The Innovators: Walter Isaacson

Ada Lovelace

Karl Marx: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please…but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

In the Innovators by Walter Isaacson, Isaacson describes the group of “hackers, geniuses, and geeks” that created the digital revolution.

The digital revolution came about in stages. Isaacson begins by discussing the work by Ada, Countess of Lovelace in the mid-1800s. Ada was the daughter of Lord Byron. She was schooled in mathematics but drew inspiration from the arts. Ada imagined a machine that could by used to process numbers and anything that could be notated by symbols. Her ideas were dismissed by the scientific community of her day.

However, Ada did doubt the capacity of machines. She argued that a machine could never think of ideas the way a human could.

In the mid-1900s, Alan Turing posed a test in opposition to Ada’s protestation. It is now referred to as the Turing test. A computer passes the Turing test when the machine exhibits intelligent behaviour indistinguishable from that of a human.

Although we have not created truly intelligent machines, we are on our way. The internet has enabled technological evolution at a much faster pace.

The advent of the personal computer gave way to the popularization of  the internet (networked computers that would distribute information to and from anywhere).

We often think of the development of technology as neutral, but they are in fact steeped in political and social forces. Isaacson writes:

The internet was built partly by government and partly by private firms but mostly it was the creation of the loose knit cohort of academics and hackers who worked as peers and freely shared their creative ideas. The result of peer sharing was a network that facilitated peer-sharing. The internet was built with the belief that power should be distributed rather than centralized and that authoritarian order should be circumvented.