Derek Thompson and Steven Johnson are rewriting the history of cool. Derek is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author of the forthcoming book Hit Makers, which investigates the science of popularity and secrets of pop culture hits. Steven is the bestselling author of ten books, most recently Wonderland, which highlights the influence of wonder and delight on the movements that shape history. They recently sat down for a live chat at Heleo’s Cocktails & Conversations event at Soho House in Manhattan.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.
Derek: Most history books about economics and innovation focus on what you might call “the serious stuff”—the steak and potatoes, militaries, leaders, presidents, and elections. The subtly subversive thesis of [Wonderland] is that the future is actually made not in the steak but in the candy, in people having fun. Their idle fun leads, across centuries, to “serious innovations” that really change our lives. Can you talk about your thesis of play?
Steven: When you think about the prime movers of history—what you learned in high school or in college, that list of military conquests, religious beliefs, tribalism or nationalism or the quest for power or wealth accumulation—all those things are true. It’s not that those forces aren’t profound. It’s just that there is this other force that’s fragmented out in footnotes and sidebars.
When you look at the collection of things that people did just for the fun of it, those frivolous pursuits end up being much more influential than we realize. The first chapter is about the history of fashion and shopping. In the 1670s and 1680s, a new kind of store began to appear on the streets of well-to-do neighborhoods in London.
Until that point, shopping experiences had been functional. You would go into these very streamlined environments or traveling fairs, and barter. Whoever was selling had a big rack of all their stuff and you would buy. That would be it. Suddenly, in the 1660s, 1670s, 1680s, these new stores started to appear. They were incredibly lavish, with beautiful curtains and faux fireplaces and couches and rugs.
A lot of people, particularly men, were baffled by why these tradesmen were wasting all this money making their stores look so nice. Why not just sell your goods as efficiently as possible? What was happening was that shopping was becoming its own form of amusement, its own recreational act.
Having the experience in this envelope of luxury made it even more exciting. What was being passed on in those new shops was a taste for this exotic new fabric from India, calico and chintz. Calico and chintz were unique, partially because they were cotton, an unusually soft fabric. Also, they had these beautiful, delightful patterns that would survive being washed multiple times. People loved the visual imagery of the patterns, but they also would wear cotton as underwear, which was a big breakthrough because everyone wore wool underwear up until that point. You can imagine rainy, cold London with wool underwear was not that great.
Derek: Or July.
Steven: Anytime, really. All of a sudden, this craze for calico and chintz sweeps through England among well-to-do women. The East India Company starts making an immense amount of money, a huge trade imbalance opens up with India. It devastates the traditional wool industry in England. All these traditional laborers and wool producers are outraged. There’s massive political backlash against these women, who are shamed for betraying their patriotic cause.
“If you ask, ‘What caused industrialization?’ the traditional story is that it’s driven by ingenious entrepreneurs and engineers who come up with fancy technology. In fact, it starts with this moment of delight and fascination.”
They were called Calico Madams. There are these pamphlets and plays and poems—hundreds of things written about these terrible women. In a sense, what starts to develop is a “Make England’s Wool Industry Great Again” movement. For a while, calico and chintz are actually banned, because they’re destroying the English economy. At the same time, a separate group of people, entrepreneurs and engineers, started thinking, “We could use new technology to make cotton and fabrics like calico and chintz here on British soil.”
That really is the beginnings of the industrial revolution—arguably, the most important technological change in the history of our species. If you ask, “What caused industrialization?” the traditional story is that it’s driven by ingenious entrepreneurs and engineers who come up with fancy technology. In fact, it starts with this moment of delight and fascination with this new fabric from across the world.
Derek: When you’re trying to ask, “Why does a cultural product succeed?” you always have to account for a few factors. You have to account for price, for scarcity. There is one cultural product that has no price, however, that has infinite choice and yet still clearly follows hype cycles.
That cultural product is something everyone has—a first name. First names get hot, and then they cool down. When you hear about a woman named Ethel or Edna, you immediately have a sense of how old that person is (which is very). Whereas names like Noah or Dylan are very popular for young boys.
Why does this happen? If there is no price and no scarcity, why do they still have hype cycles? The answer goes back to the industrial revolution. For the vast majority of human history, first names were not a fashion. They were a custom.
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The British monarchs all had the same first names. That’s why you had to have Henry VIII and Edward IV. They just recycled the same names. Half of all the men in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were named William, Thomas, or James. Half of all the women had the same three names.
