Isaacson has accomplished an impressive feat in summarizing 70 years of progress in the field of computing and the Internet. The 500+ pages may not seem like a summary, but he rarely spends more time than necessary on a topic. His central thesis is that innovators are most successful when collaborating with others. The brilliant idea man needs the practical manager to convert that idea into a useful product. He seems to agree with those who say that for most of even all of the great 20th and 21st century digital innovations, there were no inventors in the conventional sense, only people who contributed to bringing about such a thing. Every great innovation was incremental in nature and even the increments were collaborative processes.
Whether you agree with this thesis, you can enjoy his clear and concise well-researched account of each of the steps that led to the digital age we have. I was astounded at how many separate “inventions” have occurred in this time span, nearly all of which I have lived through. A look at the chapter titles will make clear what an incredible journey it has been: The computer, Programming, the Transistor, Microchips, Video games, the Internet, the Personal Computer, software, Online, The Web. Within each of these broad chapters there are a dozen or more key individuals who helped to bring about the concept and the reality listed in the chapter heading. The only major innovation he has omitted in my opinion is the cell phone/smart phone. I think this book must have gone to press just before the popularity of smart phones exploded.
I had expected this to be rather dry and boring, but it turned out to be anything but. This may perhaps be in part due to the fact I grew up in Silicon Valley. I was working in an IBM warehouse in one of my summer jobs in high school. I learned to operate mainframe computers for a work-study job in college. My first job out of college was operating such machines for a semiconductor company in Silicon Valley (then still known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight). In the 80s I bought an Apple ][e and taught myself Applesoft BASIC. When I switched to a PC I learned DOS and QBASIC, then Pascal and Delphi. I was on the high-tech squad in the FBI office in San Jose dealing with dozens of the high-tech firms mentioned in the book. I was offered – and took – the position of west coast security manager for AOL when that company bought Netscape. I was recruited away from there during the Dot Com Boom by another Internet company then laid off during the Bust. I’ve seen it all unfold before my eyes, but until now I never really had an understanding of who was causing this avalanche of change or why. This book has brought it all into focus and into perspective. If nothing else, it is a heart-warming nostalgia trip.
I listened to this book on CDs. The reader is excellent. I never got tired of his voice nor did he have the slick or smarmy sound of Scott Brick or other well-known readers.