In the Industrial Revolution’s wake, aspiring entrepreneurs combed through a landmark biography of inventors for the secrets to success. The five-volume “Lives of the Engineers” by Samuel Smiles, founder of the self-help movement, surveyed a century of human progress with a twist on the Renaissance classic “Lives of the Artists.” Rather than stories of Italian sculptors and painters, he gave us portraits of bridge-builders and engine-makers (including a 500-page ode to locomotive pioneers George and Robert Stephenson) to reveal the character of greatness: mechanical aptitude, frugality, manliness and an insatiable desire for improvement.
Walter Isaacson’s “The Innovators,” a sprawling companion to his best-selling “Steve Jobs,” encroaches on Smiles’s turf. The book weaves together the rise of computing and the Internet from the 1830s to today, using the life stories of more than 60 individuals, partnerships and teams. Instead of emphasizing individual genius, however, Isaacson argues that knowing “how innovation happens in the real world” requires lessons about teamwork and complexity.
“The Innovators,” which has been long-listed for the 2014 National Book Award in nonfiction, revisits the Industrial Revolution to locate the origins of the information age. At a salon party featuring mechanical androids and tableaux vivants, hosted by the visionary technologist Charles Babbage, we meet Ada Lovelace, daughter of the libertine poet Lord Byron, as she sets out to make “analytical engines” that are equal partners with humanity. For Isaacson, this feminist icon embodies the “combining faculty” that links disparate forces of the digital revolution: countercultural rebelliousness, entrepreneurial drive, state-funded technology and the integration of art with science.
History at this scale tends toward either encyclopedia or determinist manifesto, a fate Isaacson avoids by using his talent for stories to shift between romance novel, operating manual, buddy pic, legal briefing, memoir and humanist sermon. This kaleidoscopic narrative serves to explain the stepwise development of 10 core innovations of the digital age — from mathematical logic to transistors, video games and the Web — as well as to illustrate the exemplary traits of their makers.
The composite innovator Isaacson describes differs starkly from earlier heroic portrayals. Smiles’s George Stephenson was a teetotaling family man who diligently studied while his fellow laborers engaged in barroom brawls. Isaacson may tell us that J.C.R. Licklider “was kind” and that Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce “were both decent” Midwesterners who shared credit for the microchip; but we are more apt to recall his account of Jobs quizzing Stanford students on whether they had taken LSD or gotten laid. In the age of heroic invention, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla generated new tropes of eccentric genius and the wizardry of the research laboratory that continue to grip our imagination. However, Isaacson unequivocally demonstrates the power of collaborative labor and the interplay between companies and their broader ecosystems.
A vignette on Bill Gates and Microsoft best showcases the relationship between individuals, teams and the innovation process. Gates is the face of the proprietary wing of the software industry. The self-described “fanatic” with “a risk-taking gene” and “little respect for authority” once negotiated a contract with his sister for non-exclusive rights to her baseball glove. At the prestigious Lakeside School, he and friends started a programming business and stole their administrators’ access codes. But the success of Microsoft depended as much on the complementary skills of Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer as it did on Gates.
Moreover, while lauded as a Harvard dropout, Gates wrote his BASIC interpreter for the Altair personal computer on the university’s military-funded PDP-10. Finally, though he demanded that Homebrew Computing Club members “pay up” for pirating his software, their free distribution helped make it the industry standard. The first moral is that individual genius and teamwork go hand in hand; the second is that conflicting ideological styles and institutions can be mutually beneficial.
Three intersecting patterns of collaborative creativity emerge from the book’s collection of digital lives. First, from World War II until the end of the Cold War, coordinated government funding in the military-industrial-academic complex fostered the electronic computer and the Internet. Second, the profit motive gave rise to corporate research centers, venture capital firms and patent lawyers, which in turn led to “breathtaking innovation in transistors, chips, computers, phones, devices, and Web services.” Finally, loosely coordinated networks driven by non-monetary rewards blossomed during the late 1960s and the early days of the open Internet, generating open-source, self-managing products such as GNU/Linux and Wikipedia. An ideal innovation policy, Isaacson suggests, fosters all three modes despite their sometimes conflicting value systems, and it rewards the impresarios that transgress each.
A motif of “The Innovators” is the challenge of establishing priority for complex innovations. Who, for example, “invented” the electronic computer? Was it John Atanasoff, the lone tinkerer working in an Iowa basement; John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, the ENIAC’s patent-seeking academics; the “all-hands-on-deck” naval crew of Howard Aiken and Grace Hopper; or the polymath John von Neumann? Isaacson favors those who convert ideas into realities and influence the most people. “When people take insights from multiple sources and put them together,” he concludes, “it’s natural for them to think that the resulting ideas are their own — as in truth they are.”
This sharing of credit is not just for the reader’s edification. “The Innovators” is the most accessible and comprehensive history of its kind, but it draws on and synthesizes ideas and evidence from decades of first movers. These include such classics as Steven Levy’s “Hackers,” literary competitors such as James Gleick’s “The Information,” academic tomes such as Fred Turner’s “From Counterculture to Cyberculture,” oral histories conducted by the Smithsonian, and a proliferation of technology journalism from Wired and other sources. Isaacson diligently attends to this syllabus, but it curbs his trademark enthusiasm, and many of his anecdotes are well-worn. The closer the book approaches the present, the more electric it gets. Its insider interviews reveal compelling tales of the intimate and often pornographic origin of blogs, the ascent of Google, and the miracles of open source.
At the book’s climax, Isaacson mines his past as Time’s editor for Internet strategy to comment on less-desirable features of the Web. He offers a mea culpa for ad-supported content, a model he deems not sustainable, and he passionately defends the Web’s open community, whose fate rests with the Federal Communications Commission. But the book has little time for dilemmas of the digital revolution. A lack of Dickensian tenements and smokestacks in the lives of his largely American digirati makes it easier to overlook the effects of rare-earth mineral extraction in the making of components, the conditions in Chinese electronics factories, and the booms and busts of “venture labor” — important truths that now influence even favorable depictions of innovation such as Mike Judge’s HBO satire “Silicon Valley.”
Isaacson instead eyes the future of collaborative creativity with a clarion call for “poetical science.” He champions the merger of art and technology at the heart of the most successful innovators, from Lovelace to Jobs. “The Innovators,” he writes, is a story of the progress of human-computer symbiosis, not artificial intelligence. Its next phase “will bring even more new methods of marrying technology with . . . media, fashion, music, entertainment, education, literature, and the arts.” Indeed, the world’s universities (including my own) are fast at work building infrastructure to instill a “rebellious sense of wonder” in students lest they and the institutions that train them become historical “bystanders.”
What will bring about these poetical innovators? A diverse ecosystem is vital; timing matters; you need venture capital; and a functioning government; big ideas develop across generations; it helps if your mother is a mathematician; war is an engine of change; you never know whom you’ll meet on a train platform; childhood books shape us profoundly; and on and on. But digital geeks scouring their Kindles for insight in this latter-day “Lives” also will find that a basic secret endures — conviction that the best of all possible worlds is limited only by imagination.
Matthew Wisnioski is an associate professor of science and technology in society and a senior fellow of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology at Virginia Tech.
How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster. 542 pp. $35