“Something very special happens when people come together, when you have lots of people in the same area watching each other and answering each other’s stimuli.”
Then, in the 1800s, the turnover rate of first names suddenly takes off. This happens in Denmark, Hungary, Brazil, Canada, the United States—all over the world. The motivating variable has to be something that is shared equally across the world: the industrial revolution. The theory is that, when you have all these people with different first names moving to the same area, you have competition and choice. People copy and distinguish from each other, saying, “Thomas is a farmer boy’s name. I don’t want the name Thomas.” It creates these fashion cycles. It suggests that something very special happens when people come together, when you have lots of people in the same area watching each other and answering each other’s stimuli.
Steven: Fashion creates a restlessness in a society, and a willingness to embrace new ideas, or an openness to experimentation. You talk about neophilia and neophobia, openness to new experiences versus being opposed to new experiences. Fashion-forward societies are, almost to a fault, neophiliac. Braudel, the great historian, says, “It may not be a coincidence that the parts of the world that were the first to undergo democratic revolutions and explore new models of political organization where the ones in which fashion was the most advanced.” This restlessness and openness to change eventually migrates into more serious pursuits like, “How should we govern ourselves? How should society be structured?”
Derek: That’s a great point. There is a theory called Laver’s Law which says that there is a specific order in which things become fashionable or lack fashion. If something is one year old, it’s dowdy. If it’s 10 years old, it’s chintzy and weird. If it’s 30 years old, nostalgic. If it’s 150 years old, it’s beautiful or classic. Fashion is neophilic, but it has this interesting catch, where new is good and old is bad, but very old is good again.
Steven: One of the things that really influenced me in writing this book was a lecture that Brian Eno gave a couple of years ago. In that lecture, he defines art as anything we don’t have to do. We have to feed ourselves. We have to keep warm in the winter. All the other things that we don’t have to do, we do just for fun, that’s art. That’s culture.
Music is a beautiful example. It’s a deep, profound mystery why we are so moved by something as abstract and nonfunctional as music.
“You can take almost any chaotic sound, repeat it at a common interval, and the brain begins to hear it as music. In many ways, repetition is the God particle of music.”
Derek: There’s a fascinating relationship between music and political rhetoric. While researching my book, I spoke with a musicologist named Diana Deutsch. She studies musical illusions. The most famous musical illusion is called the speech-to-sound illusion.
This is the idea that if I say a sentence and I start repeating it again, start repeating it again, start repeating it again, you begin to hear da, da, da, da. You can take almost any chaotic sound, repeat it at a common interval, and the brain begins to hear it as music. In many ways, repetition is the God particle of music. You need rhythm within a song to create a beat, then you put a chorus over that beat. You repeat the chorus within the song.
Repetition is powerful in music in a way it isn’t necessarily powerful in storytelling or visual art. One of my favorite studies is by David Huron from Ohio State, he does this experiment with mice.
He’ll say, “Play a note for a mouse.” You play B and the mouse turns its little head. Then you play B again, and the mouse turns its head. Eventually, the mouse will habituate to the sound. It’s like you hear construction noise outside your window when you’re working and you learn to forget that it’s there. How do you make the mouse keep turning its head? Well, you play a C note, a different note. The mouse will turn again.
The C note won’t just alert the mouse—it will also dishabituate the mouse from the B note. Now, you can go back to distracting the mouse with the B note. If you want to distract a mouse for the longest period of time with the fewest number of notes, that pattern looks like B, B, B, C, B, B, C, B, C, and then a D note to dishabituate from both the B and C.
If you look at the sequence B, B, C, B, C, D, and you replace B with verse and C with chorus and D with bridge, you get verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, which is essentially the construction of every pop song ever written. No, all pop music is not just a mouse dishabituation study. The point is that music plays within rules.
What does it have to do with politics? All of Greek political rhetoric is repetition. You have anaphora, repetition at the beginning of the sentence. “We will fight them in the air. We will fight them on the land,” Winston Churchill. You have repetition at the end of the sentence, Abraham Lincoln,
“Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” You have diacope, which is the repetition of a word with a few words interjected in the middle to enliven it, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” or simply B, C, B, “Drill, baby, drill,” Sarah Palin, the great political rhetorician.
Steven: Master orator.
Derek: The most popular is antimetabole. Antimetabole is everywhere. If you read JFK’s speeches—he and Sorensen are considered the great speech writing team of the 20th century. Antimetabole goes A, B, B, A. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Hillary Clinton, “Women’s rights are human rights. And human rights are women’s rights.” It is absolutely everywhere. Bill Clinton used it, Ronald Reagan used it, everybody uses it.
