Somewhat to my surprise, Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Innovators, a group portrait of the men and women who invented computers and the Internet, is riveting, propulsive, and at times deeply moving. My surprise is not rooted in doubts about Isaacson’s skills; he is considered to be the leading biographer of the digital age for a reason. I was surprised because I find books about technology unreadable. I enjoy machines as much as the next Amish-by-disposition American, which is to say, among other things, that I don’t care very much about where they come from, and on those occasions when I do apply myself to the study of machines, I usually fail to understand how they work.
One of Isaacson’s jealousy-provoking gifts is his ability to translate complicated science into English—those who have read his biographies of Einstein and Steve Jobs understand that Isaacson is a kind of walking Rosetta Stone of physics and computer programming. Thanks to my close read of The Innovators, I could probably explain, with a gun to my head, the principles of semi-conduction.
But it is the very human humans behind the digital revolution who are the main focus of The Innovators, and they are the reason I found this book to be not infrequently inspiring. I read The Innovators this past summer, a comprehensively unhappy summer, as Gaza was on fire and ISIS was erupting and Ebola was beginning its fatal run across West Africa. Here at home, the mood long before the summer had soured. We are living through a period of straitened dreams, of doubt about our country and its purpose, and of widespread cynicism about its most important institutions. What I’m saying is that right now I’m a sucker for optimism, and The Innovators is one of the most organically optimistic books I think I've ever read. It is a stirring reminder of what Americans are capable of doing when they think big, risk failure, and work together.
One of the surprising features of Isaacson’s latest book, coming, as it does, after his biography of Steve Jobs—who is generally, though not entirely correctly, understood to be the model of the radical (and congenitally irascible) American —is that it is a paean to cooperation, to the idea of force-multiplication through collective effort and, in particular, to the transformative power of the diamond triangle of industry, academia, and government. (In the interview published below, I ask Isaacson why America has traditionally been the seedbed of global innovation, and whether that will continue).