The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. BY WALTER ISAACSON. Simon & Schuster, 2014, 560 pp. $35.00.
Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. BY PETER THIEL WITH BLAKE MASTERS. Crown Business, 2014, 224 pp. $27.00.
In the grand scope of human history, technological progress is actually a surprisingly new phenomenon. While there had always been the occasional new invention or technological breakthrough, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that sustained technological progress became a reality—and, with it, the possibility of steadily rising living standards. For most of the past two centuries, that progress was most visible in the industrial and agricultural realms. But over the past 60 years or so, the lion’s share of innovation has come from a single sector: what is now loosely called “information technology.” When thinking about innovation in the United States today, the first (and sometimes only) place that comes to mind is Silicon Valley. In the simplest sense, Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators explains how that happened and, in the process, sheds some interesting light on what drives innovation more generally.
The Innovators doesn’t begin in the Valley, though. It doesn’t even begin in the United States, or in the twentieth century. Instead, Isaacson starts with the story of the visionary British mathematicians Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, who, in the 1830s and 1840s, rather miraculously came up with the basic idea for a general-purpose computer much like those of today. From there, Isaacson leaps ahead a century to the years just before World War II, when a series of conceptual breakthroughs led to the construction of what might be considered the first proto-computers. Isaacson’s book, as its title suggests, then becomes a kind of serial biography, as he offers up portrait after portrait of the men and women who turned the computer from a theoretical idea into a daily reality. This approach has its limitations: there are times when it feels as if
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