Two new books exhibit the limits of the messianic vision of technology as an expression of individual genius
How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
by Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster
$35.00 List Price
WALTER ISAACSON is America’s leading chronicler of Great Men—or “geniuses,” as his publisher describes them in a PR note accompanying his latest book, The Innovators. A former editor in chief of Time, which made its name by designating Great Men (and very occasionally Women) “People of the Year,” Isaacson specializes in expansive, solidly researched middlebrow histories, the kind that appear under your father’s Christmas tree or on a talk-show host’s desk. Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and Steve Jobs have all received the Isaacson treatment, with a handful of others coming in for group portraits. The Innovators belongs to this latter category; it’s a story of what Isaacson calls “collaborative creativity” and the origins of the Internet and digital eras. There are dozens of characters here, beginning with Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in the mid-nineteenth century and ending with Messrs. Gates, Jobs, Wales, Brin, and Page on this side of the twenty-first.
As a vast survey of the inventions and personalities that eventually brought us networked computers in every home, purse, and pocket, The Innovators succeeds surprisingly well. Isaacson has pored over the archives and interviewed many of the principals (or at least their surviving colleagues and descendants). He also has an assured grasp of how these various technologies work, including the recondite analog proto-computers invented in midwestern basements and dusty university labs during the interwar period. Although many of these machines didn’t survive their creators, they informed subsequent,
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