If you go back and look at self-help books that do extremely well, almost all the most underlined lines are antimetabole, because it has this wondrous ability to turn just about any idea into music. When you hear the music of the idea, you’re like, “Well, I really want that to be true, so I’ll accept it.” I mean, “Ask not what your country can do for you,” is actually a crazy idea. “Ask not what your country can do for you”—why not? I’m poor. Of course I should ask what my country should do for me. Sorensen writes it as A, B, B, A, antimetabole and we’re like, “What a beautiful idea about self-sacrifice.”
One of the things that we both look at is this relationship between surprise and familiarity. People do like new things, but maybe they only like the new things that remind them of old things. In what way do you see this as having played out?
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“Certainly the formal structure of ‘ask not,’ if someone tried to pull that off, that just wouldn’t ring true anymore. There is a generational quality to surprise. One generation’s surprise is the next generation’s old man stuff.”
Steven: It’s interesting to think about in terms of the political speeches. Just hearing you run through those phrases, they are starting to sound dated to our ears. Certainly the formal structure of “ask not,” if someone tried to pull that off, that just wouldn’t ring true anymore. There is a generational quality to surprise. One generation’s surprise is the next generation’s old man stuff.
Derek: It’s the definition of fashion, right? People will get sick of it. You see it in music. Music doesn’t sound like it did in the 1980s-1990s. It’s constantly finding new ways to click forward.
Steven: Yes, though melody and harmony do not seem to change that much. You don’t see nearly as much experimentation as you would think. Where it does change is rhythmic patterns and timbre. Timbre is the big thing that happens in pop music—it’s still a 1-4-5 progression 50 years later.
The chords are the same as the chords that Elvis Presley or The Who were playing. What’s changed is the sonic properties of the sound are constantly being reinvented. You need to continue to experiment. That forces you to invent new sounds to excite the ear in a new way. That leads you to other technological breakthroughs that don’t necessarily have to do with music.
Derek: It’s true for storytelling, as well. Joseph Campbell had this theory that basically every epic story is the same story. It’s always the lost ordinary individual who enters the supernatural world, who fails and then succeeds, then finally defeats the person who is somehow attached to his own past and comes back as the hero. It’s Harry Potter. It’s Lord of the Rings. It’s Jesus. It’s Buddha. It’s so many different stories.
The point is that we enjoy a bit of predictability, provided that the artist changes timbre—it’s not religion, it’s magic. It’s not Middle Earth, it’s England. This becomes very interesting when you look at a show like Westworld.
When you read Wonderland, you can’t not think, “Did the producers of Westworld read this book before they made the show?” Because you talk about how whenever human beings have the capacity to be creative, they design automaton versions of themselves to play with.
“I think that is where we are headed with simulated beings. I think our ability to be fooled into forming emotional attachments with things that are not alive—we are far more vulnerable to that illusion than we realize.”
Steven: Well, “one generation’s surprise is the next generation’s too familiar” is directly related to the way that Westworld is structured. Slowly, over time, television shows were getting more complicated in terms of plot structures, the number of characters, the amount they were willing to challenge the audience compared to the shows that I grew up watching like Dallas or The Dukes of Hazard or The Love Boat.
Some meme I saw the other day online was like, “I watch Westworld. I have no idea what is happening.”
Derek: No one said that about Dallas: “Dallas is way too confusing.”
Steven: I used to make people watch the first minute of episode eight of season one of Dallas just to remind people of how condescending television used to be.
That’s part of it, the complexification of the storytelling. The need to surprise us requires more complex stories because we’ve gotten to be good at parsing those stories. Also, with Westworld, there is a profound question, which [Wonderland] brings up in the context of Snow White and Disney—with certain frames per second, sound, quality of animation, you could take entirely drawn characters and make people feel this incredibly intense emotion. I think that is where we are headed with simulated beings. I think our ability to be fooled into forming emotional attachments with things that are not alive—we are far more vulnerable to that illusion than we realize.
This will probably happen first with voice, with things like the Amazon Alexa or Siri, when these voice agents actually begin to get to know us and learn a little bit about us and develop some kind of personalized connection to us. It will be almost impossible for us not to form complex, layered, potentially even romantic (as in the movie Her) attachments to these disembodied nonexistent creatures.
