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Wonderland is a series about the past and future of play and innovation.

Necessity isn’t always the mother of invention; some of our most important ideas arise out of moments of playful exploration. Hosted by Steven Johnson, bestselling author and co-creator of the PBS series How We Got To Now, and inspired by his book Wonderland: How Play Made The Modern World.

Featuring conversations about creativity and invention with leading contemporary scientists, programmers, musicians, and more, Wonderland is brought to you by Microsoft, and by Riverhead Books.

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

Click through for show notes and transcript for each episode

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For Alexa, say “play “‘Wonderland Podcast with Steven Johnson'”

Episode 1: Babbage and the Dancer (Or, Can You Fall in Love With a Robot?)

An eight-year-old boy’s encounter with a robotic toy doll ends up changing the course of technological history. With special guests Ken Goldberg and Kate Darling, here’s a look at the uncanny world of emotional robotics. What if the dystopian future turns out to be one where the robots conquer humanity with their cuteness?

Episode 2: 32 Dots Per Spaceship (Or, the Video Game That Changed Tech History)

A look back at the origins of Spacewar!, the first video game and one of the most influential pieces of software ever written. With special guests Stewart Brand and Spacewar! creator Steve Russell.

Read Steven Johnson’s background for Episode 2.

Episode 3: Strange Loops and Circuit Benders (Or, How New Music Comes from Broken Machines)

A mysterious stranger in San Francisco’s Union Square helps jumpstart a sonic revolution with a malfunctioning tape recorder. The story of how experimental sounds become part of the musical mainstream, with special guests Brian Eno, Alex Ross, Caroline Shaw, Carla Scaletti, and Antenes.

Read Steven Johnson’s background for Episode 3. The team would like to give additional thanks to Mike Rugnetta and John Dimatos for this episode.

Episode 4: Airplanes, Zoos, and Infinite Chickens (Or, Why Do Humans Like to Play?)

An exploration of the power of play, from screen-based games like Pokémon Go or Minecraft, to the imaginative worlds of children inventing playgrounds out of everyday life.

With special guests Alison Gopnik, professor at Berkeley and author of The Gardener and the Carpenter; Youngna Park, head of product at Tinybop; Clive Thompson, journalist and author of Smarter Than You Think; and Ian Bogost, philosopher, video game designer, and author of Play Anything.

Episode 5: Greater Than Zero (Or, the Politics of Serious Games)

An investigation into the surprising history of games designed to change our political values, from the radical origins of Monopoly to a brand-new spin on Pokémon Go created to mobilize swing-state voters in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Special guests: Jane McGonigal, Mary Pilon, and Asi Burak.

Episode 6: Clever Like a Fox (Or, What Happens Inside Our Brains When We Play?)

A look into how games and childhood play encourage the kind of adaptive, flexible thinking we need to navigate a complex world.

Special guests: Alison Gopnik, Shawn Green, Daniel Chao, and Asi Burak.

Episode 7: In Pursuit of Condiments (Or, How the Spice Trade Changed Our Palates)

From the thrilling story of the Pepper Wreck and its salvage to the strange tale of a 12-year-old slave who solved the riddle that changed the global footprint of the vanilla trade forever, a look at how playful spices remade the map of the world with special guests Filipe Vieira de Castro and Patricia Rain.

Episode 8: Party in the Front (Or, How We Incorporate Play into Work)

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.

Episode 9: Sphere of Life (Or, Why Humans Are So Obsessed With a Bouncing Ball)

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.

Episode 10: For the Fun of It (Or, the Play in Great Work)

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 Ph.D. at the Media Lab working on the DuoSkin project in collaboration with Microsoft Research.

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  3. Select an episode and hit play.

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019.

For the Fun of It

Steven Johnson
9 min read

Sphere of Life

Steven Johnson
8 min read

Party in the Front

Steven Johnson
11 min read