Toronto Star

Catching up to our machines


Some of us can still remember a time when the Internet was being dismissed as a lot of hype over nothing.

Those days are gone. The Internet was actually bigger than advertised, and has had an impact that may turn out to be greater than that of the Industrial Revolution. It truly changed everything: culture, economics, politics and even how we think and relate to one another. And it all happened so fast.

The digital revolution had many parents, including, yes, Al Gore. In The Innovators, Walter Isaacson provides a full accounting of how it happened. This involves both unpacking the Internet’s genealogy as well as accounting for all of its component parts and industries.

By taking a general approach, he highlights how historical forces, individual talent and technology had to come together to create the current digital dispensati­on. It sometimes reads more like a reference work than a narrative history, but it offers an accessible overview of the subject.

Isaacson presents two models for innovation: solitary creative genius and collaborat­ive teamwork. He argues both are necessary, but in the end he is clear that collaborat­ion is the most important. “Innovation is not a loner’s endeavour.” Scientific breakthrou­ghs were of course necessary, but engineers were also needed to put the big ideas of the digital revolution into practice, and business savvy was required to bring the product to market.

The revolution was underwritt­en by necessity and demand. Whether developmen­t was being undertaken by the military, universiti­es or corporatio­ns, what we got was a revolution we wanted, coming in the form of ever smaller, cheaper, faster and more attractive devices.

This is a key point. There can be different paths to the same innovation: The basic science and many of the essential developmen­ts of the digital revolution were arrived at nearly simultaneo­usly in various places. But the direction innovation was driven in was largely the result of consumer choices. Consciousl­y or not, we build our own future and direct our own social evolution.

Isaacson’s interest is in the history of the digital revolution and not where it may take us. Neverthele­ss, he does try to project some of the trends he examines into the future.

What he would like to see going forward is a digital environmen­t strengthen­ed by human factors: “values, intentions, esthetic judgments, emotions, personal consciousn­ess and a moral sense.” In other words, a wedding of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” of science and the humanities, linking “beauty to engineerin­g, humanity to technology and poetry to processors.”

That is a consummati­on devoutly to be wished. Current trends, however, are not promising.

The cultural economy has been severely disrupted by the digital revolution, and despite the best efforts of many concerned experts in the field there are few clear ideas for how a creative class will be able to sustain itself in the future. Going viral is a windfall, not a career. University enrolment in the arts continues to decline, as the squeezed middle class reads the tea leaves and sees the humanities as a profession­al dead end.

Still, innovation can take many forms. Our technology has been speeding ahead of us, but we may have time yet to catch up to our machines. Alex Good is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries.

 ??  ?? The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, 544 pages, $40.
The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, 544 pages, $40.
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