Book fest hosts historian of digital revolution

Journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson sat down to talk with Steve Jobs more than 40 times over the course of two years to write the definitive portrait of the computer pioneer.

It became one of the best-selling biographies ever written. But a bigger story waited for Isaacson’s attention: not about a single great inventor, but about the cloud of collaborators who were the true authors of the computer age.

With the patience of a C++ programmer, Isaacson knitted together the story arcs of dozens of characters to write “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.” He will talk about it Saturday, Nov. 8, at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta as part of the center’s annual book festival.

Isaacson was, at different times, CEO of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine. He is the author of biographies of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, and is the rare writer with a deep appreciation for science. His central theme is that the digital revolution was born of both the arts and the sciences. The emblem of that hybrid is Isaacson’s most surprising character: Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron and a computer programmer in the 1840s, 100 years before the term existed.

Isaacson spoke about his book recently from his home in Washington, D.C.

Q. Did you ever have a difficult time understanding what your subjects were talking about?

A. In the case of Ada Lovelace, look at her father’s poetry. A line like ‘She walks in beauty like the night,’ that’s a complicated line. Sometimes a piece of math may seem complicated or an electrical circuit may seem complicated. Then you realize that they are fun to wrestle with.

Q. Are the humanists getting involved?

A. The first two decades of the digital revolution were driven largely by engineers, but now it’s been driven by creative types: journalists, the arts, fashion, games… We’re also being driven by the natural human instinct to form networks.

Q. Do you think the fact that early microcomputers were marketed to boys had anything to do with the dominance of men in computer science?

A. What was interesting to me is how important women were in pioneering the art of programming but how little credit they get in most histories. I think that in the early days of the computer revolution boys with their toys felt that the hardware was the most important thing, but women who did the programming of ENIAC and of Harvard’s Mark I, in the tradition of Ada Lovelace, soon showed us that the programming languages were just as important as the hardware.

Q. Is the gender imbalance in computer science evening out?

A. No. I think things are getting a little bit worse. The proportion of women majoring in computer science now is half what it was in 1980. It’s really bad to have a revolution where half the population is left out.

Q. Does it seem that many of the people in the book are a little peculiar?

A. To be a great innovator it helps to be a little bit rebellious… Steve Jobs said in his ‘Think Different’ ads that the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who usually do.

Q. You mentioned our instinct to form networks. Lately, our instinct on the web seems to lean toward anti-social behavior. Why do we act so ugly online?

A. Computer networks allow us to be more anonymous which has an upside in terms of allowing free speech but has a down side. When you’re not responsible for your own words, you say things you would not say in person.

I tend to feel that the next wave of social networks may be ones in which people voluntarily are part of a more civil discourse in which they don’t insist on being anonymous. You go back to the early days of computer networks, like the WELL (the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link). Stewart Brand was one of the inventors, and he used to say ‘You own your own words.’ In other words, you’re responsible for what you say. Sometimes people don’t feel responsible for what they say online.

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