“Authority should be questioned, hierarchies should be circumvented, nonconformity should be admired, and creativity should be nurtured.”
― Walter Isaacson
I first heard about The Innovators online, and it sounded quite interesting. The author, Walter Isaacson, is a prominent non-fiction writer and is known for his excellent biographies, including a bestseller about Steve Jobs. I found Steve Jobs to be engrossing and really character focussed. It managed to be "encyclopedic" in that it covered all the important events of Job's life, but I think the main goal was to impress upon the reader an unbiased and clear sense of who Jobs was as a person - a brilliant, opinionated, and ultimately flawed individual that I personally felt I understood a lot better after finishing the book. I think Isaacson did a great job of conveying who Steve Jobs was through the descriptions of what he did.
Back in December I was in Columbus at the German Book Loft, a densely packed maze of books that was easy, and enjoyable, to get lost in. I managed to find The Innovators in one of its 27 rooms and so I bought it there. Reading physical books is pretty rare for me nowadays but I thought I'd switch it up and go old school. If Isaacson's specialty is writing biographies, then I'd consider The Innovators to be a biography of computers. He takes you through the history of computing machines, from Babbage's Analytical Engine in the 1800's, to Boole and Shannon's development of Information Theory in the early 20th century, to the military-funded work of Turing and Von Neumann in their attempts to make and break encryption ciphers, all the way to Silicon Valley and the origins of the tech giants of today. In just less than 500 pages, Isaacson summarizes the work and innovations of countless men and women that contributed to our digital revolution. It is no easy task to create a coherent narrative from such a long span of time, but I found that Isaacson did a pretty good job at this. The essence and importance of each innovation was evident from my perspective, and the technological progress built upon itself in a sensible way. However I may be more predisposed given I work with computer technology. I'm curious how much someone with little knowledge of computers would learn from a book like this. I actually think The Innovators would not be very educational for most, because even though I enjoyed reading it and I understood the concepts discussed, I think it is too broad of a topic, covered within too few pages, to develop any in-depth understanding.
I think the lack of educational value would be the only major gripe I had with The Innovators, and I'm not even convinced it's a negative thing. I mean really, the book is very educational in that it is full of important facts and it provides clear explanations of important points in computing history. But I feel that because it's scope is so large, the reader will find it hard to remember the details of particular innovations. There are so many names and individuals introduced in the book that even now I am getting confused between them all. I think that Isaacson, maybe inadvertently, migrated his biographical writing style over to this book. Almost every person introduced throughout the book is granted several pages with which Isaacson describes their upbringing, their education, some interesting anecdotes, and their favourite flavour of ice cream. While these numerous vignettes are interesting, I think they start to blend in with one another, and this actually makes it harder to remember the individuals and what they accomplished. These extraneous details are really what balloons the book to it's size, and in my opinion detract from it's educational value. While I can appreciate the need to humanize the men and women whose work this book is commemorating, I certainly won't remember these details going forward...nor would I want to.
That being said, I still found tremendous value in The Innovators as a story about human progress and the extraordinary revolution that has taken place over the course of a single lifetime. It was interesting, engaging, and overall an entertaining read. I think anyone who is remotely interested in history and computers would find this book really worth their time. Isaacson is an excellent writer and I felt he did a lot of research in compiling this information.
It seemed that Isaacson's main thesis in The Innovators was that innovation is unfairly represented as the product of a single person's work. The archetype of a lone genius is a very popular narrative that we can very readily accept and attribute to inventions and leaps of progress. However, Isaacson sought to refute this narrative by researching and cataloging the efforts of all the individuals involved in the tides of change.
“But the main lesson to draw from the birth of computers is that innovation is usually a group effort, involving collaboration between visionaries and engineers, and that creativity comes from drawing on many sources. Only in storybooks do inventions come like a thunderbolt, or a lightbulb popping out of the head of a lone individual in a basement or garret or garage.”
― Walter Isaacson
There have been numerous examples throughout history of important ideas being arrived at in isolation but by numerous people. After googling I found out this is phenomenon is aptly named "Multiple Discovery". Examples include Newton and Leibniz independently inventing calculus, the theory of evolution advanced by Darwin as well as Wallace, and the creation of Google's PageRank algorithm, which I only learned after reading The Innovators. This pattern lends itself to the theory that innovation is a cumulative effort. If multiple people are in the position to make the same discoveries at the same time, it is because our collective body of knowledge has reached the appropriate point for such discoveries to manifest. Some times these discoveries happen in complete isolation, and other times they are due to the work of several people working together.
I think Isaacson really wanted to highlight this aspect of technological progress, not only to dispel the "heroic" genius myth, but also to advocate for the continuation of idea sharing and cooperation. Preserving the concepts of free open-source software, and limiting the usage of intellectual property claims will be a boon to technology as well as the welfare of all. I don't think these ideas are new at all, as there has been lots of debate and discourse surrounding this in our modern society. Several people have been incredibly influential over the past couple decades in advocating for these progressive perspectives (Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, Aaron Swartz etc.). I think what Isaacson has accomplished with The Innovators is to provide historical evidence that all of modern society's technology and the wonderful benefits to our lives have been because of open collaboration. Building upon each other's work, communicating across disciplines and ideologies, and being altruistic are all woven into the DNA of computers, and these principles have been mapped into the actual functionality of computing technology itself. A decentralized internet, a myriad of communication methods, sharing, mutability, and a healthy disrespect for authority and convention - these are the hallmarks of the people who built this technology. Isaacson showed that this was no coincidence, this way of thinking is necessary for innovation.
“progress comes not only in great leaps but also from hundreds of small steps.”
― Walter Isaacson