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Book Review: The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

August 22, 2016

Max The Magnificent-August 22, 2016

I'd like to start this review by noting that I'm a big fan of Walter Isaacson's work. I first read his Einstein: His Life and Universe a few years ago. In addition to giving me a much better understanding of Einstein as a person, this book also gave me a real appreciation for the amount of mental effort it took to capture the math required to describe the theory of general relativity and wrestle it into submission (all without actually bogging things down with actual equations).

More recently, I read his Steve Jobs, which gave me a real feel for the man and his achievements, and also led me to believe that I probably wouldn’t have liked him much as a person (nor him me, I suppose).

I'm interested in pretty much anything to do with STEM-based topics, but I do have a particular fondness for the history and evolution of computers and the stories of the people behind the inventions. In addition to the Steve Jobs biography mentioned above, I've also very much enjoyed reading the biographies of the other Apple and Microsoft founders: iWoz by Steve Wozniak, Gates by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, and Idea Man by Paul Allen. I find it really interesting to see how their lives were so intertwined and how things can appear so different from the perspectives of the various players.

All of which leads us to the most recent Isaacson offering I just enjoyed: The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.


(Source: Max Maxfield / Embedded.com)

This tome works well on so many levels. In particular, I like the way in which disparate parts of the puzzle are woven together into a coherent whole, starting with Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, working through the evolution of the computer, and then moving on to the origins of -- and roles played by -- programming, the transistor, the microchip, video games, the Internet, the personal computer, software, transitioning online, and the web.

The great thing about this book is that it's about both the technology and the people behind the technology. Even though I've been exposed to most of the characters and stories in various forms over the years, Isaacson manages to raise things to a new level by putting everything in perspective with everything else. There have been endless debates about who did what when and where, who "borrowed" ideas from whom, and who deserves what amount of credit for different things. Once again, Isaacson manages to provide a balanced and nuanced view that answers any questions I might have had to my complete satisfaction.

I even discovered a lot of stuff I didn’t know before. For example, like most computer buffs I knew that Babbage's assistant, Ada Lovelace, was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron; also that many regard Ada as being the first programmer. What I didn’t know was that Lord Byron was a Luddite and Ada was a visionary. While Babbage largely thought of his Analytical Engine as a machine for crunching numbers, Ada recognized it as being a general-purpose device that could store and manipulate anything that could be expressed as symbols, including logic and words and music. As Ada wrote:

"Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity."

I don’t know about you, but I find this to be uncannily prescient. Today, any piece of content -- book, music, photograph, film -- can be expressed in digital form and stored, manipulated, and communicated around the world by the descendants of Babbage's Analytical Engine. Ada also considered the possibility of whether or not sufficiently complex machines could think. She was of the opinion that they could not; that they could perform tasks as instructed, but that they could not originate ideas themselves. With regard to any man-machine symbiosis, Ada believed that the machines could perform the grunt work, but that people would bring one crucial thing to the party -- our creativity. Once again, the fact that someone was pondering stuff like this as far back as the 1850s and 1860s blows me away.

As another example, I was amazed to discover that Al Gore really did have a part to play in bringing the Internet to the world. I'm sure that, like me, you've heard people joke that Al Gore claims to have invented the Internet. In fact, he never actually said that. In March 1999, while being interviewed on CNN, in response to being asked to describe his qualifications to be a candidate for president, he said, amongst other things: "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet."

I can imagine your eyes rolling, but wait... as Isaacson notes, inspired by his father's work in crafting bipartisan legislation for the interstate highway program, Al Gore started to promote what he dubbed the "Information Superhighway." He launched a congressional study in 1986 and followed through with detailed hearings that led to the High Performance Computing Act of 1991, the Scientific Technology Act of 1992, and the National Information Infrastructure Act of 1993. The end result was to make the Internet widely available to the general public and move it into the commercial sphere. As Isaacson says:

Vint Cerf and bob Kahn, two of the people who did in fact invent the Internet's protocols, spoke up on Gore's behalf. "No one in public life has been more intellectually engaged in helping to create the climate for a thriving Internet than the Vice President," they wrote. Even Republican Newt Gingrich defended him, observing, "It's something Gore had worked on for a long time... Gore is not the Father of the Internet, but in all fairness, Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet."

Well, color me surprised and remind me to apologize to Al the next time we meet (I'm sure it's his turn to buy the beers). The point is that the above is just one example of a topic about which I'd been previously misinformed. I greatly appreciate having this put into perspective and tied in to everything else that came together to create the digital world we know and love today.

In conclusion, I found The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution to be a cracking good read that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in the history of computers, the Internet, and the digital age in which we live.

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