Skip to main content

How The Cold War And George Orwell Helped Make The Internet What It Is.

In The Innovators, Walter Isaacson explains that Pentagon officials wanted a system the Russians couldn't attack, and 1984 made the public wary of new technology's Big Brother potential.


Other segments from the episode on October 6, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 6, 2014: Interview with Walter Issacson; Review of Brian Morton's novel "Florence Gordon."


October 6, 2014

Guest: Walter Isaacson

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We now take it for granted that we can turn on a computer or mobile device anywhere and connect with millions of other computer users around the world. But our guest, Walter Isaacson, says the remarkable gifts of the Internet and the personal computer weren't preordained. And in his new book, he tells the story of critical developments in the digital age and the people who made them happen. They range from a 19th century English countess to California hippies who helped invent personal computers because they were determined to put technology to work on behalf of everyone. Isaacson's new book is called "The Innovators: How A Group Of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses And Geeks Created The Digital Revolution." He's also written highly regarded biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. In his latest book, he focuses on collaboration in the creative process, and he profiles more than 40 people who made significant contributions to bringing us into the digital age. Isaacson is the CEO of the Aspen Institute and has been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Walter Isaacson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, you've given us some compelling biographies of these really brilliance innovators - Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs. This is different. This is a story of how we got to the digital age and it's about dozens of creative people. First of all, I can't imagine how you researched it, but you did. Why take this on? What's different about this from, you know, the brilliant individual?

WALTER ISAACSON: One of the things we biographers realize is that we distort history a little bit. We make it sound like there's some great individual in a garage or a garret who has a light-bulb moment, and all of a sudden innovation happens. But when you look at innovation, especially in this day and age, it happens in teams. Creativity is a collaborative effort in the digital age. And I wanted to get away from writing about the singular individual. Having written about Steve Jobs, I realized how important the team around him was. And even though he was a pretty strong character, he was able to attract very loyal colleagues. And so it goes back to a book I did with a friend about 25 years ago called "The Wise Men," which was about a group of people. I wanted to show how creativity happens in groups.

DAVIES: And sometimes happens across generations. It's amazing that the first story you tell us in this book is of a 19th century figure - Ada Lovelace. Who was she?

ISAACSON: Ada Byron, later known as Lady Lovelace, was Lord Byron's only child. And because Lord Byron was a great romantic poet but was not a particularly good husband, Ada Byron's mother wanted to make sure she didn't become a romantic poet and had her tutored only in mathematics. So Ada Lovelace ends up becoming a mathematician with a poetic streak in her. And she has a friend, Charles Babbage, who creates a wonderful calculating machine. And Ada Lovelace's insight is that this machine can do anything. It doesn't just have to deal with numbers; it can deal with words or pictures or music. And so she conceives of the general-purpose computer.

DAVIES: Right. And this guy Charles Babbage - this design, it wasn't something - it wasn't like an abacus. I mean, it was huge and complicated. Tell us a little about what it would've looked like if he'd gotten it built and what it would do.

ISAACSON: It was a huge mechanical digital computer that would have done calculus, you know, analytical and differential equations and integral equations. And it never got built quite, but one of the things he did is he had punch cards. And those punch cards were able to give it different programming skills and tell it what to do - programming instructions. And Ada Lovelace ends up programming the machine to do Bernoulli numbers and all sorts of things because she loved the way that punch cards told the looms how to make beautiful tapestries.

DAVIES: You're saying punch cards were used in weaving looms then?

ISAACSON: Yes, these new mechanical looms, that were part of the British Industrial Revolution, used punch cards to tell the looms how to do the warp and the woof and how to, you know, send the needles through so that it would make these beautiful patterns. And Lord Byron rails against this in the House of Lords. Lord Byron was a luddite - literally, he was somebody who was defending the followers of Ned Ludd, who were trying to smash these looms because they were putting weavers out of work. But his daughter, Ada Lovelace, looks at the way these punch cards are instructing the looms how to make these beautiful patterns, and she says those punch cards could be used in my friend Charles Babbage's analytical engine to do not only numbers but to make patterns, just like they do on looms. So these punch cards are really the way to instruct both the weaving machine and the calculating machine - what cog, what thing do you turn next? Where do you send things? And that becomes the heart of programming machines, which Ada Lovelace understood.

