Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson

3. Music

  • Human artifacts indicate that musical instruments were common tens of thousands of years ago. They were created almost as early as technology designed for hunting and temperature regulation. Music is the most abstract of the arts. We like it because is sounds different from the unstructured noise of the natural world. The ratios between the vibrations of notes we use for pop songs was developed by Pythagorus by 500 BC. Our brains evolved an interest in music the way they evolved color perception and the ability to recognize faces. Musical chanting may have even predated language. It no doubt helped create social bonds, which lead to territorial expansion.
  • The evolution of musical instruments also lead to programming and type setting. Music boxes were programmable, and in a sense, invented software. While it wasn’t the first self-playing instrument, the player piano is also key example, although its demise resulted from the invention of the phonograph. The piano and other keyboard instruments predated the typewriter by at least 500 years even though there is no reason it too couldn’t have been invented in the 14th century. Using a keyboard to make music even dates back to pipe organs from Roman times. Early music boxes lead to the invention of the loom, which was also programmable. Magnetic tape was invented to record music, but soon became a common storage device for data.
  • Music also lends itself to the creation of codes. Cuneiform tablets dating back to 2000 BC are inscribed with musical notes. This was before most human cultures had a written language. In addition to leading the way for writing, automation, programming, an digitized commercial products, it also was first to establish a peer-to-peer network for sharing files with the introduction of Napster in 1999 for sharing music. In short, the instruments of destruction have nothing on the instruments of song.

4. Taste

  • Having a taste for spice is, in part, why we have a modern world in the first place. When European elites got a taste of spices from Indonesia and neighboring islands, they wanted more at any price. This drove a global spice network and resulted in accumulated wealth of Venice, Amsterdam, and London. Profits made pioneering works of art and architecture possible along with calico fabrics that resulted in a boom for cotton textile and the industrial revolution. The grim history of colonial exploitation followed. The trade pushed innovation in cartography, navigation, ship design, corporate structures, and new forms of exploitation.
  • Islam would not have become a major global religion without the long reach of the spice trade. The Columbus voyages that opened up the Americas to European exploration and colonization were driven by the search for an easier spice route. No spice did more to drive the trade than pepper. The Romans ran up a large trade deficit with the spice traders that contributed to the fall of Rome. This chapter also has a great story about the efforts of Frenchman Pierre Poivre (literally Pepper Pepper) to steal plants so that spices could be grown elsewhere.
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