Following Walter Isaacson’s blockbuster biography of Steve Jobs, The Innovators is the intriguing story of the people who created computers and the Internet. It belongs in everybody’s library because it is the standard history of the digital revolution and an indispensable guide to how innovation really happens.
As much as there are concerns about what the digital revolution has done to human society, it has liberated humanity. While a few have been enriched, all of us have been empowered: Wikipedia gives us access to the global mind; we chat on social media with people we may never meet; blogs contribute to the public discourse, lending a voice to everybody.
Isaacson begins the innovators’ story with Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, who pioneered computer programming in the 1840s. He also explores fascinating personalities who contributed to our curent digital revolution, such as Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John van Neumann, Doug Engelbart, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee and Larry Page. Isaacson compares the development of the Internet – a successful collaboration between governments, academic researchers and underground hackers – to the building of a cathedral: There can’t be a single architect, because the structure is pieced together by so many teams of specialized workers.
The book moves from science to the military to management and, you guessed it, to the courts. The book also travels from east to west. Ultimately, it tells the story of the digital revolution through the experiences of many individuals. At the same time, it throws cold water on the heroic biography, the attempt to identify these innovators as lone geniuses who saw the future.
Isaacson reminds us constantly that we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of lone geniuses at all, but rather of the organizational forms within which innovation takes place. The digital revolution was the product of creative teams and groups whose ideas arose from exchanges among its members and whose inventiveness flowed from their differences in knowledge, skills, styles of working and temperament.
There’s no doubt that the digital revolution is the defining story of our era. In The Innovators it’s been told lucidly and thrillingly. And, because bright ideas often come from teams of people with flaws and quirks, this story is extremely entertaining as well.