Wonderland Podcast with Steven Johnson: Episode 8

Party in the Front

Or, how we incorporate play into work

11 min read

An exploration of the cultural shift that began with a leisure space of idle chatter and led to some of our most productive modern work environments being deliberately designed to make space for play.

With special guests Matt Haughey of Slack and MetaFilter, Audrea Hooper of Zappos, and Andrew Sinkov and the conference rooms of Etsy HQ.

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: In Pursuit of Condiments (Or, How the Spice Trade Changed Our Palates)
Listen to the next episode: “
Sphere of Life (Or, Why Humans Are So Obsessed With a Bouncing Ball)

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STEVEN JOHNSON: In 1675, King Charles II issued a proclamation raising grave concerns about a new development that posed an immediate threat to the health of the nation. Now, you might reasonably assume that this threat involved spies for sinister continental powers, or some dire challenge to the Church of England, but in fact, Charles was worried about something else. People were wasting too much of their time drinking coffee.

Now take a listen to some of the language of his decree. “It is most apparent that the multitude of coffee houses of late years, and the great resort of idle and disaffected persons to them, have produced very evil and dangerous effects. Many tradesmen and others do here in misspend much of their time, which might and probably would be employed in and about their lawful calling and affairs. In such houses diverse, false, malicious, and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad, for the defamation of His Majesty’s government. His Majesty hath thought it fit and necessary that the said coffee houses be, for the future, put down and suppressed.”

Now, the coffee house ban lasted exactly one week. London was already too addicted to the coffee house scene to give it up so easily. And Charles was wrong about the coffee houses being a hotbed of idle and disaffected people, or proper tradesman being distracted from their lawful calling and affairs. The coffee house culture would turn out to play a defining role in the British Enlightenment. In the next hundred years, coffee houses would give birth to the modern insurance industry and weekly magazines and public museums and new stock exchanges and dozens of other breakthrough ideas in science and technology and commerce. Space designed for leisure and amusement and idle chatter turned into an engine of creativity and innovation. More than 300 years later, they still have something to teach us about our modern workspaces. It turns out that some of our most productive work environments are deliberately designed to make room for play.

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.

One day in the late summer of 1961, a woman stood at a roulette table in Las Vegas, placing bets in the chaos of the casino floor. At her side, a neatly dressed, 30-year-old man pushed his chips onto the betting area with a strange inconsistency. The man would never bet until a few seconds after the ball had been released. Many times, he failed to bet at all, waiting patiently, table-side, until the next spin. But the pile of chips slowly growing in front of him suggested that his eccentric strategy was working. At one point, the woman turned to glance at the stranger beside her. To her shock, a wirey appendage was protruding from his ear, “Like the antenna of an alien insect,” as the man would later describe it. Seconds later, he was gone.

The mysterious stranger at the roulette table was not, contrary to appearances, a criminal or a member of the mob. He was not even, technically speaking, cheating at the game, though years later his secret technique would be banned by the casinos. He was, instead, a computer scientist from MIT named Edward Thorp. He would come to Vegas, not to break the bank, but rather to test a brand new device. The very first wearable computer ever designed. Thorp actually had an accomplice at the roulette table, standing unobserved at the other end pretending not to know his partner. He would have been unrecognizable to the average casino patron, but he was in fact one of the most important minds of the postwar era, Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, and one of the key contributors to the invention of digital computers.

Now, the contraption Shannon and Thorp invented marked a watershed moment in the history of computing. In an age when computers were the size of refrigerators, they had designed a tiny device that could calculate the velocity of the roulette ball with enough accuracy to give the two men a slight advantage over the house at roulette. It’s yet another example of how important games have been to the history of computing, from Alan Turing’s musing on chess and artificial intelligence all the way to IBM’s Watson supercomputer beating human players at Jeopardy!. But what I really love about the story of Thorp and Shannon is the work environment that they used to invent their breakthrough device. They bought a used roulette wheel, so they could experiment on it, and set it up in the basement of Shannon’s house on the Mystic Lakes, a few miles from Cambridge. Now, you have to remember, Shannon was one of the most formidable intellects of his generation, but the workspace he had devised was, in Thorp’s words, “An endless source of playful ingenuity and entertainment.”

