By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Walter Isaacson
Narrated by: Dennis Boutsikaris
Walter Isaacson offers a whirlwind history of the digital revolution in “The Innovators”. Isaacson raises the question of whether revolutions come from extraordinary leadership of geniuses or societal imperatives. Tolstoy suggests the former while many biographers infer the latter. In the end, Isaacson’s history of “The Innovators” places one squarely on the fence. (Fence-sitting is not Isaacson’s intent, but his argument for collaborative invention discounts geniuses like Isaac Newton and Paul Dirac, who were notorious loners.) At times, one concludes geniuses are the prime movers of the digital revolution but listening to Isaacson’s explanation of the contributions of an Ada Lovelace, William Shockley, or Andy Grove (among others), suggests genius is subordinate to societal imperatives.
Ada Lovelace, William Shockley, and Andy Grove are classified by Isaacson as intelligent but not geniuses like Newton, Maxwell, or Einstein. Isaacson explains that Lovelace is an early financial supporter of Charles Babbage, the acknowledged inventor of the first programmable machine called the “Difference Engine”. William Shockley is characterized as an ambitious, intelligent, and growingly paranoid, physicist who co-invented the transistor that replaced vacuum tubes.
Transistors dramatically accelerated the speed of early computers but the break-through, according to Isaacson, was actually made by John Bardeen and Walter Brattain.
(All three are eventually awarded a Nobel Prize for the transistor.) Isaacson explains that Shockley refined the Bardeen/Brattain transistor concept; not as an inventor but as an innovator. Shockley is also famously associated with an unfounded belief in the innate inferiority of Blacks. Shockley eventually disappears from Silicon Valley. Shockley is reputed to be a martinet that becomes increasingly paranoid. He loses key personnel that start a new company; a company eventually known as Intel.
Andy Grove became the CEO of Intel. Grove, though educated as an engineer, provided management rather than creative invention for Intel. Isaacson suggests that Intel needed a focused business manager because the founders, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, needed oversight to capitalize on their flatly organized creative teams that innovated and invented computer chips.
Coming into the modern age, Isaacson profiles Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Wozniak, and Steve Jobs. Gates is characterized as a driven wunderkind. Isaacson infers Gates’ father, who is a lawyer, plays an important part in the formation of Microsoft. One may draw that conclusion from the amount of time Gates uses to contractually define his business relationship with Paul Allen.
Allen appears almost like a silent partner that goes along to get along. Allen’s partnership split is reduced to 36% in two Gate’s demands; i.e. the first for a 60/40 contract and later 64/36. Allen’s presumption is that an ownership’ split would be 50/50 but Gates bluntly disagrees. Isaacson writes that Gates’ argument is that he is the principal inventor and actor in the partnership and should receive a larger share of the business.
The Wozniak/Jobs partnership is characterized somewhat differently. Isaacson shows Wozniak is the primary inventor of the first Apple Computer while Jobs is characterized as an idea man with business acumen and extraordinary sales ability. (This partnership characterization of Apple is a likely reason some current and former Apple employees object to Isaacson’s earlier biography of Jobs.) Jobs forcefully demands a 50/50 split with Wozniak, even though Wozniak is the inventor of the original Apple computer.
In the Gates/Allen relationship, Isaacson infers Gates is both an inventor and super salesman, while Allen is an innovator. Gates argues his role warrants a larger piece of the business. Isaacson suggests Allen is important to the relationship as a mature representative of Microsoft but is less of a salesman and inventor than Gates. Isaacson also notes both Wozniak and Allen are more introverted and less demanding than either Jobs or Gates; i.e. Wozniak’s and Allen’s personalities are more inclined to go along to get along.
The interesting thing about Isaacson’s history is not the revolution but the evolution inferred by growth of computers, programming, and the internet. Isaacson goes on to explain the inter-connectivity innovations of the internet, from the idea of a world-wide-web to AOL. Knowledge of the world today is at our fingertips with SEO innovations that categorize, list, and disseminate information at the click of a mouse. Knowledge tomorrow may be a direct interface between the brain and artificial intelligence. The future may not require a CPU, microchip, or mouse because the world’s information will be implanted as a part of human DNA.
This is no guarantee for a better life because improved access to knowledge can be used for harm as well as benefit. The psychological imbalance of someone like William Shockley and his demented racial beliefs are potentially magnified by an improved interface between a human brain and artificial intelligence. Just because knowledge is available does not change human nature. Human beings are still subject to the seven deadly sins. Minds tend to seek knowledge that confirms both true and false beliefs, rather than objective truths.
On the other hand, digital evolution opens the potential for a wide level of consensus building, greater than ever seen in history. The advent of the internet provides knowledge that has never been so widely and easily accessible. Before the first picture of the planet from outer space, who would have thought of earth as a space ship with an environment that could be destroyed by humankind? Some believe movements like “Occupy Wall Street” are inchoate and unorganized but others suggest it is a movement seeking to change people’s minds; to gain consensus.
Isaacson may be wrong in his assessment of “The Innovators” in the history of digitization but quite right about its revolutionary categorization. This is an enjoyable and informative audio book, well worth listening to, or reading.