Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Innovators

In The Innovators, Walter Isaacson describes the history of the electronic age: how we went from a society with no computers at all to one with them everywhere.

Isaacson biographizes a great number of individuals and groups who made contributions to the process, from the woman who originally conceived of the possibility of computing devices in the 1800's to the people who built crude mechanical calculators to the social networking billionaires who receive so much attention today.

A number of things struck me about the evolution of this field. First, many of the people who made contributions to this field, and there were a lot of them, were quite young. Perhaps this was the case because they were not hindered by previous ways of thinking. The quote, "The enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but rather the illusion of knowledge" comes to mind.

At the same time, these guys were not totally blank slates. These were people who were passionate about their fields, which caused them to consume all the literature available, and pushed them to the knowledge frontier of their professions. Once at the frontier, their contributions became innovations that the next generation of passionate young people read about and subsequently pushed further out.

Also interesting were the way innovators were often those with expertise in more than one field. At the knowledge frontier of one field, it often takes experiences of another field to help push the frontier further out. Often, these innovations were done in cross-functional groups where cross-pollination yielded fruitful results.

I have a couple of quibbles as well. Isaacson's political views were made rather clear in the book, and I suspect that these views may have biased some of his narratives. I also felt like he skipped a huge group of innovators that, through brutal competition, made the PC the inexpensive appliance it is today, whereas he instead focused on the guys who managed to keep for themselves a larger part of the value chain (through monopolies).

If the topic interests you, I highly recommend the book.

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