Sunday, May 17, 2015

Book Review: The Innovators

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

This is a long, sprawling, and engrossing biography of the so-called "Information Revolution," via the people who made it happen. It has a couple of consistent, strongly-presented themes:
  1. With rare exceptions, innovators are not lonely genuises toiling away in obscurity. Instead, creativity and invention seem to spring from getting many creative thinkers together and giving them the freedom to interact. Often, it turns out that two or more innovators can compensate for one anothers' shortcomings, and succeed jointly where they would have failed individually.
  2. Isaacson makes a strong case--which accords with my personal and professional prejudices, for what that's worth--that the future lies less with artificial intelligence than with so-called "augmented intelligence". That is, humans and computers can complement each others' strengths and weaknesses in much the same way as different inventors have done.
The other thing I'd note is that the actors here have something in common. It's not background, nor personality, nor politics, nor academic success. Indeed, the cast of characters ranges from borderline sociopaths (William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor) to outright hippies (Steward Brand, one of the pioneers of the "online community" idea) to buttoned-down engineers in the Dilbert mold (a lot of them). It's not even intelligence, although that's clearly a requisite. Rather, the common factor is that virtually all of them reached a point where they were absolutely, obsessively, myopically, completely, and immersively focused on one thing. That singleness of vision, rather than intelligence, is clearly what led them to success.

The Innovators is written in a nicely conversational tone, and it's intelligently structured: Isaacson has an enormous cast of characters, but in any chapter only an interconnected few are in the spotlight. That makes it relatively easy to remember who he's talking about, which isn't always the case in books this ambitious. He's also good at making unobtrusive connections to and reminders of earlier material, so you're less likely to have those "Huh? Who he? Invented the what?" moments. The level of technological detail is quite modest, and well-explained, so it's not just for us geeks. Highly recommended.

Crossover reading: many of the same themes, and some of the same characters, appear in Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory. If you like this book, you'll almost certainly like that one, and vice versa.


  1. JT, I think that Sara would enjoy this book. Maybe I could borrow it this weekend?

    1. I'd love to loan it, except ... it was a library book!

      I have the other book I reference, Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory, if you think she'd like to try that instead. It's specifically about the Bell Labs environment, but it's a similar story (and was one of Isaacson's major sources).