John's Reviews > The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson
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bookshelves: recommended-for-nerds, reviewed-by-me

[Note added 23-Feb-2017: This seems to have a lot of likes, but I want to make sure that people understand that my perspective is a bit specialized. The book is lively and very interesting. If you want to read a provocative and detailed story of innovation, this is a great choice. I think the full story requires some extra reading, which I note in the review. The book has its limitations, but it's still a "good read."]

Regrettably, I can't give this a great review.

In part, it depends on what you want. If you want a history of innovation from the point of view of the winners -- the people who created the technology we use today -- then this book might be for you.

But I would strongly recommend that you read some other books: Katie Hafner's When Wizards Stay Up Late; John Markoff's What the Dormouse Said; Steven Levy's Hackers.

Isaacson hits all of the main highlights of the development of digital technology from Ada Lovelace to Google. In terms of new contributions, his treatment of Lovelace is much broader than what one normally gets, and he's very good on the women who worked as programmers for Eniac and the like. That's good. Additionally, there is new interview material that provides details that I haven't seen elsewhere: For instance, the book notes that both parents of Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the web) were computer programmers, and that TBL was an electronics nerd as a kid. The quotes from people like the founders of Google are a bit looser than usual. I like that.

Yet there are three big problems here:

(1) First off, this is a history of the victors, and its extremely "presentist" in that it privileges things that are our technology today. Thus people like Jef Raskin and Ted Nelson are essentially buried. Yes, there are a few words on Nelson, but he deserves more like 10 pages, and Raskin gets one mention. Raskin was the true originator of the Mac; he deserves way more credit. Another example: Gopher. The Gopher protocol, which predates the web, was extremely important, and, arguably, would have been more useful for certain kinds of information browsing. Yet another thing that is scanted (as in so many histories that involve computer-mediated communication) is the depth of social sharing on time-sharing systems; it was a big deal and seems to be just outside the view of most historians. I think Isaacson's canvas is large and this would have complicated his story.

(2) The discussion of bidirectional information transfer is very weak. It comes up on p. 300 with regard to Lee Felsenstein and the free speech movement. People like Felsenstein thought computer networks would change society because they might provide for "broadcast" from the citizen. Despite the advent of blogs, twitter, etc., the dominant model has been "publication" (as Isaacson rightly points out from his personal experience editing Time online - 420-422). But I think Isaacson makes a big mistake to not talk at significantly greater length about how bidirectionality was lost in the early history of the network. To be sure, he does get into the blogging phenomenon, but it is weak because so focused on a single individual (Justin Hall). Anyway, the concern isn't even so much about individuals contributing content, but the very structure of the Internet and the policing of "uploads" (for example, your broadband provider gives you a lot less data quota for upload than download). Obviously the missing figure here is Nicholas Negroponte, who long advocated for true bidirectionally for communication - his key case was always video out of the home, so grandparents could easily send movies to their kids. A similar gap to the lack of spadework to uncover the deeper interest in bidirectionally is the discussion of how Mosaic/Netscape never had a decent editor that might provide for easily composing web pages from the browser (see p. 418). This wasn't just an issue for the Berners-Lee: It was a howl coming from the early adopters of browsers. (The lack of such editors also points out limitations in the standards track and how RFCs cannot really turn the industry.)

(3) Finally, the biggest argument in the book: That innovation comes from teams and groups, not from individuals (479-488 and elsewhere). The qualifiers for this claim are huge. The biggie is that he means: "successful" innovation, i.e., innovation that has gone mainstream. Clearly there were plenty of team innovations that weren't absorbed by the marketplace. Shouldn't we then acknowledge how teams can fail? Additionally, what is meant by "teams" and "groups" isn't solid. Isaacson admits as much when disrupting his own claim by outlining "three ways that teams were put together in the digital age" (482). Sorry, you can't have your lumping claim, and then at the end of the book break it down. You can make the claim about three modalities of team innovation at the beginning of the book and then show it: But pulling this canard out at the end of the book is just not fair.

In sum, if this is the only book you're going to read, it's OK. But the real story is bigger and Isaacson's take on all this is slanted and focused way too much on the technology we have, rather than the technologies we might have. I don't think asking for that is asking for a different book, either, because Isaacson is interested enough in the losers to mention them. His book would have been immensely richer by giving them their due to the tune of perhaps 50 additional pages over the whole book.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
November 16, 2014 – Finished Reading
November 17, 2014 – Shelved
March 28, 2019 – Shelved as: recommended-for-nerds
May 2, 2019 – Shelved as: reviewed-by-me

Comments Showing 1-12 of 12 (12 new)

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message 1: by Chon (new) - added it

Chon Not read yet but with this perspective I will keep a broader vision during this read.

John Definitely read it. It's good if you weren't there or you haven't read other sources.

But I think the Hafner book (When Wizards Stay Up Late) is the real story, though she doesn't tell the story of Ada Lovelace.

John Markoff's What the Dormouse Said is really good on the intersection between the technical innovators and the 1960s hippie culture.

Brian Hutzell I think Isaacson recognizes the limits of this book: It is an easily digestible, non-technical overview of a very big subject. I appreciate that he does recommend several books for further reading, including those you mention.

John Brian wrote: "I think Isaacson recognizes the limits of this book,..."


I think, though, I'm less concerned with what Isaacson may recognize than I am for the general reader, who might benefit from a broader story that includes some of the "losers" -- without the episodes of failure (both technical and business), I can't see how the story of innovation can be complete (my point (1)). Since we both think Isaacson is a good writer, perhaps he could address some of the rest of the story in a new edition, should he ever revise this work.

message 5: by Jim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jim Peplinski Excellent summary

message 6: by zak (new) - rated it 1 star

zak you are a person that looks like a cow

John zak wrote: "you are a person that looks like a cow"


Stan Lee Appreciate the thoughtful rebuttal.

Eric Davis I can appreciate your perspective on the subject and it clearly comes from a vast knowledge on the subject, but had you been Isaacson’s editor this book would have been 1,000+ pages and nobody would have bought it. This is an excellent book on a broad subject, but as with any subject it only covers portions. I feel bad for the books you critique if your perspective is that each book MUST be the definitive resource on a subject and if it’s not “suffer my wrath.”

message 10: by John (new) - rated it 3 stars

John Eric wrote: "I can appreciate your perspective on the subject and it clearly comes from a vast knowledge on the subject, but had you been Isaacson’s editor this book would have been 1,000+ pages and nobody woul..."

Think I should delete my review?

message 11: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Parker Great review! I absolutely agree that it's too presentist and victor heavy. With a little more love for the losers I think it could better stand the test of time and even be a great high school text book.

message 12: by John (new) - rated it 3 stars

John Right. A lot could be done with just 20 pages here, 20 pages there.

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