Walter Isaacson began collecting material for The Innovators, his joint history of the Internet and the personal computer that was just nominated for a National Book Award, in the early 1990s, but his fascination with technology dates back to the childhood of this self-confessed “electronics geek” in New Orleans. “My father and my uncles were electrical engineers,” he says, sitting in a Simon & Schuster conference room in New York City two months before the book’s October publication.
“I loved building Heathkits as a kid, and I can recall making my first ham radio, sorting the transistors and soldering the circuits, then being able to talk with people around the world. I’m such a geek, I even liked CB radios. When online services came along in the 1980s, I found this notion of bulletin boards and online communities mesmerizing. I still remember the static and screech of my first modem connecting me to that magical realm.”
At 62, Isaacson has the brisk, businesslike manner you’d expect from the veteran of a long career as a journalist and media executive. (He capped two decades at Time Inc. with a five-year stint as Time magazine’s managing editor, then served as CEO of Cable News Network before becoming president and CEO of the Aspen Institute in 2003.) Yet his voice rings with the wonder and enthusiasm of that Heathkit-building boy as he considers the innovations that led to our present ultra-connected state.
“The digital revolution was driven by the ability to have your own personal computer and to be able to share information and interact socially with anybody, anywhere. It’s so phenomenal that we sometimes don’t pay attention to how amazing it is.”
He took advantage of this phenomenon with his own manuscript. “While I was writing about the invention of the Internet, I realized that it was designed to allow collaboration and even sharing, and I thought: well, why don’t I see how well that would work today? So I posted chapters I was drafting and gave people the opportunity to add things and make comments. I did it on five or six different sites; the one that worked best was Medium, which had been developed by Ev Williams, who also created Blogger and helped to create Twitter. Some famous people added their own tales to the chapters: Stewart Brand, who invented the WELL, and Dan Bricklin, who helped develop the first spreadsheets. I got in touch with them and incorporated those into the book.”
“I would love to see the development of platforms that allow collaborative and crowdsourced histories,” he continues, “in a way that royalties and revenues could be allocated based on who contributed what and whose sections got read. I think one of the next great inventions of the digital age will be simple, Bitcoin-like systems so that people can pay for content and those payments can be allocated to encourage crowdsourcing. A book could be a living thing, filled with multimedia and interactive components. There are neither the platforms nor the payment systems yet to make that possible, but I suspect that in 10 years you’ll have collaborative, interactive, crowdsourced, and curated media that is somewhere in between narrative history and role-playing games.”
Traditional publishers were slow to recognize that the digital age would require new forms of media, says Isaacson, who as editor of new media for Time Inc. in the early 1990s had a front-row seat for the struggle to adapt. “At first, the most important online places were services like the WELL that were true communities of people discussing things. When big publishing companies like Time started putting their magazines online, too often we relegated this notion of community to bad comments sections that nobody read and were inhabited mainly by trolls.
“We’re now getting back to the idea of media being a collective activity, not the publication of stories being handed down from on high, and that’s very healthy. The great impact of the digital revolution is the same as that of the printing press: it takes power away from centralized organizations and empowers the individual.”
As an individual writer, Isaacson has been well served by traditional publishing, his books shepherded for three decades by agent Amanda Urban and editor Alice Mayhew. The Wise Men (1986), a group portrait of six key figures in the post-WWII political establishment, and his 1992 biography of Henry Kissinger both centered on foreign policy. It was during the 11-year gap between the publications of Kissinger and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, he says, that his authorial focus began to shift to scientific subjects. “I was already gathering information about the digital revolution, but it didn’t quite ripen, and I wanted to do Ben Franklin because he is actually a precursor. He was the consummate information entrepreneur; he formed newspaper chains and the postal service, and he believed that the free flow of information bent the arc of history toward individual empowerment. I think there are remarkable similarities between Franklin and people like Tim Berners-Lee, who created the Worldwide Web.”
“When I realized how much Franklin loved science, that pushed me to write about Albert Einstein [Einstein: His Life and Universe, 2007], whose theories about space and time were just as beautiful as Lord Byron’s line, ‘She walks in beauty, like the night.’ People interested in the humanities often do not appreciate the beauty of the sciences, but one of my great interests has always been the way the humanities and sciences interact. That was embodied in Steve Jobs, who always used to end his product presentations with a street sign showing the intersection of the liberal arts and technology, saying ‘That’s where true creativity occurs.’”
The knowledge that Apple’s founder was seriously ill prompted Isaacson to take a two-year break from what was then intended to be a history of the Internet to research and write the bestselling Steve Jobs (2011). “I had been interviewing people starting in the 1990s, always thinking that I was doing a book about the Internet. When I interviewed Bill Gates, he said, ‘No, the Internet and personal computer grew up together.’ Steve Jobs’s life convinced me that writing the history of both made for a richer tale, spotlighting the collaboration and teamwork that went into them. We biographers sometimes overemphasize the role of the lone individual. After writing about Steve Jobs, my goal in this book was to put Steve Jobs in context. He wasn’t just a kid in his parents’ garage; he was part of a big historical phenomenon. He picked up ideas from all over the place, and he created a great team of designers and engineers around him, starting with Steve Wozniak.”
Jobs and Wozniak, Gates and Paul Allen at Microsoft are only the best-known of the many brilliant teams whose collective work is chronicled in The Innovators, which lucidly traces the complicated, sometimes contentious group dynamics behind the myriad technological breakthroughs that made the Internet and the personal computer possible. It seems a highly appropriate project for Isaacson, who has written nine books while also immersed in demanding day jobs. “It helps me to be engaged with people at an office or an institute or a magazine rather than working alone,” he says. “Perhaps that colors my view of the importance of collaboration and teamwork in the creative process.”
Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at The American Scholar and the author of Real-Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931–1940.