Monday, December 7, 2015

Book Review: The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

The subtitle of this book is "How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution." That about sums it up: this is a long story that reads more like a collection of short stories on a string, which occasionally falls into listing names rather than interpreting them, but which fills its particular niche admirably by focusing on the unique new ideas that built computers and then put them into everyone's pockets.

The timeline runs from Babbage's Difference Engine to Google. Steve Jobs is mentioned but there's not time to do more than allude to his ouster, comeback, and passing. Rather, Jobs is mostly explored in terms of his relationship with Bill Gates (even a bit more than with Steve Wozniak). There are filters placed on this history, as there must be: everything is simplified and every person reduced not so much to an individual as to various dyads. That filter coincides with Joshua Wolf Shenk's Powers of Two, reviewed a year ago here, and it would be interesting to compare and contrast the two books, which provide a corrective to the "lone genius" theme that seems to be the current default.

Here the glass is half-full, and the negative effects of technology are mostly left on the cutting room floor. You don't really learn something new and different like I did in, say, Godel, Escher, Bach. Innovation remains somewhat elusive. But really, that's what this kind of book The Innovators has to be, and it gives an overview that demystifies those ubiquitous data processors, and in doing so, performs a public service. If you can see how THEY did it, then maybe you can see how YOU might do it too. Once you read a lot more books in your area, of course, so you can figure out how this stuff really works.

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