The inspiration for best-selling author Walter Isaacson’s latest book can be traced back to his time growing up on Napoleon Avenue.
“I loved the arts and the humanities,” the author of “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created a Digital Revolution” said Saturday. “But I was also an electronics geek.”
Speaking to an audience at Isidore Newman School, Isaacson explained how the basement of his family home was filled “with ham radios and Heathkits and all those things you soldered.”
Isaacson, whose previous book was a biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs, said understanding the digital revolution became important to him.
“When we study America and we want to know its values, we study the American Revolution,” he said. “For those people of my generation, our revolution was the digital revolution.”
Isaacson, a Newman graduate, is the CEO of the Aspen Institute and the former chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has named him as one of the leaders of a committee that will plan the celebration of New Orleans’ 300th anniversary in 2018.
In his talk, which was followed by a book signing, Isaacson recounted some of the major themes and personalities of his current book, including Ada Lovelace, who invented the concept of the computer algorithm.
Lovelace’s father was Lord Byron, the early 19th century poet, and her mother was a mathematician who made sure Lovelace was tutored in math.
Lovelace studied the mechanical looms that used punch cards to make complex tapestries and deduced that machines could do anything that could be noted in logical instructions.
“It can do words, it can do patterns like the looms, it can do art, it can do music,” Isaacson said. “That was Ada Lovelace’s great leap of insight.”
Ironically, Byron was a supporter of the Luddites, British workers who were smashing the mechanical looms they thought threatened the jobs of weavers. His only speech in the House of Lords was in support of them.
“Back then, people believed the advances of technology would put us out of work,” Isaacson said. “They were wrong back then; those who believe it now are wrong now.
“With the advent of technology, we create more types of businesses and more diversity in our economy rather than just putting people out of work.”
Isaacson also noted how the creation of the Internet and the development of the personal computer were collaborative processes in which most of the ideas and the energy came from the bottom up instead of the top down.
“Power is decentralized; it’s a very almost libertarian model,” he said.
The creation of a national defense computer network depended on the federal government via funding from the Pentagon, but it also involved private industry, he said. Most important, however, was that the work of several research universities funded with government grants led to the creation of ARPANET, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, which evolved eventually into the Internet.
Isaacson said the evolution of the PC depended on such disparate groups as “hippies — people who listened to the Grateful Dead once too often,” activists who were interested in increasing the public’s access to the tools they needed, and electronics enthusiasts like members of the Homebrew Computer Club, which included Jobs and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Isaacson concluded his talk, which was arranged by the Garden District Book Shop, by returning to what he called “the Lovelace theme.”
“The theme of all of the technological advances of our day and our generation has been making our technology more personal, more intimate and more connected to us,” he said.
“I know a lot of people who would be appalled if you joked that you didn’t know the difference between ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth,’ or you didn’t know who Picasso was. But they would happily admit they don’t know the difference between an integral equation and a differential one, or a transistor and a capacitor, or a gene and a chromosome,” Isaacson said.
He said the goal of his book is to inspire his readers to appreciate the beauty of the arts and humanities and the importance of connecting them to technology, “but also the beauty of the technology and the revolution that is the history of our generation.
“People like that, like Ada with a foot in all those camps, will be the ones who will lead the next phase of the revolution.”