The Most Inspiring Book I've Read

Astounding tales of the digital revolution

Posted Jul 16, 2016

It is rare that I am inspired to complete every word of a non-fiction book (more common for me to read 100 pages and relegate to the ever-expanding "maybe later" pile).  It is rarer still that I can't help turning the pages of such a book, especially when those pages number nearly 500, and are full of hard-nosed details.  

But I just completed what may be the most inspiring non-fiction book I have ever read.   The book is Walter Isaacson's "The Innovators: How a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution."  The story Isaacson tells is so exciting, I wanted to share it immediately with the two people whose education I care most about—my two sons, both of whom become capable of amazing intellectual and artistic feats when their naturally sharp brains are bionically enhanced by the awe-inspiring technologies developed by the heroes in this book.  One of my sons is only 12, but he is already learning how to program his own computer games; the other is a film producer, from the first generation that learned to use computers instead of scissors and film to manipulate cinematic images.  

Source: Cover of the book I am reviewing here

There were a lot of ways Isaacson's story of the digital revolution could have made for a boring book.  I first glanced at the time line that opens up the book—which includes 61 photographs, from Countess Ada Lovelace's 1843 notes on Babbage's Analytic Engine to IBM's Watson computer winning Jeopardy in 2011, with the inventions of vacuum tubes, transistors, microchips and the game of Pong in between—and thought this might be trying to cover too much ground in a way both too technical and too superficial to hold my interest.  I'd have predicted that the book would end up in the "maybe later" pile well before page 50.  

But instead, I was mesmerized by Isaacson's account.  In what follows, I'll try to figure out why I am going to recommend that you read it too, if you haven't already.  

First, Isaacson (who wrote famous biographies of Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, and was formerly managing editor of Time magazine) writes in a way that represents journalism at its best.  He is objective and carefully detailed without distracting the reader with clever and overly showy word tricks.  You are drawn into the story rather than the author's stylistic performances.  Here, for example, are the opening sentences:

"The computer and the Internet are among the most important inventions of our era, but few people know who created them.  They were not conjured up in a garret or garage by solo inventors suitable to be singled out on magazine covers or put into a pantheon with Edison, Bell, and Morse.  Instead, most of the innovations of the digital age were done collaboratively."

That last sentence gives another clue about what makes this such an engaging book.  Isaacson tells the story not as a textbook summary of the logic behind calculating machines, recursive loops, microchips, and hyperlinks, but as a social tale—about the people behind the amazing technologies we now take for granted.  Some of the characters in this story are flashy and egoistic, some are quiet and altruistic, some are hare-brained visionaries and some are meticulous and practical engineers.  The story details how they stood on one another's shoulders, and sometimes kicked one another in the shins, on the way to creating the astounding little portable machine on which I am typing these words (and which I will later use to rapidly search through millions of photos for an appropriate image or two, then upload this text and those images to a website where you can painlessly and immediately download them into your mind whether you are in Anchorage, Tokyo, or Zanzibar).  

One of the characters in The Innovators, Vannevar Bush, wrote an article for the Atlantic in 1945 in which he dreamily predicted a memory-supplementing device "in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility."  Bush was an MIT professor who had previously contributed to the revolution by devising an analog electromechanical computer called the Differential Analyzer in 1931, and who later went on the start the National Science Foundation, convincing the U.S. congress and President Truman that advances in basic science could have real practical payoffs—to create jobs and reduce the drudgery of work, for example.  Please remember Prof. Bush and think about all those jobs in high tech industries generated by the digital revolution before you vote against funding for scientific research, Senator.  

The story of Bush and the National Science Foundation is fundamental to another feature that makes The Innovators such a satisfying read.  Although Isaacson covers a lot of diverse ground peopled by a host of colorful characters, he manages to return to one central theme, and a couple of sub-themes, throughout the story.  The core message is that innovation is a collaborative process.  One level of collaboration involves different team-members with different talents—mathematically oriented but sometimes diplomatically challenged engineers and mathematicians worked out the technical details for each new digital advance, while entrepreneurial business types generated the start-up funds, and then sold the innovations to users who could not only make them pay off, but also spread them to the information-hungry public, as well as the next round of innovators who could improve the ideas still further (think about Jobs and Wozniak).   Another level of collaboration involves the connections between universities, the government (as in the case of NSF, NASA, and DARPA, who funded many of the geniuses and geeks as they tinkered away), and private industry (Bell Labs and Xerox, for example, provided meeting places for scientists and engineers to develop theory and practice together).  The third level of collaboration now involves everyone with a personal computer anywhere in the world (think about open-source software, the World Wide Web, and Wikipedia).  

And although much of the story is about hard work and practical applications, modern computers also integrate play, art, and music.   When I am done writing this, I can use this same device (an iPad Pro) to take a photograph of the beautiful view of the islands in British Columbia's Straits of Georgia from the porch of my rental [booked online], then import it into an art program where I can turn it into an image that looks like a watercolor painting, all the while listening to Christopher Parkening picking out a Bach prelude, or any one of the thousands of other tunes accessible on iTunes, Amazon Prime, or Pandora.  If Vannevar Bush could see all this, he might turn over in his grave, or perhaps tap his toe-bones along to the melody.  

Douglas Kenrick is author of The Rational Animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think and Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.

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