Around the Institute

Collaboration and the Intersection of the Arts and Technology – A Talk With Walter Isaacson on “Innovators”

October 27, 2014  • Alice Lee, Guest Blogger

Above, watch the full discussion of Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson discussing his new book “The Innovators.”

In his new book “The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution,” Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson explores how the collaboration among inventors, engineers, and businesspeople brought us the digital technology that define this day and age.

As part of the Alma and Joseph Gildenhorn Book Series, Isaacson spoke with Carlyle Group Co-Founder and Co-CEO David Rubenstein about the writing process and how writing “The Innovators” showed Isaacson that individual genius could not have brought about the Digital Revolution. “The reason I wrote this book this way is because there is no one person,” Isaacson said. “And those of us who have written biographies… we know we distort history a little bit. We know that we sort of make it sound as though there is this one person who’s starting in the garage or garret, had a light bulb moment and the Industrial Revolution or the Digital Age occurs. And that’s not the way history works… It actually is a whole lot of people who team [up], and collaborate, and hand off to each other things.”

The invention of the computer is one example of a major technological feat resulting from collaboration. According to Isaacson, historians would typically say that John Vincent Atanasoff from Iowa State University was the inventor of the computer. But while Atanasoff did create the circuit that would become the basis of the modern computer, he never builds the computer to completion because he did not have a team to work with. His idea was almost forgotten until physicist and University of Pennsylvania associate professor John Mauchly found Atanasoff’s ideas.

Mauchly traveled to about 22 places, such as the 1939 World’s Fair and Vassar, to learn about and glean different technological ideas. After hearing about Atanasoff’s computer, Mauchly drove to Iowa State meet Atanasoff’ and took Atanasoff’s ideas. Mauchly then hired mechanics and mathematicians to eventually build ENIAC, the world’s first general-purpose computer.

Unlike Atanasoff, Mauchly was a part of societies and groups that loved to share and exchange ideas, making it easier for Mauchly to reach out and collaborate with others to bring an idea into fruition.

“But [the story of the computer] convinced me that the loner in the basement, who’s a great visionary but can’t execute, is relegated to the dustbin of history unless somebody who can execute goes there, takes the ideas, and puts them together,” said Isaacson.

In his book, Isaacson also emphasizes that innovations that connect the humanities and the sciences bring about the most value and impact. In an interview with the late Apple Co-Founder Steve Jobs for Jobs’s self-titled biography, Isaacson recounts how Jobs struggled to decide whether to pursue a career in the humanities or technology.

“[Jobs] said, ‘I was a humanities kid growing up,’” Isaacson explained. “’I loved poetry and art, but I was also an electronics geek, and I didn’t know which I wanted to be. And then I read something that Edwin Land — who had invented Polaroid — had said, which is to stand at the intersection of the arts and the sciences. That’s where true value is created.’”

Like Jobs and Land, a number of inventors have aimed to find the intersection of the humanities and technology. Isaacson follows these individuals in “The Innovators.” starting with Ada Lovelace, who 19th century advocated the joining of machines and humans to spark creativity, all the way to Doug Engelbart, the creator of the computer mouse, and others. By following the lives of both known and relatively unknown technologists, the theme that emerges is that “those who can connect humanities and technology win.”