Book review: ‘The Innovators,’ on the digital revolution, by Walter Isaacson

>October 3, 2014

Book review: ‘The Innovators,’ on the digital revolution, by Walter Isaacson

Book review: ‘The Innovators,’ on the digital revolution, by Walter IsaacsonBook review: ‘The Innovators,’ on the digital revolution, by Walter Isaacson

In the Industrial Revolution’s wake, aspiring entrepreneurs combed through a landmark biography of inventors for the secrets to success. The five-volume “Lives of the Engineers” by Samuel Smiles, founder of the self-help movement, surveyed a century of human progress with a twist on the Renaissance classic “Lives of the Artists.” Rather than stories of Italian sculptors and painters, he gave us portraits of bridge-builders and engine-makers (including a 500-page ode to locomotive pioneers George and Robert Stephenson) to reveal the character of greatness: mechanical aptitude, frugality, manliness and an insatiable desire for improvement.

Walter Isaacson’s “The Innovators,” a sprawling companion to his best-selling “Steve Jobs,” encroaches on Smiles’s turf. The book weaves together the rise of computing and the Internet from the 1830s to today, using the life stories of more than 60 individuals, partnerships and teams. Instead of emphasizing individual genius, however, Isaacson argues that knowing “how innovation happens in the real world” requires lessons about teamwork and complexity.

“The Innovators,” which has been long-listed for the 2014 National Book Award in nonfiction, revisits the Industrial Revolution to locate the origins of the information age. At a salon party featuring mechanical androids and tableaux vivants, hosted by the visionary technologist Charles Babbage, we meet Ada Lovelace, daughter of the libertine poet Lord Byron, as she sets out to make “analytical engines” that are equal partners with humanity. For Isaacson, this feminist icon embodies the “combining faculty” that links disparate forces of the digital revolution: countercultural rebelliousness, entrepreneurial drive, state-funded technology and the integration of art with science.

History at this scale tends toward either encyclopedia or determinist manifesto, a fate Isaacson avoids by using his talent for stories to shift between romance novel, operating manual, buddy pic, legal briefing, memoir and humanist sermon. This kaleidoscopic narrative serves to explain the stepwise development of 10 core innovations of the digital age — from mathematical logic to transistors, video games and the Web — as well as to illustrate the exemplary traits of their makers.

Read MoreRead More