You’d be forgiven for thinking that The Innovators, Walter Isaacson’s new book, is about innovators and the things they built, given that it’s right there in the title. But in truth, the book is an examination of who gets the credit for building our modern high-tech society. And for this it’s one of the most depressing books of 2014.
Without a doubt every plane you board for the next year will have at least three people reading this book. That’s just how these things go. The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution is going to be a blockbuster in mainstream nonfiction. It was designed and marketed as a bestseller, and it deserves to be one for many reasons.
The book asks the right questions, and has an important thesis. Specifically, that the future is built through collaboration, incremental successes, and institutional forces — not the culturally popular lone genius in a garage. But for those with more than a passing understanding of technology’s recent past, the book might simply serve as a reminder that popular tech history is mostly just a petty shit-fight between white men (many of whom are long since dead) and their claim to the invention of any particular machine, software, or protocol. That, for me at least, is the depressing part.
Isaacson is perhaps most well-known as the author of the bestselling 2011 biography of Steve Jobs. And he’s a perfectly good storyteller. But his latest effort sometimes reads as half-hearted penance for spending the last decade writing books that celebrate the “Great Men” of history like Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Kissinger, and yes, Steve Jobs. After spending years contributing to our cultural understanding of progress through the eyes of “geniuses,” Isaacson’s latest almost feels like a note of apology to historians who told him he was doing it all wrong.
Every chapter of The Innovators is worthy of its own book. And in fact, every chapter has already been its own book in one form or another. Chapter Seven, titled “The Internet,” won’t be news to anyone who’s read a much more comprehensive book like 1998’s Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet, by Katie Hafner. Every other chapter has a similar, more thorough antecedent, if you really want to get into the weeds.
Then again, Isaacson isn’t really trying to unleash much new information upon the world. In theory, he instead wants to help us step back and understand the past couple hundred years of innovation in a more holistic way. And that’s encouraging for the many people (like your humble paleofuture bloggist) who have been making this argument for many, many years.
The history of innovation can only be understood as the result of thousands upon thousands of people and institutions, each contributing their own piece of knowledge to the technology used by any given generation in modern history. No matter how badly we want to believe that men like Steve Jobs hide away for a weekend in their garages and emerge with a fully formed iPhone, this isn’t how invention actually occurs. Obviously. These are the stories we tell in elementary schools or popular webcomics, but they’re not how adults are supposed to understand the world.
Maybe the biggest problem with Isaacson’s book is that he wants to have it both ways. He decries the petty battles over claims to “first!” and rightly points out just how messy history really is. But in the end he clearly has strong opinions about precisely who deserves credit for a given innovation. Isaacson wants to appear as though he’s rising above the fray, when in fact he’s right down there digging in his heels and setting the agenda. All the while sprinkling in quotes from Albert Einstein and Ben Franklin, because he clearly can’t help himself.
Chapter Two, titled “The Computer,” presents us with the story of John Mauchly and John Vincent Atanasoff. Long story short: Big guy Mauchly and underdog Atanasoff fought bitterly over claims to who built the first electronic digital computer. Mauchly clearly borrowed heavily from Atanasoff, who didn’t get credit for his innovations after Mauchly visited him for four days in 1941. But by the end of Isaacson’s telling, you’re left with the impression that Mauchly definitively deserved to win his control of the historical narrative. Again, it plays out like a depressing bum fight over the legacies of dead white men.
The Innovators, due to its attempts at inclusiveness, is perhaps the perfect Christmas gift for your uncle who subscribes to the Great Man theory of history. You know the one. That uncle who maybe thinks Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb or the one who has literally never heard the name Ada Lovelace. The book was obviously researched, written, and marketed to reach this audience. And that’s great! But you may want a deeper dive into any one of the given eras and technologies that Isaacson explores. In fact, you probably deserve it.
And for those who want his thesis in a tighter (and more affordable) package? They can pick up Scott Berkun’s 2010 book The Myths of Innovation, which will only set you back $US10. Or maybe just read Gizmodo or TechDirt, which are both free. As for that hagiography-loving uncle you know, he’ll skip the first 300 pages of this thick tome to get to the Bill Gates and Google parts — the finer points of the Kilby v. Noyce microchip patent battle aren’t really all that sexy — and might be better served by a VHS copy of the 1999 flick Pirates of Silicon Valley. Or another copy of Isaacson’s Steve Jobs book.
I clearly have a love/hate relationship with this book. It’s an important contribution to our understanding of how innovation actually happens in modern society. But it’s been done before. And I guess when we look at it through this history of technology lens, that’s the entire point. It’s all been done before.
Picture: Walter Isaacson at TechCrunch Disrupt on September 8, 2014, via Getty