I think we are going to get to that much faster than we realize. It won’t be a question of AI and super intelligence and killer robots from the future. Siri will not be conscious at all at that stage, but we will feel this compulsive need to project consciousness onto Siri. That will be pretty creepy and interesting.
Derek: We’ll fall in love with the robot overlords, not just welcome them.
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Steven: Exactly…. This whole debate about what happens when machines are so smart that we can’t understand them—I’m personally not smart enough to make an accurate assessment of whether that is likely and whether it will happen. But what is encouraging is that there is a very active, articulate, passionate debate happening right now about that threat. We believe, based on our understanding of the past, based on current technological trends and our sense of where things are headed, that there will be an important problem we will face as a species in about 50 years.
We should start thinking about what to do now so that we can anticipate that problem. That is a very high order form of thinking. The human species has never really done that. We’ve anticipated cyclical problems like 100-year storms and 100-year floods. We’ve never anticipated emergent problems that are going to show up in 50 years that do not exist now.
“Now, we have the ability to at least make conceptual projections forward. That itself is a kind of progress. Whether it’s enough to keep us from those robot overlords in 50 years, I don’t know.”
Derek: Like the industrial revolution. It happens once, maybe twice in history.
Steven: The analogy I would use is it’s like the inventors of industrialization sitting there in 1750 and saying, “Well, this technology is going to be great. We’re going to be making a lot of cheap cotton. We also seem to be putting carbon into the atmosphere, so it would be really good if we could figure out a better way to do this so that we don’t run into a problem 200 years from now.”
Nobody thought that in 1750. That wasn’t even imaginable. Whereas now, we have the ability to at least make those conceptual projections forward. That itself is a kind of progress. Whether it’s enough to keep us from those robot overlords in 50 years, I don’t know.
Derek: It’s always nice to simulate long-term decisions. In a way, art is a simulation of the future. Dystopic art is a simulation of the possibility of a dystopic future.
At The Atlantic, I wrote a cover story last year called, “A World Without Work,” about the threat of technology to employment. Already, we see that there are lots of prime working age, between 25 and 54 [year-old] men who have dropped out of the economy. We aren’t exactly sure why, but there is some evidence that they are not looking for work, not dating, not cleaning up the house. They’re spending a lot of time watching television and playing video games. That sounds dispiriting.
There is a thin silver lining, which is that in life satisfaction studies, these young men who do not have a job and are completely detached from the things that we think provides meaning in life, playing video games makes them happier. They’re actually happier than this cohort was 20 years ago, which is completely shocking to me.
This is going to be continuously studied, so the results might change. Let’s take seriously these results. Let’s take seriously the growth of automation and self-driving cars and Amazon Go shops, where you walk in and location data allows you to just take items off the shelf, you don’t need any cashier or retail salesperson. Which, by the way, cashiers and retail salespersons are the most common occupations in America.
Let’s say a lot of these jobs go away. What are people going to do? Well, maybe they’ll play video games. If video games give people more meaning and more happiness and more community—albeit virtual—than being a cashier or retail salesperson or a personal care aid, then who am I to say that they shouldn’t do that? It will be interesting to see how that interacts with the secular, economic development of a growing cohort of non-working young men and women who might turn to entertainment for the meaning that used to be provided by labor.
“My concern about universal basic income is precisely that it has taken what work represents now—which is community, income, and meaning—and only takes a single strand from it, the income, and left the other two strands alone. Where does meaning come from? Where does community come from?”
Steven: Traditionally the debate has been framed between “The machines are coming to take our jobs and this is terrible,” and “The threat is overrated. The machines aren’t going to take it. People are going to invent new jobs.” You introduced this third possibility: the machines are going to take our jobs… and we might want to celebrate that.
We have to redesign a lot of institutions in society. This is where the drive for universal basic income is coming from.
Derek: My concern about universal basic income is precisely that it has taken what work represents now—which is community, income, and meaning—and only takes a single strand from it, the income, and left the other two strands alone. Where does meaning come from? Where does community come from?
Maybe it comes from video games. I don’t like video games—that suggests to me that there are probably other people that don’t really like video games. Where are they going to get their meaning? Are they going to make art? Are we going to have a flourishing of artisanal shops like we had in colonial America? Maybe, but that’s the challenge. Not “How do you replace the money?” We’re three times richer than we were in the 1980s, and we were plenty rich under Reagan. The question is: how do you replace meaning? Maybe art plays a role, but universal basic income doesn’t cover it.