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Odds and Ends: Investigating Inventiveness
Odds and Ends: Investigating Inventiveness

Walter Isaacson on technology—and why smartphones won’t make us zombies

Rick Tulka

Before he was the best-selling biographer of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson was a tinkerer, soldering circuits and building ham radios as a boy. "It gave me a hands-on feel for how technology works," says the Aspen Institute president and CEO. That enduring fascination with semiconductors and amps drives Isaacson's latest work, The Innovators, a nearly 170-year history of the geniuses behind the digital revolution. The book takes an upbeat view of technology, though Isaacson laments that it's no longer easy to tinker (ever try dismantling an iPad?). "I think we're raising a generation of techies who understand coding, software, and apps, but it would be useful to know how circuits work, too," he says. "That's important so we don't get too detached from technology. Otherwise, we're prone to consider it magic or frightening—and it's neither." Isaacson will be a keynote speaker at the CASE-NAIS Independent Schools Conference in New Orleans, Jan. 25–27. Find more information here.

What surprised you most from researching and writing The Innovators?

I was surprised by how many of these brilliant innovators loved art and the humanities. J.C.R. Licklider, an MIT professor who helped create interactive computing and digital networks, used to stand in front of paintings at art galleries and study each brushstroke to figure out how the creative mind worked. Alan Kay, who developed the graphical user interface we're now so familiar with, insists that he never made a great distinction between art and technology. Steve Jobs summed it up in two words: Beauty matters.

So will a liberal arts education become more relevant?

I think the next stage of the digital revolution will be a fusion between the creative industries and technology. Things will be more collaborative. At some point, we'll have a book that's totally collaborative where the author becomes a curator—and that will be true of role-playing games, journalism, and maybe fiction writing. But it's also important that people who love the humanities become familiar with technology—otherwise they'll be left behind. People who celebrate the arts would be appalled if someone didn't know the difference between Hamlet and Macbeth, but they admit or even brag that they don't know the difference between a transistor and a capacitor.

Reading your book on Steve Jobs, I often thought: This guy is abusive. Yet he also got people to do more than they thought possible.

I'm glad you caught that, because some people say, "You made him such a jerk." But they miss the second part, which is that he got people to do things they didn't think they could do.

What leadership lessons did you learn from Jobs?

You have to be true to your own personality and talents. [Apple CEO] Tim Cook is as good a leader as Steve Jobs but in a totally different way. A lot of people who try to emulate Steve get the first thing right—they're demanding bosses—but it only works if you're an inspiring visionary. People come up to me and say, "I'm just like Steve. I told someone to their face, ‘This sucks.'" And I say, "Yeah—and have you ever come up with the iPhone?" You have to learn the best way for you to lead, not "what are the seven lessons of leadership" that some innovation guru wrote in a book.

Why are you so optimistic about the future of technology?

I'm a historian, so I look at the data points. You could go all the way back to Plato and Socrates arguing in the Phaedrus about whether this new technology of writing will destroy conversation and rhetoric. Generally, we not only survive our technology, but we prevail. The fact that smartphones and mobile devices are about to destroy passive television viewing is great because it creates a medium that is more interactive and more social. If we can survive the age of television, we can survive the age of smartphones.

—Interview by Ken Budd




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