Wednesday, February 18, 2015

It's a group effort

When I was in high school – waaay back in the early 80s – I was surprised when my friend Sean told me that computers were the wave of the future.  You have to understand that computers were still mostly used for specific purposes in the workplace, and it hadn't even been that long since punch cards had been replaced by magnetic tape.  A "word processor" was a typewriter that could store a few lines of text.  If anyone had a computer at home it was used to play games.  Sure, games were fun, but I didn't understand how computers could be useful

Such thoughts now are laughable.  Less than ten years later that I bought my first computer: a 286 clone with a color monitor that cost $2,000.  I even paid extra to upgrade the hard drive from 20mb to 40mb.  My $500 printer was a dot matrix that could print in color!  With some now-primitive versions of WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3, I soon found out just how useful computers could be.  And although the "digital revolution" seemed to have happened overnight, there was a lot of prior work that led to us all depending on computers and internet connections in our homes.

We love the idea of the lone inventor toiling away in obscurity, but it's more often a work of collaboration and shared ideas that create revolutions in society.  Walter Isaacson reaches back to the roots of computers in his newest book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.  He starts with Charles Babbage's "difference engine," a computing machine from the early 1800s, and the book Ada Lovelace wrote about it (and Ada is a recurring theme in the book).  If not for her detailed documentation it would probably have died in the ash heap of history.  Isaacson discusses the contributions of Alan Turing and many others whose ideas and insights built upon and added to the thinking of others.  Isaacson strives to "give credit" where credit is due, but he clearly and chronologically points out how each one inspired other uses and inventions – and he covers the squabbles for credit that often ensued.

I had a hard time following some of the concepts that underlie the logic of computers, but it's a fascinating history full of names and machines I had barely heard of previously.  Some were geniuses in their own right, but many would never have been known if not for their collaborators – Bill Gates had Paul Allen, and Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniack.  He even explains the role Al Gore had in "inventing the internet" – yes, he had a role.  There are lots of pictures, including a funny police mug shot of a very young Bill Gates with an unusually huge smile.  Some chapters were absolutely fascinating – as someone who grew up spending the money I earned mowing lawns in video arcades and buying game cartridges for the Atari at home, I loved the chapter that told about Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari.  Other chapters were less interesting, however, and I struggled with the chapter linking hippies with the personal computer (I thought Isaacson seemed to mention LSD, acid, and psychedelic drugs way more than was necessary).  Even blogs and search engines find their way into the history.

I looked forward to reading this book since I had really enjoyed his biography of Benjamin Franklin, and while it was very interesting it didn't quite dazzle me the same way.  It's a bit long – nearly 500 pages before the notes – but still a very good telling of how these things we never knew we needed have become so indispensable in our modern lives.  (I received this book from the GoodReads FirstReads program.)

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