Sunday, 25 January 2015

A tale of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks

"The computer and the Internet are among the most important inventions of our era, but few people know who created them. They were not conjured up in a garret or garage by solo inventors suitable to be singled out on magazine covers or put into a pantheon with Edison, Bell, and Morse. Instead, most of the innovations of the digital age were done collaboratively."

This is how author Walter Isaacson introduces 'The Innovators', a fascinating tale of pioneers and entrepreneurs who are responsible for some of the most significant breakthroughs of the digital age.

The reason why I liked this book lies in Isaacson's ability to describe the lives of these visionaries in detail. He shows their profound passion and deep care for building great products that ultimately changed our lives. At the same time, the author likes to emphasise how their remarkable inventions were mostly the results of collaboration. Being able to work in teams made those inventors "even more creative."

"The tale of their teamwork is important because we don't often focus on how central that skill is to innovation."

From Ada, Countess of Lovelace to the Web

Isaacson begins with Ada Lovelace. The English mathematician and writer published her "Notes" on Babbage's Analytical Engine in 1843. Notes were recognised as the first algorithm carried out by a machine.

Over the years, Lovelace has been celebrated as a feminist icon as well as a computer pioneer. What stood out was her appreciation for poetical science, which the author likes to emphasise as a lasting lesson for innovating at all times.

"Ada's ability to appreciate the beauty of mathematics is a gift that eludes many people, including some who think of themselves as intellectual. She realized that math was a lovely language, one that describes the harmonies of the universe and can be poetic at times...She was able to understand the connections between poetry and analysis."

Many influential people who have made a big impact on our society often have gathered enemies or disagreements along the way. This applies to Ada Lovelace too. "She has also been ridiculed as delusional, flighty, and only a minor contributor," writes Isaacson.

However, the author perfectly captures the reason why Lovelace must be recognised in The Innovators:

"The reality is that Ada's contribution was both profound and inspirational. More than Babbage or any other person of her era, she was able to glimpse a future in which machines would become partners of human imagination...Her appreciation for poetical science led her to celebrate a proposed calculating machine that was dismissed by the scientific establishment of her day, and she perceived how the processing power of such a device could be used on any form of information. Thus did Ada, Countess of Lovelace, help sow the seeds of a digital age that would blossom a hundred years later."

Creativity

The author likes to remind us of a crucial element to the partnership between humans and machines: creativity.

"We humans can remain relevant in an era of cognitive computing because we are able to think different, something that an algorithm, almost by definition, can't master. We possess an imagination that, as Ada said, "bring together things, facts, ideas, conceptions in new, original, endless, ever-varying combinations." We discern patterns and appreciate their beauty. We weave information into narratives. We are storytelling as well as social animals."

Isaacson believes that arts and humanities should endeavor to appreciate the beauty of math and physics. And vice versa.

He encourages us to respect both the two worlds. But, more importantly he suggests understanding how they intersect. "The next phase of the Digital Revolution will bring even more new methods of marrying technology with the creative industries, such as media, fashion, music, entertainment, education, literature, and the arts."

New platforms and social networks are enabling fresh opportunities for individual imagination and collaborative creativity. It is through the interplay between technology and the arts that new forms of expression will eventaully emerge.

"This innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors."

The human-machine partnership

The book encompasses all the major key players in computing, programming, electronic devices, microchips, video games, the Internet, the personal computers, software, online and the web.

It concludes by describing IBM's Watson and its Jeopardy!-playing computer, a good example of how people and machines can partner and get smarter together for the better of society.

Isaacson describes a project where Watson was used to work in partnership with doctors on cancer treatments.

"The Watson system was fed more than 2 million pages from medical journals and 600,000 pieces of clinical evidence, and could search up to 1.5 million patient records. When a doctor put in a patient's symptoms and vital information, the computer provided a list of recommendations ranked in order of its confidence."

But, as often happens with new technological developments, there was an initial resistance from physicians who were not happy to have a computer telling them what to do. It was mainly a problem of communication and language. The author writes, "in order to be useful, the IBM teams realized, the machine needed to interact with human doctors in a manner that made collaboration pleasant."

They decided to reprogram the system to come across as humble. After those iterations "doctors were delighted, saying that it felt like a conversation with a knowledgable colleague."

Innovation is a team game

Other key lessons can be drawn from Isaacson's book in addition to the power of creativity and the possibilities created by the human-machine partnerships just discussed.

The following ones are very close to the internal communicator's heart.

First and foremost, as the author puts it, "innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses." I like the example of Twitter that Isaacson uses to make the point.

The popular social network,

"was invented by a team of people who were collaborative but also quite contentious. When one of the cofounders, Jack Dorsey, started taking a lot of the credit in media interviews, another cofounder, Evan Williams, a serial entrepreneur who had previoulsy created Blogger, told him to chill out, according to Nick Bilton of the New York Times. "But, I invented Twitter," Dorsey said. "No, you didn't invent Twitter," Williams replied. "I didn't invent Twitter either. Neither did Biz [Stone, another cofounder]. People don't invent things on the Internet. They simply expand on an idea that already exists."

Within the Twitter story lies another useful lesson:

"The digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations. The collaboration was not merely among contemporaries, but also between generations."

Two more lessons are worth acknowledging. One is that the most productive teams are made of people with a diverse range of specialities. The second one is that the physical closeness of team members can help to drive innovation.

The latter is interesting. It is often the subject of lively debates on the nature of our workplaces. The author observes that despite today's virtual tools, "now as in the past, physical proximity is beneficial. There is something special...about meetings in the flesh, which cannot be replicated digitally."

He uses the research facility Bell Laboratories as an example to illustrate his point:

"In its long corridors in suburban New Jersey, there were theoretical physicists, experimentalists, material scientists, engineers, a few business-men, and even some telephone-pole climbers with grease under their fingernails. Walter Brattain, an experimentalist, and John Bardeen, a theorist, shared a workspace, like a librettist and a composer sharing a piano bench, so they could perform a call-and response all day about how to make what became the first transitor."

Conclusions 

"We talk so much about innovation these days that it has become a buzzword, drained of clear meaning."

Probably that is true. But, Isaacson doesn't fail to bring that meaning back reporting on how innovation is actually occuring in the real world.

If you want to find out how the most disruptive ideas have been concretely turned into realities, then 'The Innovators' is the book for you. The manual is full of pointers that communicators and leaders of any progressive organisation may use as a sort of inspiration. Plus, I would like to applaude the author's ability to write about technological developments in such a clear and simple way that even 'non techy' people can easily comprehend and much appreciate.

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This article originally appeared on simply-communicate