book cover imageThe Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
by Walter Isaacson.
Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Hardcover, 543 pages, $35.

The Innovators is Walter Isaacson’s story of the scientists, engineers, programmers, and entrepreneurs who developed modern computing technology. Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and former chairman of CNN, has traveled related territory before in his biography of Steve Jobs. The Innovators has a more general aim: to relate the human stories behind the most transformative technological innovations of our time. Every age needs its saints, and while the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley aren’t always cut from sacred cloth, they are nothing if not wonder-workers. The Innovators is their hagiography.

But The Innovators isn’t old-fashioned saint-worship. Isaacson aims to correct two modern views about innovation that he finds inaccurate and potentially dangerous. The first mistake, he says, is to view innovation as the work of single creative geniuses. If the Internet itself teaches us anything, it should be that innovation comes from people working in concert. Exchanging ideas is the spur to creativity—so much so that ideas prompted by exchange often aren’t even traceable to one person or another. The second mistake Isaacson targets is the rationalistic view that technology is destined to replace human effort. That view is common among proponents and critics of contemporary innovation. By countering it Isaacson hopes to dispel the critics’ fears—but also temper the technophiles’ hopes.

The digital revolution has no intrinsic need for Isaacson’s celebration of its history. When one computing innovation replaces another, there’s no love lost among the many users who suddenly dislike what they used just earlier. Everyone who participates in the world of innovation admires its power. Isaacson’s history is driven by a fascination with the secrets of invention. Personal computing technology above all else has defined innovation for our age, and its leading figures have won the title The Innovators all for themselves. Every other field, from medicine to engineering, aims to be as transformative as the wizards of Silicon Valley.

Isaacson deftly traces the different paths of invention, initially separate and now joined, which were necessary to make the modern networked personal computer. The first notions of computing sprouted amid the mechanical innovations of the Industrial Revolution and the fascination with “automata” able to perform tricks. The commands given to an automaton can vary in their complexity. Only when we gained the ability to provide sophisticated instructions, with changeable subdivisions and dependent sets of instructions, were we on the way toward modern computing.

Many varied strands of invention came together to make the computer, and Isaacson devotes a chapter to each step. The invention of the transistor began in the needs of the telephone system,and this eventually gave rise to the invention of the microchip. ARPANET brought packet-switching and the linking of diverse computer networks. The maker culture, far from the highly structured corporate workrooms of Bell Labs, provided the impetus toward personal computing in the 1970s. Ironically, Steve Jobs’s famous 1984 advertisement for the Macintosh marked not only an empowerment but also a shift away from the home-based tinkering of an earlier era: the Apple computer was not to be fiddled with. Even though tinkering with hardware has become less necessary as the user experience has become more smooth, computers are more powerful than ever at helping us tinker with something even more important—the natural and the human worlds.

Each of these steps was the work of Isaacson’s innovators: from Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, through Grace Hopper, Gordon Moore, and the litany of Silicon Valley saints. What are we supposed to learn from them? Their accomplishments are breathtaking—but Isaacson transforms their accomplishments into rather flat aphorisms. “Sometimes,” he says in one case, “innovation is a matter of timing.” “Innovation occurs when ripe seeds fall on fertile ground.” “Innovation requires articulation.” “Innovation emerged in places with the right primordial soup.” These rather uninspiring lessons do teach one thing: that innovation often emerges out of mundane circumstances.

Like The Social Network in 2010, The Innovators tries to let us in on the stories of extraordinary accomplishment. Yet unlike the saints of old, whose wonder-working powers suggested divine favor or great holiness, today’s innovators pretend to no special power. The devices they fashion are sophisticated but do not violate any laws of nature. The innovators wield only one power, strong in its ability to shape our lives but weak in its tendency to fail more than it succeeds. That is the power of showing us what is new, through the revelation of new products.

Hagiographies of old offer a consistent theme pointing to a particular content: the renewal of life and imitation of what is good. Even secular hagiographies bear the same marks, as in stories of leaders who renewed American life through imitation of the best moments of its founding. Among saints and statesmen alike, renewal always contains the twofold moment of return and advance: in every current situation, imitating an archetype results in the creation of something new. As a result, the old stories pointed to a specific content—the life of a religious or political founder—as a source of continued nourishment.

What is the secret of innovation? The new hagiography cannot quite say. Its heroes have no consistent set of virtues. Some innovators are dutiful and some erratic, some companies are hierarchical and some anarchic. A great innovation could come from the desire to play computer games, or from tinkering in one’s garage. Isaacson’s maxims are unsatisfying only because the content of innovation cannot be known in advance. Only one thing is known in advance—the thing which is the “secret” of innovation: we desire the new. Were innovation not our guiding light, even the most skilled innovator could not market his product. Whoever can create the new and market it is among the innovators; those who cannot are forgotten.

Isaacson’s second and more profound goal in The Innovators is to show the importance of marrying technology and human creativity. “We humans,” he asserts, “can remain relevant in an era of cognitive computing because we are able to think different, something that an algorithm, almost by definition, can’t master.” Isaacson’s inclusion of Apple’s trademark slogan (“think different”) isn’t accidental. In his view, Steve Jobs saw just how to link technology and the humanities.

Isaacson cautions against dark predictions of a future dominated by artificially intelligent computers that replace human beings. The most analytically powerful computers, he notes, lack the emotional intelligence, sense of humor, and intuition of human beings. Instead Isaacson draws his inspiration from the famous paper “Man-Computer Symbiosis” written by the pioneering computer scientist J. C. R. Licklider in 1960. Licklider argued that for the foreseeable future a combination of human skills and computing power would prove more powerful than artificial intelligence alone. Licklider’s argument has held thus far, and current efforts to create artificial intelligence still fall short of many distinctively human capacities.

Instead of pursuing AI alone, Isaacson proposes “to find ways to optimize the collaboration between human and machine capabilities—to forge a partnership in which we let the machines do what they do best, and they let us do what we do best.” Isaacson’s proposal sounds reasonable at first glance. Let machines calculate while we create. But we already have difficulty deciding whether machines or humans are better at a given task: are an algorithm’s book-purchasing suggestions better than the old bookman who really knew our interests? And even if they are, sometimes even flawed recommendations can be valuable.

Supposing we can decide what machines do best, it’s far from clear that human beings are best when engaging exclusively in creative activities. Human beings are not only innovators but also creatures of routine. We often enjoy chores and rote tasks that machines might also do “best.” Sometimes it’s only when performing a routine task that a creative insight comes to us. Much human artistic creativity has even been directly related to tasks that have been or will be automated by machines. When driverless cars take over our streets, will computers hymn the open road?

Isaacson has staked out a place for those human beings willing to share their goals with machines and to let machines “do what they do best.” He has nothing to say about human beings who do well what machines do only somewhat better, and who will be replaced anyway. Yet “manual” work can be artistic as well as mechanical, and human nature includes both. In the last century and a half, labor-saving devices have gained us thirty hours a week in time off work—time which we now spend watching television. For the many who are not innovators but whose labor has been “freed” by machines, there will be little else to replace the lost dignity of human work. 

Gladden J. Pappin is a fellow of the Potenziani Program in Constitutional Studies and the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.