The Innovators: A book review by Bob Morris

InnovatorsThe Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster (2014)

For so many of those involved with collaborative, breakthrough innovations, “Bliss was in that dawn to be alive.”

What we have in this exceptionally valuable volume, as its subtitle correctly suggests — is a comprehensive examination of most (not all) of the most significant “hackers, geniuses, and geeks who created the Digital Revolution.” Walter Isaacson begins his survey with Ada, Countess of Lovelace’s publication of her “Notes” on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in 1843 and concludes with an IBM computer’s (Deep Blue’s) defeat of chess Champion Gary Kasparov in 1997 and then another IBM computer’s (Watson’s) defeat of previous Jeopardy! champions, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, in 2011.

He also notes the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) breakthroughs in innovation, suggesting that “one genius, the English mathematician Alan Turing, stands out as a heroic-tragic figure, and he’s about to get his due in a new movie, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which won the top award at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month and will open in theaters in November.”

As he explains, “The combined talents of humans and computers, when working together in partnership and symbiosis, will definitely be more creative than any computer working alone. We live in the age of computers, but few of us know who invented them. Because most of the pioneers were part of collaborative teams working in wartime secrecy, they aren’t as famous as an Edison, Bell or Morse.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me. They are also listed to suggest the scope of Isaacson’s coverage in Chapters One to Five.

o Lord Byron (Pages 9-13)
o Ada, Countless of Lovelace; also, Byron’s daughter (13-18)
o Charles Babbage and His Machines (18-24)
o Lady Lovelace’s Notes (24-33)
o Alan Turing (40-47)
o John Vincent Atanasoff (54-62)
o John Mauchly (62-66)
o ENIAC (72-75)
o Grace Hopper (88-95)
o The Women of ENIAC (95-100)
o John von Neumann (101-105)
o Can Machines Think? (122-129)
o Bell Labs (132-136)
o The Transistor (141-145)
o Setting the World on Fire (152-154)
o Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore (157-162)

There are seven additional chapters in which Isaacson continues his and his reader’s journey, culminating in IBM’s Watson’s defeat of Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings in competition on the television program, Jeopardy! in 2011.

In the final chapter, Isaacson shares some lessons to be learned from the wealth of information, insights, and counsel he has provided:

1. “First and foremost is that creativity is a collaborative process. Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments.”

2. People don’t invent something new on the Internet. They simply expand on an idea that already exists. “Therein lies another lesson: “the digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations.” Creativity can also be a cross-generational process…and usually is.

3. “Throughout history the best leadership has come from teams that combined people with complementary styles. That was the case with the founding fathers of the United States.”

4. “Another key to fielding a great team is pairing visionaries, who can generate ideas, with operating managers, who can execute them. [According to Thomas Edison] Vision without execution is hallucination.”

5. “There are three ways to put teams together in the digital age. The first has been through government funding and coordination (e.g. Colossus, ENIAC, and ARPANET]…Private enterprise has been another way that collaborative teams were formed [e.g. Bell Labs and Xerox PARC]…Throughout history, there has also been a third way, in addition to government and private enterprises, that collaborative creativity has been organized: through peers freely sharing ideas and making contributions as part of a voluntary common endeavor” such as Wikipedia, Linux, GNU, Open Office, and Firefox.

Before concluding, Walter Isaacson suggests that the interplay between technology and the arts will, in months and years to come, “eventually result in completely new forms of expression and formats of media. This innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processes. In other words, it will come from the spiritual heirs of Ada Lovelace, creators who can flourish where the arts intersect with the sciences and who have a rebellious sense of wonder that opens them to the beauty of both.”

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of his coverage but I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of his latest book. With all due justice to his earlier works, notably his biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and Steve Jobs, I think The Innovators is his greatest achievement…thus far.

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