Shannon taught Thorpe to juggle in between researching their breakthrough computer. Shannon himself learned how to ride a unicycle on a tightrope and eventually taught himself to juggle while riding the unicycle. The basement was teeming with hundreds of gadgets and toys. Shannon even devised a pair of massive styrofoam shoes so that he could astound his neighbors by taking an afternoon stroll, walking across the water of the Mystic Lake. When they needed a break from work or had hit a particularly thorny problem, the two men would take turns on a swing Shannon had built outside his house that was connected to a huge tree on the side of a hill. From a distance, they might’ve been indistinguishable from a pair of seven-year-olds. Now, this is the late ’50s and early ’60s, remember, the age of “the organization man,” where the image of a technology company was the starched collars and ties of IBM’s Big Blue. But Shannon had recognized something that the denizens of the London coffee houses had recognized three centuries before. Sometimes, the most playful work environments turn out to be the most productive.

ANDREW SINKOV: This is, this is my favorite named room, right here, this is, this the one. “Ace of Bouillabaisse.”

STEVEN JOHNSON: I’m at the Brooklyn headquarters of Etsy, getting a tour from Andrew Sinkov, Etsy’s editor-in-chief. Andrew’s showing me the names of all the conference rooms there, which apparently, by some kind of decree, have to involve both the name of a musician and a food.

ANDREW SINKOV: So we’re looking at “Tuna Turner” right now. Some of my other favorites are “Soy Division” and “Pjörk,”, which is pretty great. They have sort of these naming competitions, name the rooms, and I, I think they’re phenomenal. I think like it’s this added pleasure of going into a room that’s got a really funny name. You know, I think one thing that is, when you, when you walk into this space and sort of experience the space, that you get a sense of Etsy’s core values in a very clear way. Here, when you look at the space and you experience all the, all the things that have been considered, you’re actually seeing a lot of the stuff that we as a company care about.

STEVEN JOHNSON: No company has embraced the ethos of play and fun more enthusiastically than Zappos. In fact, “fungineer” is an official job description there.

AUDREA HOOPER: We like to create fun and engaging experiences, just to get people away from their desk for 15 minutes. It’s a lot of work hard, play hard atmosphere around here, so when when we are engaged in work we’re really focused on that, but when we are engaged in play, we’re very welcoming to that as well.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s Andrea Hooper [sic], who’s part of the “fungineering team,” among other roles, at Zappos.

AUDREA HOOPER: We do events that are based around company culture. We celebrate “Customer Service Week” every year. Let’s celebrate “75 Years of Batman Day.” We do a “Fandom Friday” where it’s a small, like, comic con. We’ve done a really large water fight. One year for Valentine’s Day, we did, half of our plaza was “Happy Valentine’s Day,” and then half of it was “Single Awareness Day.” Table flipping and crush candy with mallets. We just like to do fun and kind of quirky, engaging experiences.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Like a lot of these companies, Zappos is opening up their offices to a wider community, not just employees.

AUDREA HOOPER: Campus is open to the community. So our courtyard area, our lobby area, and our entryway are accessible from the community, they can just come and check it out. We do have a lot of artwork. Paco, our art curator, has filled our campus with artwork, and we actually have a onsite artist, Miguel Hernandez, and he does a lot of artwork that’s on the campus, a lot of murals, conference room decorating. So a lot of culture on our campus, and it’s really cool to see our culture in action.

STEVEN JOHNSON: If public artworks are important to a company that sells shoes, you can imagine how important it is to a company like Etsy. It creates a marketplace for creative artists and designers all around the world.

ANDREW SINKOV: We are in Etsy Labs, which is the sixth floor of Etsy’s headquarters, and this is where we have all sorts of craft materials, so we think it’s important that everybody kind of get their hands dirty and learn how to make things, because that’s what powers the community behind Etsy, and so we have everything from yarns and threads, sewing machines, hot glue guns on the dry side, and then there’s a wet lab which has screen printing, various paint supplies, a dark room. We have a laser cutter and a 3D printing studio. Over here there’s a whole wood shop. There’s actually a music room as well for people that, we have a lot of musicians, a lot of creativity in this space, as you could imagine, a company like Etsy brings a lot of creative people together. And over here, what’s actually happening now, because it’s the holidays, is people are wrapping gifts for families that we’re supporting as sort of a charity kind of effort. So we’re, we’re wrapping gifts for, for others.

STEVEN JOHNSON: The other thing I think is sometimes misunderstood when people look at tech companies that have environments like this is that these things are seen as just kind of perks, like having, you know, a limo service or something back in the old days. Whereas what’s really interesting about it is it actually creates not just a happier workforce and, and team, but a more creative and more innovative one.

ANDREW SINKOV: There’s multiple ways to think about this idea of perks and benefits. There’s the, the sort of very traditional way of thinking about them and then there’s the more, the, the focus on productivity. So how does, how does a benefit actually improve the productivity of the workforce through happiness, or through, you know, all, all of those types of facets, all the, the more like psychological things rather than, here’s a benefit that allows you to just like brag to your friends that you get something for free.

