Keen On

KeenON: “Innovators” Author Walter Isaacson

KeenON_Logo_FinalTechonomy is proud to present KeenON, a series of interviews by techonologist and author Andrew Keen that explores the intersection of tech, business, and culture.

Walter Isaacson, the biographer of great men like Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs, has now turned to the history of the digital revolution. But rather than the story of genius, Isaacson’s “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution,” is actually a narrative of collaboration between talented people.

Beginning with the remarkable relationship between Charles Babbage and Ida Lovelace in the middle of the 19th century, Isaacson sees the story of the digital revolution in terms of collaboration. From the partnership between Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove that created Intel to Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Woz and Jobs, and Sergei and Larry, Isaacson stresses the value of collaboration in the creation of the personal computer and the Internet. Indeed, if there is a villain in Isaacson’s “Innovators,” it’s William Shockley, the egocentric co-inventor of the transistor, whose failure to collaborate with his peers represents one of the most tragic stories of the digital age.

So it wasn’t surprising that, when I sat down with Isaacson to talk about “The Innovators,” his focus was on the collaborative nature of innovation. From the role of a group of unheralded women in the creation of computer software, to the collaboration between the arts and the sciences, to collaborative books between authors and their readers, to the all-important collaboration between humans and computers in the 21st century, Isaacson sees innovation as an intrinsically  group effort.

As Isaacson confesses, “The Innovators” took him more than 15 years to write. It’s a critically important book—the first comprehensive history of both computers and the Internet—which introduces us to key technologists like Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider, and Doug Englebart. More importantly, however, Isaacson brings these remarkable characters to life. He gets beyond the ones and zeros and provides us with human beings who not only invented computers and the Internet, but also had unquantifiably complex lives of their own.

Walter Isaacson doesn’t believe in Ray Kurzweil’s idea of the singularity. Human-beings, he insists, will always play a central role in their relationship with technology. Such optimism distinguishes Isaacson from economists like Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolfsson who are much more ambivalent about the impact of the digital revolution on jobs and prosperity. Hope is what most laces Isaacson’s thinking. And it’s hope too which is the central character, the real genius, in Isaacson’s splendid new history of the digital age.

To watch the five full-length KeenON interviews with Walter Isaacson, click here.

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