DAVIES: And Ada Lovelace became his sort of collaborator and promoter, but she really had contributions of her own. She got something published, which you regard as an original contribution to the development of modern computing.

ISAACSON: She did notes on Charles Babbage's analytical engine, and she explained how the punch cards could make it into a general-purpose computer. She wrote all sorts of programs for it in her notes, and she published her notes, which was something that women generally did not do back then, which is get published in scientific journals.

DAVIES: And the point you make here is that you can't just be a technician or a mathematician, that innovation happens best when technical skills are blended with a sense of arts and humanities.

ISAACSON: Her great contribution - Ada Lovelace's great contribution is understanding how you have to blend the humanities with the sciences. It's not a quest for artificial intelligence that she's seeking. She says machines will never think, but the combination of human creativity and machines will be able to do all sorts of magical things. So what she does is understand how we have to connect our humanity to our technology.

DAVIES: So Ada Lovelace's collaboration with Babbage and his efforts to get this huge contraption built is a fascinating story. It actually is never fully funded, never fully built, but did it contribute materially to the development of computers in the following century?

ISAACSON: One of the things that's amazing about the digital age is the way we collaborate across generations. There was a guy Howard Aiken, who wanted to build a computer at Harvard in the late 1930s, exactly 100 years later after Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. So his programmer, who was also a woman, the famous Grace Hopper, they look at the models of Babbage's difference and analytical engines. They also look at Ada Lovelace's notes, and they really sort of help implement what Babbage and Lovelace did in the 19th century, they implemented at Harvard 100 years later.

DAVIES: Computers as we know them today I guess really were developed initially in the '30s and '40s. And you kind of take us through some of the early stages here. There was this guy in Iowa - John Atanasoff, do I have the name right?

ISAACSON: John Vincent Atanasoff.

DAVIES: Atanasoff.

ISAACSON: Known as Vincent Atanasoff.

DAVIES: Tell us about him and what he came up with.

ISAACSON: The interesting thing about Vincent Atanasoff is he was a loner. He was somebody who worked in the basement at Iowa State and he came up with a circuit - a circuit that would do calculations. But he never really got it built because he didn't have a team. He was not a good collaborator. And so he couldn't get the punch card burner to work. A lot of people who love romantic biographies think, you know, we should have Vincent Atanasoff as the inventor of the first computer. But in my mind, since he could never really get it working, the credit for building the first computer should go to the teams who actually got them working.

DAVIES: And they were who?

ISAACSON: There were two of them - there was Bletchley Park, England, led by Alan Turing, the famous British mathematician and others who built Colossus, which was an electronic machine that broke the German wartime codes. There was also a team at the University of Pennsylvania trying to do missile trajectories for World War II. They created the first programmable, all-electronic working computer, known as ENIAC.

DAVIES: And what did these early computers - what did they look like? What could they do?

ISAACSON: They were big, old things with vacuum tubes. So they glowed, and they let off heat. They looked like things in those old movies with the blinking lights. They took up the size of the room and most of them were used for wartime uses, as Colossus was used to break the German codes, ENIAC did missile trajectories. But then a group of women helped to reprogram it so it could do atom bomb tests.

DAVIES: These early computers had a lot of capacity, but, I mean, one of the dilemmas was always how do we give the computers instructions? How were they programmed in those early days?

ISAACSON: In the early days, especially during the wartime, they were program really to do just one thing, like calculate a missile trajectory. But as the war was ending they realized they needed these machines to do other things. So they had groups of women mathematicians who reprogrammed the machine by turning off and on switches and re-plugging cables. It was a pretty complicated way to reprogram things, and it sometimes took hours to reprogram a machine.

DAVIES: And why was it that women did this job? A lot of the folks in the book are men, but women were particularly involved in programming.

ISAACSON: I think that the men felt that they were the hardware engineers, you know, the boys with their toys. And they thought that programming a machine maybe wasn't all that important, more of a menial job. But these were women mathematicians. There were a lot more women mathematicians in the 1930s than people realize. And they came and worked at these machines, and they discovered that the programming of the machine was actually more important than the hardware design of the machine. And so they became the pioneer programmers.

