Wonderland Podcast with Steven Johnson: Episode 9

Sphere of Life

Or, why humans are so obsessed with a bouncing ball

8 min read

An investigation into one of humanity’s oldest and most ubiquitous inventions: the ball. From Egyptian rituals to the birth of the rubber industry to new digital balls that can be controlled by software programs, the ball has played a surprisingly transformative role in society.

Special guests: John Fox, author of The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game, and Melissa Coleman of Hackaball.

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: Party in the Front (Or, How We Incorporate Play into Work)
Listen to the next episode: “
For the Fun of It (Or, the Play in Great Work)

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STEVEN JOHNSON: The year is 1493, during Columbus’s second voyage to the Americas, somewhere on the coast of modern day Haiti. Columbus’s men are observing the indigenous people of the island playing a ball game. Now, the spectacle of a sporting event with balls would have been nothing new to European eyes at the end of the 15th century, but there is something captivating, something mysterious, about this particular game. The ball seems to defy physics. One observer later writes of the ball’s strange behavior, quote, “Jumping and bouncing are its qualities, upward and downward, to and fro. It can exhaust the pursuer running after it before he can catch up with it.”

Like normal European balls, the Haitian balls can be thrown with ease and can roll great distances, but these balls have an additional property. They can bounce. Now, Columbus and his crew don’t realize it at the time, but they are the first Europeans to experience the distinctive properties of the organic compound isoprene, the key ingredient of what we now call rubber.

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

The ball is the jellyfish of gaming evolution, at once ancient, and yet still ubiquitous in the modern world. The Olmecs, Aztecs, and Mayans all failed to invent the wheel, but the ball was central to the culture of all three societies. The balls that Columbus’s men observed had been formed out of naturally occurring latex. Around 1500 BC, the Mesoamerican natives hit upon a way to mold and stabilize the liquid into the shape of a sphere, which then possessed a marvelous elasticity that made it ideal for games. Rubber ball games became a staple of the Mesoamerican civilization for thousands of years. The games were both sporting events and religious rituals, officiated by priests and featuring idols that represented the gods of gaming.

JOHN FOX: Like so many things, you know, when you go far enough back, the origins get pretty murky.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s John Fox, author of the book The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game, and the co-creator of a great documentary called Bounce: How the Ball Taught the World to Play.

JOHN FOX: The ball is such a simple object in terms of its kinetics, and what excites us about it, that it’s not too much of a stretch to think that those early hominids, among all the other things they were discovering like fire and language, discovered that, “Hey, you know, when I throw this, it flies in a perfect trajectory,” or “When I roll it, it rolls in a certain, certain way that’s playful and enjoyable.” The earliest archeological or literary references come from Mesopotamia. There’s mentions of ball games in the Epic of Gilgamesh, you know, the first work of literature, in 2500BC, and then from there it, we, you know, we see it emerging in culture after culture.

A ball by definition is a social object. It comes to life when it’s a form of interaction between people or animals, you know, where I roll the ball to you and you know what to do and rolling it back to me. Or if I throw the ball at you, that’s a completely different form of interaction, but it’s equally social. So I think as social beings we’re just really, we’re just drawn to these, these objects and there’s this universality to it.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Ball games have long had an important cultural impact, but arguably their biggest influence came through the material science of manufacturing the ball itself. Europeans were fascinated with the material of rubber when Columbus brought back several balls to the Spanish court. For 200 years, European scientists explored the intriguing properties of this material, almost entirely in the form of watching balls bounce. One Spanish historian wrote, “I don’t understand how when the balls hit the ground, they are sent in the air with such incredible bounce.”

It wasn’t until the 19th century that big industry began exploiting the industrial applications of rubber. A history marred by terrible exploitation, both of human and natural resources. Today, of course, the rubber industry is massive. We walk with shoes made with rubber soles, chew gum made from rubber compounds, drive cars and fly planes supported by rubber tires. Columbus had returned to Spain, disappointed by his failure to bring back gold. If only he had known how many fortunes would be made out of isoprene’s unique chemistry. Some of the most famous names in the history of big industry began their career manufacturing and selling rubber products. Firestone, Pirelli, Michelin.

ANNOUNCER: Super Ball. Look, it’s almost alive. It bounces and bounces, keeps going and going, almost forever. Hurry, try and catch it.

STEVEN JOHNSON: The funny thing about the history of rubber is that the standard story of rubber’s invention is that of the struggling 19th century entrepreneur, Charles Goodyear, who hit upon a technique called vulcanization that made rubber durable enough for industrial use and made Goodyear himself a titan of industry. Now the prominence of the Goodyear narrative is partly due to a longstanding bias towards Euro-American characters in the history of innovation, but I think it also derives from another, more subtle bias. The assumption that important innovations come out of serious research like Goodyear’s, fueled by entrepreneurial energy. But long before Goodyear’s investigation, the Mesoamericans took the opposite path driven, not by industrial ambition, but rather by the delight of play.

For the ancient Mayans and Olmecs, the playfulness of the ball game was just the beginning.

