About Walter Isaacson, you already know. He’s the former New Orleans newspaperman who went on to head CNN, and now leads the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute, a leading think tank. In his spare time, Isaacson writes bestselling books about famous geniuses such as Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs.
But in his new book, “The Innovators,” Isaacson makes the point that progress usually doesn’t advance because of lone prodigies toiling in isolation. Most technological revolutions grow from lots of smart people working together toward the same goal.
“I wanted to step away from doing biographies, which tend to emphasize the role of singular individuals,” and do a book on a groups of revolutionary thinkers instead, Isaacson tells readers. The result, “The Innovators,” is a chronicle of the many minds who helped create the digital revolution.
“The collaboration that created the digital age was not just among peers but also between generations,” Isaacson writes. “Ideas were handed off from one cohort of innovators to the next.”
Another big lesson for Isaacson: “I was struck by how the truest creativity of the digital age came from those who were able to connect the arts and sciences. They believed that beauty mattered ... The people who were comfortable at this humanities-technology intersection helped to create the human-machine symbiosis at the heart of this story.”
The idea that the arts can strengthen the sciences isn’t a new one, Isaacson points out. “Leonardo da Vinci was the exemplar of the creativity that flourishes when the humanities and sciences interact,” he writes. “When Einstein was stymied while working out General Relativity, he would pull out his violin and play Mozart until he could reconnect with the harmony of the spheres.”
Isaacson’s new book has much to tell Louisiana leaders about the kind of things we’ll need to grow and sustain a strong economy here. For one thing, as we invest in expanding instruction in math, science and computing, we’ll need to nurture liberal arts education, too – classes in literature, music and art. We need the humanities not only because they bring pleasure, but because they’re essential in developing the kind of creativity science needs to move ahead.
And if collaboration is the key to real innovation, Louisiana should aggressively support the institutions where collaboration typically takes place. That means funding research universities — and encouraging communities where all sorts of people can be heard.
The next generation of innovation, Isaacson says, “will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors . . . In other words, it will come from creators who can flourish where the arts intersect with sciences and who have a rebellious sense of wonder that opens them to the beauty of both.”
Editor's note: This story was corrected at 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 28, 2014, to correct the spelling of Albert Einstein's name.