Keen On

KeenON: Five Conversations with 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.

The Key to Innovation: Partnerships

The central message of “The Innovators” is that collaboration is king. Partnerships, Walter Isaacson explains, are the at the core of every great enterprise—from Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage’s invention of the computer to Larry and Sergei’s invention of Google.

But what are the keys to being a good innovator? Are twosomes better than threesomes? Can companies—Facebook, for example, be founded by a single individual? And what, according to Isaacson, did Steve Jobs consider his great innovation?

The Role of Women in Tech

Walter Isaacson begins and ends “The Innovators” with Ada Lovelace, the 19th century mathematician who some believe invented programming and software. But, in between, apart from a group of unheralded mathematicians who programmed the ENIAC, the world’s first all purpose computer, there are very few woman featured in the story of the digital revolution. Why?

Isaacson suggests that much of this has to do with confidence. So how can we inspire women to study computer science and play a more central role in the digital revolution? Do women need role models like Ada Lovelace? Or is there something intrinsically intimating about math and science which scares women off?

The Human-Computer Symbiosis Driving The Digital Revolution

Throughout “The Innovators,” Walter Isaacson stresses the role of the arts in the history of the digital revolution. Science isn’t enough, Isaacson reminds us, in the invention of digital products and services. In fact, he says, the great innovators—from Doug Englebart and J.C.R. Licklider to Steve Jobs and Alan Kay—have, through their artistic talents, been able to make technology more personal and intimate.

But what distinguishes the artistic genius of Englebart or Jobs from the madness of the inventor of the transistor William Shockley? And why have some creative talents, such as Ted Nelson and his Xanadu project failed, while others, like Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web, succeeded?

Why Singularity Is Always Twenty Years In The Future

Ever since 1957, Walter Isaacson says, there has been talk about “singularity” and the imminent replacement of human-beings with artificial intelligence. But Isaacson, in a splendidly understated takedown of Ray Kurzweil, believes that singularity will always be “twenty years away.” Instead, Isaacson insists, in the J.C.R. Licklider’s “symbiosis” of human and computer intelligence which will define the digital world. Rather than the race against the machine, we are actually going to be working with the machine in the 21st century.

But what makes Walter Isaacson so confident that technology is actually going to create jobs in the digital 21st century? What does history teach us about the future? And does Isaacson acknowledge that his optimism about the future might be misplaced?

A Living Book

“The Innovators,” Walter Isaacson confesses, might be his last conventional book. In the future, he says, he would like to create a book as “a living thing”—a crowd sourced collaboration in which he, the author, would be a curator of collective intelligence. A traditional author like Isaacson, then, would become a kind of creative director or producer—a maestro leading the orchestra.

But what needs to happen for the book to come to life? Should the crowd be financially compensated for its work? And why is a viable digital payments system so critical in this new world of creative collaboration?

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