DAVIES: You mention a guide named Alan Turing, who was involved in early computing efforts and a great believer in artificial intelligence. Tell us who he is.

ISAACSON: Alan Turing believed that machines would be able to think. In fact, one of the things that Ada Lovelace wrote is that machines will never be creative, they'll never come up with their own ideas. And Alan Turing invented a test, which he called "The Imitation Game," to prove Lady Lovelace wrong. He called it "Lady Lovelace's Objection." And the Turing test was that you would send questions to a computer and a human in a different room and if you couldn't tell which was which, it meant there was no way you could say the machine wasn't thinking. There's a movie coming out November called "The Imitation Game" about this. So that Turing test is supposed to show we're going to have artificial intelligence. But really there've been two strands in the computer age - the strand led by the followers of Ada Lovelace, who said no, machines will never think, we should combine human with machines if we want great creativity and the school thought led by Alan Turing, which is pursued artificial intelligence.

DAVIES: Walter Isaacson is our guest. His new book is "The Innovators: How A Group Of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created The Digital Revolution." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is Walter Isaacson. His new book is "The Innovators: How A Group Of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses And Geeks Created The Digital Revolution." So computers are born, I guess - what? - in the '40s and '50s, and there are a small number of these huge, hulking machines around in universities and all. Connecting them - the Internet - that was a huge advance; where did the idea come from that these machines should communicate with one another?

ISAACSON: There's a wonderful character named J. C. R. Licklider, and he works up in MIT for the Defense Department, and they're doing an air defense system. And he does two amazing things - he realizes that if you wanted to have an air defense system, you have to have interactive computers, that humans can look at screens that they can understand - that a very sort of graphical screen, so that a console jockey will know if we're being attacked and exactly where it's coming from. And they work very quickly, and they're interactive. Also, you have to network them. There were 23 centers around the United States, so he envisioned what he called the intergalactic computer network. And when he goes to work at the Pentagon, he ends up developing what's called ARPANET, and that eventually becomes the Internet. And it's a way to tie together research computers around the country, mainly to share resources or to share information, but in some ways it becomes a communications tool and thus the Internet is born.

DAVIES: Right. And you note that there were some institutional relationships here that facilitated this - government, industry, academia.

ISAACSON: Right. Coming out of World War II, we created a triangle in the United States of government, universities and private corporations. A wonderful guy named Vannevar Bush came up with this idea that the basic research would be done at places like MIT and Harvard and Stanford and Penn, but then companies, like Raytheon or BBN, would help build the machines. And government would fund it. And that was the basic research triangle that we had, and that creates everything from microchips, to the Internet, to lasers, to transistors at Bell Labs. All of these things happen because of this partnership, this collaboration between industry, government and universities; something that we're losing now as we cut back on basic research, we're sort of cutting back on the seed corn of what will be the inventions of the future.

DAVIES: You know, and I think a lot of people today would regard these close collaborations between the government and industry as sort of sinister. I mean, you know, the NSA and, you know, capturing all our data from digital companies.

ISAACSON: You know, it was interesting that they - there were of people who believed it was sinister back then as well. This is of course when George Orwell's "1984" was coming out - it was published in 1948. And people thought the computers would lead to Big Brother-like government, but the people who were developing both the Internet and then the personal computer realized that you had to make it personal. You had to give access and power to each of the individuals, and that would help the system from becoming Orwellian. And that's why we have a very decentralized Internet and sort of this system where anybody can post anything anywhere and send information anywhere.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, they were designing it. It could've functioned out of a central hub - right? - I mean, why didn't...

ISAACSON: Right. And the people who were designing it decided for two reasons not to centralize control of the Internet. One was the reason given by the colonels in the Pentagon is they wanted to make sure that the Russians couldn't send a nuclear attack on some hub and destroy our communications system. So they wanted a system that was distributed, but the people who were actually building this system, they weren't really thinking about Russian attacks. They were kind of rebellious, antiauthoritarian types; they wanted power to the people. They called it computing power to the people, and so they created a system in which every node on the Internet has the ability to store, to forward, to originate information in packets. And these packets just scurry around as if they were in a spider's web, and if one of the little nodes on the spider's web disappears, the packet just scurries around and gets to where it wants to go using another route. So this decentralized system made it hard for the Russians to blow it up, but also made it hard for the government or corporations to control the Internet.

