Deep Play: An Impressionistic Theory of Innovation

I have my second essay up at Aeon Magazine, Deep Play. It’s an attempt at an impressionistic picture of how the world of innovation works.  Here’s an extract:

The EMP Museum, the Gates Foundation, and the MOHAI form what I’ve dubbed the Titan Triangle of Seattle, a zone of violent urban terraforming. Sometimes, on my walks, an absurd image pops up into my head: Bezos, Gates and Allen standing like thousand-foot colossi at the three vertices, hammering away at the earth, with the ghost of Boeing looking on. Violence is the key word here. To scurry about within Titan Triangle is to be struck by the relentless violence — physical, financial, social, and psychological — of a process dubbed ‘creative destruction’. As popularised by the economist Joseph Schumpeter in the 1940s, this is the technology-driven unravelling and cohering of social orders in the human world.

But standing between the EMP Museum and the Gates Foundation, and taking in their opposing visions of innovation, I am equally struck by the fact that the transformative violence of creative destruction still appears to be governed by that apparently intractable question: how can you talk of colonies on Mars when there are starving children in Africa?

Billions of dollars are apportioned according to the logic of that question every year. And one has to wonder, do the financiers of creative destruction operate by better answers than the ones you and I trade at parties?

Without giving too much away, the essay tries to get at the fundamental structure of industrial-age innovation models using a happy/broken families metaphor, with some inspiration from Clifford Geertz’ notion of deep play.

And in case you missed it, here’s my first Aeon essay, American Cloudwhich appeared earlier this year.

These pieces at Aeon have been an interesting challenge: trying to treat themes as complex as the ones I attempt here at ribbonfarm, but in a more accessible way for a mainstream audience. Tough game, since it means doing without random engineering metaphors or too much obscure conceptual scaffolding (the first draft of this essay was a cheerful mess of yin-yang references, genies in lamps etc. which I would likely have let through untouched if I’d posted here).

Am learning as I go along, thanks to my editor there, Ross Andersen.

No time for a full post this week, but this one should keep you busy.

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Venkat,

    You should look into Dr. Sarasvathy’s research into what makes entrepreneurs entrepreneurial. I think it connects several threads in what you’ve been writing about recently. For this piece, there is a certain type of uncertainty that entrepreneurs really thrive in, Knightian Uncertainty. Rather than trying to predict what will happen (causal logic), they try to imagine what they can make happen (effectual logic). Effectual logic might be related to the concept of play here, you don’t necessarily know the rules you are dealing with, so how can you have fun with the game pieces and other players? I also think there might be a connection between hedgehog/fox thinking and causal/effectual, and even that Calculus of Grit post from a while back.

    There are a couple books on effectuation, but you might get the most bang for your buck from these two papers:

    The research is actually fairly rigorous too.

    • One other thing: in her book she also discusses the effects on society of entrepreneurs and how better policies might help or hurt. I haven’t got that far yet in my reading, but I can see it being relevant to the Mars/Africa question.

    • Interesting, thanks. Bookmarked.

  2. I liked the “American Cloud” article better. This one felt a bit like a keynote-speech for executives.

    As I understand the original use of “deep play” by Geertz it is a social order which distributes wealth and status neither through work nor trade, but through games. The deep play can be perceived as a variation of a potlatch with elements of chance. Nothing could be further away from “free play” which usually means something along child play or tinkering. In deep play there is no antagonism between undirected creativity and institutional control but the play is a social institution.

    An acquaintance of mine, a loud and funny guy, one with lots of buddies, is a cheater. He creates bots to gather resources in multi-player online games, increasing the value of his figures. He told me once he was successful in selling bots on Ebay for a few thousand Euro. He would never spend any money for playing and he shows open contempt for anyone who does. He can be heated about people who buy virtual weapons and other useless goods. “Those are junkies!”, he says. He is a passionate hacker who creates his own free play on top of a ruled game which is also a means to an end for a company that organizes it and apparently lives from selling those virtual goods he enjoys to bot. His little innovative business cannot scale up for obvious reasons but demanding this would muddle innovation with a democratic, humanist and universalist sentiment, the kind of sentiment signing responsible for deadbeat dads space needle kitsch and moms counterproductive interventions in Africa. Not that he wouldn’t enjoy space needle kitsch as well. He is a trekkie.

    • That’s a good tweet-length summary of deep play. I think that’s exactly what you get when you embed childish patterns in the adult social order and give it control. We just haven’t done it in a century.

      Your friend sounds like an interesting kind of wildcard character I’d like to see more of in the innovation scene.

  3. This is my favorite “Effectuation” summary (see the pdf link on this page):

    The same-titled book is dense and excellent, as is the long list of references in the endnotes:

  4. In the Aeon article, you write: “As the modern history of US innovation demonstrates very well, products that are not derived from decades of patient, unsexy government-funded research tend to be insubstantial and ephemeral, feeding manias, bubbles and even outright fraud.” To me this is the most cogent and irrefutable statement you made, but one which most Americans, still in the grip of free market fundamentalism would scoff at.

