to be there, they could all get better-paying jobs everywhere else, but the reason they’re there is because of the work that they’re doing and the passion that they have and the way that I can manage and work on the Media Lab is very much like a nightclub, very much like the World of Warcraft is by tuning the culture.

They won’t follow the rules. They don’t have to follow the rules. You should have very little punishment, other than kicking them out. How do you participate in a system in a way that increases the likelihood that the culture continues to get better, and how do you create sort of a vibrant energy that attracts the kind of people that you want? And also you’re trying to find the best players in the game who are also fun, and you do that by creating a beacon, which is sort of the brand, but you have to create a filter when it comes in, and then you have to get the bad people back out again, bad being people who don’t fit your culture. Same as nightclubs, you get a couple of people that don’t fit and then the other people stop coming and they stop coming and it all unwinds. Same at a university. If you have the wrong people, the good people stop applying, so nightclub to World of Warcraft, very similar dynamic.

STEVEN JOHNSON: One of the most mind-bending projects coming out of the Media Lab in this last year is DuoSkin, which looks like one of those inexpensive metallic temporary tattoos. And it is. But DuoSkin is also an electronic device you can code to create an interface on your skin. We spoke with Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, a PhD at the Lab, to understand more about the three ways DuoSkin works to display information.

CINDY HSIN-LIU KAO: If you follow our instructions on our paper, you could create your own on-skin interface for around 200 bucks, and it can do three main things. The first set of devices you could create are input devices, so it’s basically like a touchscreen moving, the touchscreen on your phone, directly onto your skin, and you can interact directly on your skin to control your devices, your computer, your phone. The second set of devices are output devices, so we call them displays, so we use a material called thermochromic, so these pigments, they would have a really ink-like color change when they’re triggered by heat, and so it gives off this really interesting body aesthetic while displaying information. And the third set of devices are communications devices, so we’re basically creating NFC, near-field communication tags. It can replace your office name tag, your bus card, personalizing these devices, so they really go with your everyday style, is something we really care about.

So on-skin interfaces, we mostly refer to it as technology that sits directly on your skin for non-medical purposes, so more so purposes of, like, lifestyle and interaction. There have been a lot of, they call it epidermal electronics in material science. They focus on medical applications, but they’ve been expensive and hard to manufacture, and so there’s still like a distance between the everyday person, person experiencing these technologies, and so we wanted to make a distinction from this. We wanted to make something that’s very cheap, that’s very user-friendly. Anyone can get access to them.

A lot of wearable tech today is very much looking into the future, but as humans we’ve been decorating our body since the beginning of time. It’s a very big human desire to change how we look, and I think it’s important to build upon existing practices of how we’ve already been decorating or changing our bodies.

STEVEN JOHNSON: DuoSkin uses gold leaf, a material that turns out to be beautiful and functional, as well as one that’s in line with contemporary body art trends. The team decided to use the known aesthetics of metallic temporary tattoos to make the device feel familiar, so more people would be encouraged to try it and start customizing it.

CINDY HSIN-LIU KAO: So we made it temporary on purpose. It’s also something more playful. We want people to try it, right? So if you were today, you were getting like a, an implant, you’re implanting a chip into your arm, like you might need to think twice, but this is only temporary, so why don’t you just try it?

STEVEN JOHNSON: There’s something particularly appropriate about ending the season with DuoSkin, with jewelry that is a fusion of the most advanced technology and our more playful interest in beauty and ornamentation. In a way, this is a very old story. Archeologists have found shell beads in Morocco that are believed to have been originally strung together into a necklace more than 80,000 years ago. They are one of the oldest known examples of jewelry, deliberately crafted by human hands. Almost as soon as our ancestors became toolmakers, they started making jewelry. That interest in the delightful is intimately connected with the desire to invent.

JOI ITO: I think the key thing is follow your passion. If you follow your passion, you will learn a lot of things as you get deep into it. Passion should involve some play. I think if you get passionate about something like hard work, or discipline, emotionally, I think it’s not sustainable and you may not realize until you’re 60 that it isn’t sustainable, but I know a lot of very wealthy people who are very unhappy because they get there and they realize that the goal didn’t have anything fun at the end.

STEVEN JOHNSON: A few years ago, Brian Eno gave a lecture where he proposed a great definition of art, one that probably could be a motto for this series. “Art is everything we don’t have to do.” Think about those ancient shell necklaces. Think about so many of the objects we’ve discussed over the past months. Games, spices, music. What do these things all have in common?

They’re all things that we don’t need. They do not give us some immediate survival value. They don’t directly help us reproduce, or supply us with protection against predators, or keep us warm in the winter. They’re just interesting, surprising, delightful, a new taste on the tongue, a new sound, a beautiful pattern. That history of our interest in these kinds of experiences is so old that we can’t just dismiss that playful side of our personality as one of the indulgences of modern life. From the very beginning, we have made a space for play in our lives. Wonderlands of delight and of beauty. It’s high time we recognized just how generative those spaces have been.



Listen to the previous episode: Sphere of Life (Or, Why Humans Are So Obsessed With a Bouncing Ball)

The logo for the Wonderland Podcast with Steven Johnson

How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. Wonderland is a ten-part podcast series from Steven Johnson about the past and future of play and innovation. Featuring conversations about creativity and invention with leading contemporary scientists, programmers, musicians, and more, the show is brought to you by Microsoft, and by Riverhead Books.

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