DAVIES: Of course this happened long before personal computers, when, you know, there weren't many computers - they were big, they were owed by big institutions. And there's a wonderful moment that you describe when they're developing this, and they have to figure out how these - the first four computers that are going to be involved are going to talk to each other. And they decide they're going to have these little minicomputers. And this bunch of, I guess, graduate students and researchers start working on kind of how it's going to work, how they're going to talk to each other. And there comes a point when they want to send out a memo that says, well, these are our ideas. And you note that they did this in a very unassertive way, and that kind of mattered. Explain this.

ISAACSON: It was the ultimate example of a collaborative way - a peer-to-peer way - to do things. Nobody was in charge of creating the original ways that the computers on the Internet would talk to the various routers. So these graduate students come up with a thing called request for comments. It's a way that would be very sort of un-authoritarian. It would be like, we're not telling you what to do, we're just saying here's a suggestion why don't you comment on it? And these people who were doing it - a guy named Steve Crocker, who was one of the graduate students, he wrote up most of the RFC's. They kept waiting for some big, political figure from Washington to order them to do things, but the authorities never ordered them what to do. And so in this very collaborative way, just sending around these memos, they're able to come up with the thousands of little rules we have now about how packets move from place to place on the Internet.

DAVIES: And so the idea was we're not telling you how it will happen. Why don't you help us figure out how it will happen?

ISAACSON: It's a way to be very inclusive, very collaborative and not have an authority sort of try to run things in a top-down way. And I think the DNA of the way Internet was created through these requests for comments, in this way of sort of lets share the way we're going to build it is ingrained in the Internet itself. There's no central authority that controls the internet; there's no hub or even spokes or anything else that can be controlled; and that can tell people what to do. And even today if you go online and you sort of search request for comments, you'll see that this process is still happening. Lots of people, in a peer-to-peer fashion, are building the rules for the Internet without some authority dictating down how it should be done.

DAVIES: You know, it's the way things are today, and it sort of seems natural. Could it have gone another direction? Could we have a different kind of Internet?

ISAACSON: Sure. The Internet could've been designed by the Pentagon or some big corporation. In fact the people who came up with the notion of packet switching, which is one of the key ideas that underlies the Internet, tried to get AT&T - the Bell System - to do it, in which case, they would've had their hubs across the nation; they would've controlled the Internet.

Instead, nobody really wanted to build this thing, so it was done sort of in an ad hoc manner with people putting out these memos, buying these routers, putting these routers next to their computer, reading the memos and figuring out how the routers would talk to one another, until it sprang up from the ground up as opposed to being dictated from the top down, which is the way it could've happened, in which case, we would have an Internet that would have a lot of on-off switches that our politicians could control.

DAVIES: There's a lovely moment in the book when these guys are trying to explain to AT&T how this packet switching thing would work. And AT&T, they just don't get it. No, we do phones. This is what we do.

ISAACSON: The idea of packet switching is that these things could scurry through the whole communication system without having a dedicated circuit. In other words, you didn't have to have one wire connecting one phone directly to a hub to the next phone. And AT&T kept saying that won't work, and they finally do this long series of seminars to try to convince Paul Baran, who was the guy who had come up with the notion of packet switching, out at Rand in California, explained to him why it would not work. And after all of these seminars, they finally turned to him and say, now do you understand why it won't work? And he looks at him, he says, no, it will work. And of course it does.

GROSS: Walter Isaacson will continue his interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Isaacson's new book is called "The Innovators: How A Group Of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses And Geeks Created The Digital Revolution. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Walter Isaacson about his new book "The Innovators," how group of hackers, geniuses and geeks created the digital revolution. Isaacson is also the author of a best-selling biography of Steve Jobs.

DAVIES: So the Internet comes into being in the '70s, but there really aren't very many computers, right? I mean, they're mostly owned by big companies, institutions. And to make it something that we all use and is available to everyone, we needed personal computers, which we accept as sort of inevitable today. Was it?

ISAACSON: No, you needed a whole lot of advances that would come along in order to have a personal computer. And that's one of the trends of the digital age, is the more there are technological advances the more we can make these devices - whether it's transistor radios or computers - very personal. Things we can have, things that we can control.