    However, from my own close hand observation, and from books like Name Your Link, I say it is massively correct. In the early part of the 20c, Bell Labs was getting founded just as AT&T wanted to provide a knock-out demonstration of transcontinental telephony. A handful of physics Ph.D.s with the right stuff went at to solve the problem of boosting the signal every so many miles at the point where it would start to fad out without a boost. This lead through tinkering that was however beyond the budget of the garage inventor (even if they’d had garages back then) to the (amplifying) vacuum tube. This reminds me too of J.J. Thompson at Cavendish lab tinkering with early cathode ray tubes with, I think, no commercial application at the time, and somehow through this tinkering, getting a clear if indirect picture of the electron and a vague idea of the structure of atoms (mostly empty to a shocking extent).
    Getting back to Bell Labs, Richard John in Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications
    provides a sound demonstration that this kind of innovation by AT&T/WE/ Bell Labs complex was possible due to its status as a heavily regulated monopoly. The AT&T/government relationship granted the company unique priveledges in return for civil behavior towards other companies, and continual striving to broaden and improve service.
    Their list of fundamental inventions is simply the foundation of all of today’s glittering personal electronics/communication technology. The transister and then the Integrated circuit, the laser, fiber optics, and in software, the C language and UNIX which underlie or provide a model for the foundation level of nearly all computer software today, they pioneered email (and “netnews”) somewhat in tandem with Arpanet providing surprisingly useful networking based on phone lines and modems, then became thorougly integrated with the DARPA and University invented TCP/IP and the internet, a true information “highway” — a skeleton which sort of created a worldwide free market for networked applications while Microsoft and AOL tried to promote centralized depots for” all your information needs”. Bell Labs also laboriously worked out the technology of networked cellular phone towers and mobile devices bringing it to fruition even as their run was coming to an end.
    Silicon valley originated largely with Bell Labs people going out to make money, but again, with was facilitated by piles of government money financing the aerospace industry calling eventually for microprocessors that finally, the proverbial garage inventors turned into a personal computer industry, the tail that eventually wagged the dog.
    Then again the basic physics without which none of this would be possible came from nonprofit institutions like Britain’s Cavendish Labs, and the (originally mostly German) concept of the research university.
    The idea that all these institutions can be dissolved or free-marketized (as with the university system) is totally speculative promoted by such as Ludwig (we don’t need no steenkin empirical data — seriously, he wrote a 300+ page book in epistemology to promote the idea that we can build an “economics to end all economics” on a small set of axioms, and always have the answers (always the same answers) with no need for data gathering) Von Mises.
    It is the opposite of what Burke would have called conservative (and libertarians spent a lot of time dismissing conservatism before they got in bed with it, seeing an opportunity to crush all manifestations of the welfare state once and for all).

  5. I’m sorry in the previous post “books like Name Your Link” should have read “books like The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation

  6. Since you mention Clifford Geertz, I wonder if you are aware of any body of anthropological work on whether fission of hunter gatherer groups is ever correlated with a corresponding fissure of world view — like one group wants to do things a different way, or sees things very differently, and that plays some role in precipitating the fission.

  7. Back to Aeon article — it seems to me that Bell Labs engineers, esp. at the elite places like Murray Hill had quite a bit of permission to play, and took advantage of it, inventing e.g. operating systems and computer languages that nobody commissioned them to do. On the other hand, the continual looming of a few big practical problems may have been that thing that caused them to produce things that never came out of University labs.

    • IBM Zurich Research Laboratory was also such a place. The raster tunnel microscope was invented there and high temperature superconducting. Today Microsoft Research seems to be a good place for computing scientists to stay, Google hosts Peter Norvig, Jeff Dean and students of Geoffrey Hinton …

      Universities have a tough time. It is probably the worst in their history which goes back to the middle ages. They have fallen prey to the regime of evaluation which has been installed and made necessary after a phase of expansion in the 1970s. In Russia the academy of sciences was essentially dissolved this year and I wonder if the protest of mathematicians with stellar credentials and reputation is an indication of the queasy feeling that things can run worse for the life of the mind than it did under Soviet rule and the ideological competition of empires. The shock wave just didn’t hit them hard yet.

      If there aren’t any high castles and their deep plays anymore the barbarian forests and its indies may lose much of their heterodox and rebellious charm either. No romantics without classicists. Same goes with libertarian hyper-protestantism which feels anything but liberating. It has more in common with dark euphoria and the demand for shock therapies applied to developing and eastern European countries in the past.

  8. Just read the first aeon article on the American cloud. The commenters there are pieces of work: nasty, snippy hipsters trying to outdo each other with how cynical and intense their ‘debunking’ frame can be. Or at least that was my first impression.
    It’s interesting how different people perceive the same piece of writing. I thought it was a fairly detached comment on the fairly well-acknowleged fact that our modern urbanized existence is increasingly artificial, at further and further remove from nature and, increasingly, the lower-level realities of escaping from nature. If there was a subject being ‘attacked’ it was the unreflective middle-brow urban coastal consumer, neither ‘aware’ hipster nor the heartland residents that some posters felt the need to defend. Although, now , I think that’s it: the Aeon readers were
    angry at Venkatesh for assuming that THEY were unreflective middle-brow urban coastal consumers. He opened the article telling them “hey guess what guys, your Whole Foods experience isn’t real !” , and they replied back with ” Hey, we cynical urban hipsters/heartland residents already know that!!” . Who would have thought you could unite heartland farmers and urban hipsters in an alliance!! At least in the symbolic ether-space of the blogosphere.