Book Review: The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

This is one of those rarities among books:  fascinating, well-written, and just the right length for what it sets out to do.  It tells the story of the creation of computers, programming, the transistor, the microchip, video games, the Internet, software, and the worldwide web from the time that Ada, Countess of Lovelace, daughter of the famous British poet Lord Byron, first conceived the idea of a computer until the present tech-saturated era.  On the way it tells the personal stories of Alan Turing, Vannevar Bush, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and many other scientists, engineers, and innovators.  It even links the hippy movement and its search for community in the 1960s, exemplified by Ken Kesey and Steward Brand, with the rise of the personal computer.

You’ve probably heard a good deal of this before in bits and pieces, as I have, but the value of this book is in weaving it all together into a coherent and easy-to-follow narrative that is nevertheless detailed enough to give an overall picture of how our present ubiquitous use of personal computers, smart phones, and so on evolved.

It’s very modern history.  As I read I was able to picture where I was and what sort of technology I had in the various stages of its development.  My family acquired our first computer, a 386 that ran on DOS, back in the 1980s in Athens.  By the time we left Athens to move to Thessaloniki, we had graduated to a 486, a color monitor, and rudimentary Windows.  We first obtained a modem and Internet connection soon afterwards, with the help of a computer teacher at the school where I taught English.  One of the first websites I ever looked up was the Science Fiction Writers of America website, from which I was able to obtain links to market lists of places I could send the stories I was writing.  The first game my boys played was a slow, clunky DOS version of Colonization.  Compared to games nowadays it was profoundly simple, but they loved it, taking ten minute alternating turns as often as we would allow them.

Many of you growing up in the latter half of the twentieth century have similar stories to tell of your early encounters with computers and related technology, and that’s one of the great appeals of this book.  It’s history that touches you personally.  You lived through it, and this book fills you in on all the behind-the-scenes details that you never knew.  Or maybe you knew some of it, but this book puts it all together into a cohesive whole, one part linked with another to tell the entire story.

Nowadays, as a freelance writer, I use a computer all day long almost every day.  I can’t imagine what I would do without one, but when I was young there were no such things as personal computers.  Computers were huge, bulky entities that filled entire rooms, accessible only to scientists and privileged academics.  That the technology has come so far, so fast is astonishing, and this book tells the story of how it all came about.  I highly recommend this book to anyone, which is virtually everyone, who uses modern computer technology.  It reminds you not to take the miracles of the modern age for granted, but to understand the labor and collaborative effort that was necessary to create the technology we all enjoy and depend on.

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