JOHN FOX: They considered a lot of inanimate things to have animate nature, and the ball was considered that way. For the Mesoamericans, the rubber ball was a symbol of the sun and the moon in the sky, and they had creation legends in which a ball game that was played between these hero twins and the lords of the underworld was, was actually part of generating the world as we know it, and establishing the cosmos in, in their perfect form that they are today. And so they saw the ball as something that brings life and has life within it, in a way that, you know they looked at human beings, that it was like a human being.

STEVEN JOHNSON: But the ball, it turns out, is still evolving. It played a meaningful role in the Industrial Revolution, thanks to the history of rubber, but it appears to have new life in the digital age.

ADVERTISEMENT: This is Hackaball. The ball with a difference.

STEVEN JOHNSON: A new generation of creators are trying to bring balls to life through digital co teach programming in the process.

ADVERTISEMENT: It’s a connected ball, and a throwable computer, all in one.

STEVEN JOHNSON: The Hackaball is, as the creators call it, a throwable computer. That is, a smart and responsive ball that children can code and play their own games with. After launching on Kickstarter, the first version of this new ball has now shipped around the world. Hackaball designer, Melissa Coleman, feels that even as the team designed the ball to be a beautiful object, it’s not meant to be precious.

ANNOUNCER: “¦all protected by a tough, kid-proof rubber shell.

MELISSA COLEMAN: We’ve made it so that it’s something that is desirable and interesting. You want to hold it, you know, like when you, when you take it into any kind of situation, when you’ve got like one of those Hackaball’s with you, it’s just like, “What is that?” You know, I think at the same time we wanted it not to be precious. You know, you’re supposed to love it, but you’re not supposed to, kind of think of it as unbreakable.

STEVEN JOHNSON: So where does the fun lie then, with a new kind of ball? Like many of our favorite sports that continue to be played, the object gives us a reason to act like a team.

MELISSA COLEMAN: I think the fun comes from, you know, like, “When the ball does this then we all have to roll on the ground,” and then, like, everybody’s laughing because it’s like, it’s just a crazy excuse to do, like, lots of different things.

STEVEN JOHNSON: But in the 21st century, how do you introduce something as simple, or in this case as complex, as a ball? For the Hackaball team, testing the ball with children, and the open programming platform, changed the way that they thought about games.

MELISSA COLEMAN: When we started playing with kids, we realized that for them play is all about fun, and maximizing fun. So we did make it so that you would sort of change the games as you played them. You would like continue to optimize them because that’s also, you know, something that you do in coding, you, you write something, you see that’s not quite right, and then you make it better, but kids just kind of threw it upside down for us because they, they make games that sometimes they’re just very, to us feel very unstructured. You know, like it might have like 50 rules and, you know, one is about like running outside, and the other one is about like rolling on the ground, and then suddenly you’re a spider and it’s like, it’s all over the place.

But I guess the thing that we embraced is that, you know, for them this was fun. In the end, that’s all that mattered. They were using the platform, they were learning how to change things, how to write things, and then, and then they were just like rolling with the, and there were, there were games that, you know, I looked at them and I was like, “That’s not a game.” And the kids were like, “Oh no, that’s totally a game.” So I think that was a big, big learning for us.

STEVEN JOHNSON: By letting the players of the Hackaball determine the rules with their own code, this new ball opens up the possibility for seemingly infinite games. And who knows? Maybe that imaginative exploration of what a game can be might lead to one of those children inventing the next game that the whole world will participate in, as players and as spectators.

JOHN FOX: Soccer, or football as we know it, goes back to, has its origins in England going back as early as the 10th century where it was this unruly mob game played between villagers or opposing towns. Then, while it got people riled up and engaged and built a sense of community, there were no rules, and if one town went to another town to play, the first thing they’d have to say was like, “Well, how the hell are we going to play this game? Like, what are the rules that you play by, and I play by?”

And so yeah, I think, I think soccer brings together something very ancient and, and deep in our, in our being, which is the ball, and the simplicity of play and the sociality of play with our fellow humans. And at the same time, it brings something very modern, which is this idea of agreed-upon rules, legislated rules that actually make the game playable and beautiful, because, when you think about it, the game is only a game if you can agree on the language of the game, and that’s what rules are. So when you watch the World Cup it is, it’s like a universal language, or the closest we have to it. And it’s that combination of the innate desire to play, and the language of rules as they’re applied to it.

STEVEN JOHNSON: You know, John, it occurs to me just listening to you right now that if some kind of a world government does emerge, you know, a hundred years from now, it’s, it’s not going to come out of the United Nations. It, maybe it’s going to come out of football, out of, you know, FIFA or the, or the World Cup.

JOHN FOX: As long as it doesn’t come with the corruption of FIFA, I think that’s a splendid idea.

STEVEN JOHNSON: OK, so a world government emerging out of a ball game may be pushing it a bit, but it’s still worth pausing for a second to reflect on this. Watching people play a World Cup game of football may well be the ritual that is most easily understood, without any language translation, to the widest number of human beings on the planet. When Marshall McLuhan first imagined a “global village” 50 years ago, it was the new technology of television that he thought it would bring us all together. But maybe an even more powerful connective technology is a much simpler one. The playful, unpredictable thrill of kicking a ball around.



Listen to the previous episode: Party in the Front (Or, How We Incorporate Play into Work)
Listen to the next episode: “
For the Fun of It (Or, the Play in Great Work)

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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