So what you needed was, first, the invention of the transistor, which meant you didn't have to have these big, old, hot, expensive vacuum tubes that would burn out. And then people like Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore at Intel and people at Texas Instruments figure out how you can etch lots and lots of transistors on a tiny piece of silicon. And that becomes the microchip and, eventually, a microprocessor. Once you have that microprocessor, a kid like Steve Wozniak, who's at the Homebrew Computer Club in California, looking at the specifications for a microprocessor, he says to his friend Steve Jobs, who lives down the street, I can make one of these things, and I can put a screen on it. And I can put a keyboard on it. And you have people building things in strip malls in Albuquerque called the Altair and in garages in California called the Apple. And these are sort of individuals who are saying, I can take these microchips, and I can take this notion of a computer and make it personal, so I can have one in my house.

DAVIES: Yeah, you know, once we got the transistor and the microchip, you say that it really took a certain cultural brew to kind of lead us to this really democratized idea of a personal computer - everybody with this powerful tool. This is one of the most fascinating chapters of the book. Tell us a little bit about that culture and who some of its characters were.

ISAACSON: What you have in the Bay Area of California, in the 1970s, is a cultural brew that's very anti-authoritarian. And it becomes sort of a cauldron in which the personal computer can be born. Out in Boston and near MIT and in Philadelphia, where they did ENIAC, there wasn't this ferment until the companies there never thought, oh, we won't to have personal computers. They were just building office computers, you know, that people would share.

But out in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, you have people who have been part of the anti-war movement. You have hippies who have done, you know, the electric Kool-Aid acid test with, you know, Ken Kesey, and others who are rebellious and believe in power to the people. You have people who were following Stewart Brand, who read the "Whole Earth Catalog," which has, as its philosophy, access to tools. And they want to take back this computing power and really make it something that they can use personally, and use it as organizing tools and sort of rebellious tools.

And so this is where the personal computer comes out of this brew in California where you have a lot of electronic geeks. You have people who have been working in the electronics defense industry, but you've also got a lot of hippies and anti-war people. And they all come together with people like Steve Jobs and at the Homebrew Computer Club. And that's where the birth of the personal computer happens.

DAVIES: You have this amazing story about Stewart Brand, the guy who had started and edited the "Whole Earth Catalog." And it was an event to kind of lay the publication to rest and to figure out what to do with the profits. Tell us about this.

ISAACSON: Stewart Brand has been publishing the "Whole Earth Catalog," which believes in access to tools and has a whole movement around it. And then somehow or another, back then, you could publish a magazine and have money left over. When he decided it was time to shut down the magazine, there was still money he had left over, so he has this party. He rents a big old place in San Francisco, and he converts all the money into a hundred dollar bills, and they stand up in front of a microphone in front of hundreds of people sort of each person giving a description of what they should do with the leftover money. Somebody starts throwing the bills out to the crowd. Stewart Brand tells them give it back. We want to do it for one thing. Most of the people do give the money back. It takes all night, and people saying let's give it to the Indians. Let's buy more drugs. Let's have some music - whatever it may be. But, eventually, it gets given, you know, to somebody who says, I'm going to keep it, and we're going to use it to help fund people who want to have access to computers, sort of neighborhood computing learning facilities. And that was the type of mentality that was happening in the Bay area that helped sort of spawn this notion of the computers are supposed to be for people. They're not supposed to be for corporations and the pentagon.

DAVIES: Yeah, the guy actually buries it in his yard and then distributes it to...

ISAACSON: He doesn't have a bank account, so he buries it in his yard, and then he distributes it to people who become the community memory project. And they help, you know, have sort of community computing centers, and it's just part of that ferment where people are saying, what can we do now that we have microprocessors? We can put on circuit boards, and we can build really cool things. They wanted to build, you know, personal computers, but they also wanted to build networks, like switchboards, they called them. And that helped fuel the online movement and eventually people's access to the Internet.

DAVIES: And these folks working, you know, in the Bay area come up with all kinds of things - graphical interfaces and somebody invents the mouse and all of that. But then you also describe a very different kind of guy who comes into the mix and has an important role - Ed Roberts, who is not a visionary, not a one-world sort of fellow. Tell us who he is and why he mattered.

