Tag Archives: wonderland

The television equivalent of the novel

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

Art is the aftershock of technological plates shifting. Sometimes the aftershock is slow in arriving. It took the novel about three hundred years to evolve into its modern form after the invention of the printing press. The television equivalent of the novel—the complex serialized drama of The Wire or Breaking Bad—took as long as seventy years to develop, depending on where you date its origins.

I’ve often thought about today’s serialized, bingeable, Golden Age of Television as the visual equivalent of the novel. Rich worlds. Deep investment in characters. Time to marinate with relationships and stakes.

Before the Golden Age of Television, I was captivated by trilogies — hell, I still am — namely Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (Extended Editions!) I hadn’t read the books, but I felt an attachment to the characters. Its cohesive production, year-over-year release schedule, and follow-through of Tolkien’s parallel stories and stakes built a world I was able to immerse myself in.

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings runs 9 hours in total, the extended editions running 11 hours — not dissimilar from a Golden Age television series.

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Music seems to send us out on a quest for new experiences

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

One premise unites both sides in this debate: that music “presses our pleasure buttons,” as Pinker describes it. Yet there is something too simple in describing our appetite for music in this way. Sugar and opiates, to give just two examples, press pleasure buttons in the brain in a relatively straightforward fashion. Given a taste of one, we instinctively return for more of the same, like those legendary lab rats endlessly pressing the lever for more stimulants. And we put our ingenuity to work concocting ever-more-efficient delivery mechanisms for these forms of pleasure: we refine opium into heroin; we start selling soda in Big Gulp containers. But music—like the patterns and colors unleashed by the fashion revolution—appears to resonate with our pleasure centers at more of an oblique angle. The pleasure in hearing those captivating sounds doesn’t just establish a demand for more of the same. Instead, music seems to send us out on a quest for new experiences: more of the same, but different.

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Modern life itself could make you sick

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

Visible in these perplexed diagnoses is a new way of thinking about the psyche. Diseases of the mind did not have to be rooted in some biological deformity, as the phrenologists had contended; nor was it attributable to some abstract “lesion of the will”; nor was it tied to basic biological realities like menstruation or masturbation. Instead, the root cause of the disorder was to be found somewhere else: in the lived history of social and economic change. Modern life itself could make you sick.

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You will find the future where people are having the most fun

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

This phenomenon turns out to appear consistently throughout the history of humanity’s trifles. The guilty pleasures of life often give us a hint of future changes in society, whether those pleasures take the form of English ladies shopping for calico fabrics in London in the late 1600s, or ancient Roman feasts laden with spices from the far corners of the globe, or carnival hucksters promoting strange optical devices that create the illusion of moving pictures, or computer programmers at MIT in the 1960s playing Spacewar! on their million-dollar mainframes. Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions, it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms. The institutions of society that so dominate traditional history—political bodies, corporations, religions—can tell you quite a bit about the current state of the social order. But if you are trying to figure out what’s coming next, you are often better off exploring the margins of play: the hobbies and curiosity pieces and subcultures of human beings devising new ways to have fun. “Each epoch dreams the one to follow, creates it in dreaming,” the French “historian Michelet wrote in 1839. More often than not, those dreams do not unfold within the grown-up world of work or war or governance. Instead, they emerge from a different kind of space: a space of wonder and delight where the normal rules have been suspended, where people are free to explore the spontaneous, unpredictable, and immensely creative work of play. You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.

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