Analyzing the Tech Age

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

Through thick spectacles, my grandma squinted futilely. She raised her new iPhone 6+ within centimeters of her glasses, her arched nose nearly activating the gadget’s home button and restarting this tedious process for the fifth time.

“Okay Tove,” I coached patiently, “now we’ve found the Words With Friends App. How do you download it?”

Her index finger rigidly scanned the screen, briefly hovering over and identifying each button present on the App Store’s interface. To my dismay, her erect digit ignored the painfully obvious “GET” button to the right of the app’s icon. Instead, she clumsily pressed her finger for a cringeworthy two-seconds to a star in the App Store’s bottom left corner; “favorites.” My conviction all but expired, and I halfheartedly reminded her to just tap the screen.

There are few requirements vital to a fruitful relationship between a smartphone and its user; fingers, eyes, and most vitally, an ability to cooperate with the device. This final trait is something that my grandmother, and others with similar technological ineptitude, lack. These devices are designed to assist and enhance their user, but their benefits are inaccessible to Tove and many members of her generation. She did not grow up in the same world as me. The uncanny speed with which technology developed and assimilated into everyday life developed an instinctual, collaborative understanding in the minds of the youth who grew up alongside it. But technology’s societal integration was so swift and permeating that it displaced the generation that grew up before its existence.

Today, lacking a smartphone is a handicap akin to being an amputee forty years ago. The Internet has rolled the flat expanse of civilization into a compact ball, eroding the obstacles that physical distance once presented. In his book The Innovators, Walter Isaacson attempts a holistic examination of the innovations that transformed the way humans interact, learn, and problem solve. Tracing the lineage of modern computing to its humble origin in the first machines, Isaacson follows the yellow brick road, examining the major innovations that transformed the sewing machine into the smartphone.

Stretching nearly two centuries into the past, the vastness of the author’s subject matter had the potential to devolve into a historical research paper. However, the book’s focus is narrow enough to eliminate this risk. As his title suggests, Isaacson’s subject material centers on the innovation. Methodically and comprehensively, he analyzes the characters destined to contribute some vital brick in the tower of personal computing. He roots out the factors that directly or indirectly contributed to the golden moment of genius that occurs when an ambitious individual or team espouses some new concept destined to be world-shaking.

Isaacson makes no effort to conceal or dramatically withhold the wisdom his work ultimately espouses. His introduction lays plain the claim that is supported by all that follows: collaboration is vital to innovation. Isaacson takes it upon himself to dispel the cliché solitude of genius, ““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.” At least among those who seek to turn their inspiration into innovation, teamwork is as vital as genius.

The author commences his endeavor by dropping the reader into the 1830s with Ada Lovelace’s visionary insight into Charles Babbage’s “analytical engine.” Isaacson examines the builders of what would become the foundation of modern technology. Lovelace, who many consider to be the world’s first computer programmer, observed potential in one of Babbage’s machines that even he had not considered. Consequently, our first collaborative technology duo emerged to produce an automated system that produced numbers from the Bernoulli sequence. Although this innovation is undeniably vital to the future of technology, the distant time period in which machines first acquired their ability to make calculations diminishes the accuracy and quantity of information that Isaacson can confidently display as contributors to the innovation. Consequently, this chapter lacks some of the ingredients in the recipe that Isaacson distills through the examination of the circumstances that eventuate in a Eureka moment: “Most of the great innovations of the digital age sprang from an interplay of creative individuals (Mauchly, Turing, von Neumann, Aiken) with teams that knew how to implement their ideas… Innovation comes from teams more often than from the light bulb moments of lone geniuses.”

His later chapters are less constrained by the redactions of time. Examining the key players in the invention of every stepping stone from the transistor to the web, Isaacson maintains his claim that where history glorifies a specific individuals who espouse some priceless nugget of wisdom, the real credit and glory belong to various people and circumstances surrounding the proclaimed hero. In his last best selling book, Jobs, Isaacson reconfigures the world’s deistic impression of Apple’s extraordinary founder, revealing the vital contributions of Job’s overlooked team members. Similarly, The Innovators focuses its lense on Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with the invention of the World Wide Web. In his established, follow-the-innovations approach, Isaacson delves into the lengthy, collaborative effort that resulted in the Internet. First, J. C. R. “Lick” Licklider’s invention of the decentralized network in 1962. Then, Bob Taylor and Larry Robert’s transformation of Lick’s network into the ARPANET. Finally, after the bike is all but built, Isaacson examines Tim Berners-Lee’s contribution that advanced the network into it’s evolved form that so transformed modern living: “So who does deserve the most credit for inventing the Internet? As with the question of who invented the computer, the answer is that it was a case of collaborative creativity.” But beyond simply recognizing the individual contributors, Isaacson’s magnifying glass wanders in a different direction, scrutinizing the impact of the ongoing war in Vietnam on the innovations resulting in the Internet.

“Wander” is an appropriate word for the focus of Isaacson’s examination. So are “magnifying” and “glass” because in my mind, I envision Isaacson as a time travelling Sherlock Holmes; not exactly a Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Jr-esque snarky vigilante, but rather, an eloquent surmiser. An interesting story teller with an interesting tale. The truth is, however, that there is no “recipe for innovation.” It is simply inevitable. It is evolution, a law destined to occur so long as a clock ticks. There are innumerable contributing factors in the personal and societal existences of these noble innovators that sculpt them into the marble of history. Isaacson’s attempt to distill the exact circumstances that engender innovation is an overzealous and inconclusive search.

But while his book fails to produce a Unicorn, it does extoll some rather interesting horses. Isaacson astutely observes the role that teamwork played in the technological surge of the last forty years. The invention of computers removed the greatest barriers to collaboration and what followed was the result of giving our species a unified forum of communication: fantastic innovations emerged. Further, as humans advanced into the uncharted territory of the digital age, Isaacson carefully notes the persistence with which our society gravitates toward specific paths of innovation: “I was struck by how the truest creativity of the digital age came from those who were able to connect the arts and sciences… Another theme that emerged from my research was that users repeatedly commandeered digital innovations to create communications and social networking tools.” What Isaacson has identified is mankind’s encounter with a new dimension of freedom akin to a fish learning he needn’t swim parallel to the ocean floor.

Finally, Isaacson turns his attention to the future of technology. After studying on the atomic level the spine of technological innovation, what lies ahead in the exciting and ever-strengthening bond between humans and computers? Although Artificial Intelligence is still only a budding field, Isaacson purports that the human mind can never be programmed into a computer. There is a vital spark existent in the human mind that a program could never replicate. We have the ability to make random connections between ideas and creatively problem solve. As Isaacson eloquates, “new ideas occur when a lot of random notions churn together until they coalesce.” New technology gave us the ability to churn exponentially more ideas together, and their coalesce is predictably awe-inspiring.

All in all, The Innovators is an important, if somewhat misguided, record of the gears turning the wheel of change during one of most transformative periods in history. It is witty, clever, and stirs something deep in the human soul based in the freedom to exist and create limitlessly.