ISAACSON: Ed Roberts was the ultimate hobbyist. And when you look at all the tribes that flow together, from the hippies to the electronic geeks, and help form a personal computer, you also have to put in the hobbyists. Ed Roberts had a place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a strip mall, and he did things like build model rocket ships and tracers that, you know, pimply faced kids could use in their backyards. And then he realized that with a microprocessor, he could also have a build-it-yourself, solder-it-yourself sort of kit, that you could build your own computer. And he created something called the Altair, which was really the first personal computer. It didn't do much of anything. It had a lot of lights flashing in front and some switches, and you can make it add or subtract a few numbers, but it really captured the imagination of a whole lot of people, from Steve Wozniak to Bill Gates.

DAVIES: Yeah, this is fascinating. He, you know - he does this after, I think, one of his other projects had gone bankrupt, and so he manages to convince Intel to give him a huge break on microprocessors if he'll buy a thousand. They can't believe he's going to sell a thousand of these. But he makes the commitment - and it's written up in Popular Electronics, I guess - and discovers there's this huge kind of cadre out there of hobbyists and people who want one of these things no matter what it does.

ISAACSON: When Popular Electronics came out with its cover on the Altair, it was at the Harvard Square newsstand, and Paul Allen grabs a copy and he runs to the dorm room of his friend Bill Gates and says we have to get onto this. And Bill Gates drops out of Harvard and starts writing code for the Altair, and, eventually, it becomes Microsoft.

Likewise, when the Altair is bought around and shown off at the Homebrew Computer Center, you have Steve Wozniak saying, I can make something better. I can connect a monitor to it. I can connect a keyboard to it. And so he helps invent Apple, the personal computer, with his wonderful circuit board, and his friend Steve Jobs says, hey, let's not give away that circuit board. Let's not just give it to everybody in the club. Why don't we go to my garage, and we'll make it, and we'll start selling it? And thus, Apple Computer is born. So just from that Altair being on the cover of Popular Electronics, you have the birth of Apple Computer and of Microsoft.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Walter Isaacson. His new book is "The Innovators." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest today is Walter Isaacson. His new book "The Innovators: How A Group Of Inventors, Hackers And Geniuses And Geeks Created The Digital Revolution." Well, so personal computers, you know, become ubiquitous. Everybody has them now, and of course we have mobile devices. And we're all connected via the Internet and have this incredible access to each other and to information worldwide. It's amazing that I think now that kids coming up don't know a world in which that wasn't true. Could you imagine us having the Internet without the personal computer or vice versa?

ISAACSON: They go together. I mean, the Internet grew up separately from the personal computer. In the 1970s, ordinary people couldn't get on the Internet. You had to be part of a research institute. And people with personal computers kind of wanted to use them in their homes to create things. But eventually, by the late 1980s, something really magical happens - you get a combustible combination when you put the personal computer and the Internet together. That happens because of a few technological things like easy to use modems. I don't know if you remember, but I certainly do...


ISAACSON: ...When you had to dial up and get online, and you hear that static and that screech. And suddenly you'd be online. Secondly, you needed these online services. Stewart Brand, who we talked about, who did the "Whole Earth Catalog," he invents something called the well, which is a community. You can go online and discuss things. And eventually you have things like AOL, which become easy to use ways of going online. And finally, they had to open up the Internet so that average people could just dial up and get on it. And people make fun of Al Gore for that little gaffe he said when he talked about how he was there and important about creating the Internet. Well, he was because it was his bill that said ordinary people should allowed to dial-up and just go online and then onto the Internet. And so by the early 1990s, when you're on AOL, you can get direct access to the Internet.

DAVIES: You know, you do some reflecting here about how innovation happens and what things help and what things impede it. And, you know, one of the things you see is that commercial incentives can be powerful. I mean, people can make a lot of money by getting something that's great and that other people want. On the other hand, they can also be isolating. You know, I don't want to share my code or my schematics or the details to somebody - with someone who might improve on it because, you know, I want to sell as many units of my stuff as I can. How do you weigh the balance here between the commercial motive and just the interest in developing technology?