This company, Etsy, definitely has fewer, I think, of those types of perks, and more of the psychological ones, more of the happiness-making ones, and that’s important because it helps with concerns around burnout or whatever it may be. And you know, you’re trying to do a job, you’re trying to work hard. Having, having opportunities to have fun and enjoy the environment that you’re in is actually important.

STEVEN JOHNSON: You know what I love about it is, you know, you have this whole theme of play, and the kind of childlike delight, and the importance of integrating that into a workspace, and other than the 3D printer and the laser cutter, like it kind of looks like kindergarten.

ANDREW SINKOV: Yeah, yeah.

MATT HAUGHEY: Work hard and go home. It’s sort of painted on the walls.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s Matt Haughey, one of the pioneers of blogging, founder of the site Metafilter, and now works at Slack, the group messaging platform.

MATT HAUGHEY: Don’t goof around at work. We have some, like, weird internal rules like, “There will never be a ping-pong table at work.” Also, “Work your ass off from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM and then go home, we never want to see, there’s never going to be free dinner here, don’t live here like it’s Google, go home, see your family, recharge, feel better.” And as a result, you know, like my coworkers have really cool side projects and fun things they build in their free time.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Matt’s had a long history of thinking about the nexus between work, play, and community.

MATT HAUGHEY: I had a coworking space for the last couple of years. I’ve been in one where they forced, sort of, playfulness into it, like, “Hey, Friday, it’s beer time.” But like it feels weird to like force people to, strangers to try and drink beers and be nice to each other versus like, you know, as part of like an artist collective one with an expo space, where every Friday we showed off what we built each week and it was just incredible. The output of the VR software people, and there were comic book artists and there were like sound recording engineers. Every Friday you’d just get this amazing mix of what people did, what they produced, like new comic books, just stuff that blew me away. And that sort of put subtle pressure on everyone to like work harder all week, but also let you know those people on the other side, like what the heck they do.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Matt and I started talking about the virtual environment of Metafilter, the site he founded many years ago.

If you think about it in the metaphor of the coffee house, it’s that third place. It’s not home, it’s not family, it’s not work.

MATT HAUGHEY: Yeah, definitely. And it’s weird when I look at, from the back end, the site is based on advertising at this point. There’s about 60,000 people looking at thousands of pages a month, or something like 20 million page views a month. So we put little ads on them, and like 95 percent of the money comes from a really nuts and bolts Q&A section of the site, Ask Metafilter, where people just ask direct questions of each other like, “Hey, how do I solve this thing?” It’s very like driven by, you know, solving a problem. Where the front page of it is just like the wild internet, like here are some neat things on the internet and it makes no money, one or two percent of the total take for the month, but that’s where all the activity is. And we’ve always realized, I could have turned it into a Quora, you know, I could’ve just went all in on the question and answer, but there’d be no reason, like I myself don’t really visit Quora for fun, because I only go there once in a while when I want to ask a question or look up an answer. In terms of economics, it doesn’t make sense to put all these resources into something that doesn’t make any money. But on the other hand, it is literally like party in the front and business in the back, I guess it’s reversed.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Now, the playful space of the coffee house has a lot to teach us about the design of our work environments and corporate campuses, but we should be clear that this history isn’t just about making our businesses more innovative. There’s another kind of progress at leisure spaces like the coffee house or the tavern, of historically-driven progress in the sense of progressive movements. Progress in the sense of tearing down the boundaries between different social classes, driving democratic movements, allowing subcultures a space to meet and find a collective voice. I mean, you can’t tell the story of the American Revolution without including the role of bars and taverns in spreading the word and galvanizing support for the uprising against the British, and you can’t tell the story of the gay rights movement without the underground gay bars like New York’s Stonewall or LA’s Black Cat, that created the first space where gay men and women felt comfortable enough to be out in a semi-public space.

And in a way, Charles II was partly right about the coffee houses. No, they weren’t creating a generation of slackers wasting their time all day drinking coffee. But the coffee houses, like the bars and taverns, did end up pushing the boundaries of social relationships, encouraging experimentation and nurturing dissent. The first person to hang out a shingle and serve drinks to paying customers at some point back in the dawn of civilization almost certainly had no idea that his or her innovation would ultimately support political and sexual revolutions that would reverberate around the world. But that is the unlikely legacy of these playful spaces. Designed originally for leisure and an escape from the daily grind, they became, against all odds, hotbeds of dangerous new ideas.



Listen to the previous episode: In Pursuit of Condiments (Or, How the Spice Trade Changed Our Palates)
Listen to the next 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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