ISAACSON: There's a wonderful tension there between the sort of sharing model, the people who create the Internet, the people who create the Gnu Linux, which is an open source system for operating systems for computers, and the proprietary model, which Apple, you know, makes very proprietary products. They have their own operating system, their own hardware, even their own content sites. And if you do something - and I remember Steve Jobs saying this to me over and over again - if you have a proprietary system, you're in control. You can make it work together, and of course you make a lot of money, so you can hire the best engineers and designers. If you have an open system, and we see that now with Android and Google, there's more creativity, there's more innovation because everybody's chipping in and contributing. So each model, the open sharing model and the closed proprietary model, each has a place. But I actually try to write about how the tension, the competition between the two actually spurs innovation on better than either one model alone could've done.

DAVIES: You know, one of the interesting things that you mention in the book is that, you know, earlier generations of people in technology tinkered with ham radios and circuits. I mean, you grew up, I think, doing a lot of this. And now we have a generation of young people who've learned to write code but don't really open up the machines and deal with their components. Does that matter?

ISAACSON: One of the things that bothers me is that we used to be able to solder our own circuits when we were making our hand radios. And nowadays if you have an iPhone or an iPad, or for that matter even a laptop, you're not supposed to open it up. You don't know what goes on inside. So that ability to tinker and solder and to even know what a circuit is - why an on-off switch - which is basically just all a transistor does is flick things on and off - why on-off switches can make logic happen. Those are very important things, and so I would hope there would be a way in the future where we wouldn't just understand the software, but we would have a better feel. They would allow us to open up the back of our machines, to jack into it, to put things in, to sort of revise the circuits. I know that's a heretical thought, but certainly if you look at all of the great people in the digital age, you know, from Bob Noyce to Steve Wozniak, they love taking that hands-on imperative, to be able to take it apart, to be able to fiddle with it. And I fear that our machines these days are a little bit too sealed up, and we don't get to fiddle in our basements anymore.

DAVIES: You know, this book of yours is a sprawling project. I mean, it spans so many developments and decades and different people. And it's interesting, I read when you were writing it that you shared parts of your manuscripts on the Internet and got feedback - kind of a crowdsourced editing. And that's interesting because I'd imagine that in the past that you might have showed it to, you know, a handful of trusted people. Why did you take this approach and how did it affect the product?

ISAACSON: One evening when I was writing about how the Internet was invented to help people share research and do sort of timesharing on computers, I said, well, why don't I use the Internet for its original purpose, which is to share research and, you know, have sort of a crowdsourced way of doing some research ? So I put up a lot of my chapters online on places like Medium, but many other sites where people can make notes, sort of like Wiki sites where people can insert notes or fix things up. And I got thousands - I got 18,000 people - commenting and making suggestions just on one short chapter about the personal computer, including people like Stewart Brand. I mean, Stewart Brand, who we talked about, who, you know, launched the "Whole Earth Catalog," The Well, the first online service. He's saying, well, here's how it was and here's how we were doing acid at the time and here's how the demise party of the "Whole Earth Catalog" actually worked. And he was making little corrections and so were hundreds of other people involved in this process. And so I hope in the future we'll have better ways of doing that, where I can take a book like the one I've just written and put it out there on a platform that could be curated, so that, you know, we could have some control over what's in it, but also Wikified. So anybody who wants to add their own story or their pictures or their video or their music or their oral history can put it in there. And then eventually, it would be great to have a bit coin-like system where you could have small payments so the royalties could be distributed to everybody who contributed, based on the amount they contributed to a living, breathing multimedia crowdsourced book.

DAVIES: You know, the people who design the early mainframe computers years ago probably couldn't have conceived, or maybe some did, but it would be hard to conceive of the age we live in where everybody has computers. We carry around computers and we're connected to, you know, millions of people on the Internet. This is a tough one, but I'll ask it; what will we have in 20 years that most of us can't imagine now?

ISAACSON: I think in 20 years, you're going to have ubiquitous computing, meaning they're going to be so intimately connected to us, we won't even notice that our watch is a computer or our eyeglasses are a computer. And I think you'll have natural language so that you can just talk to your computer. You won't have to type in, you'll say things like, did the Yankees win? And on your eyeglasses, on your watch it will happen because I think things get more and more personal in the digital age. They get more intimately and humanly connected to us. And that takes us back to Ada Lovelace, who really believed that it wasn't our machines that were going to become artificial intelligence that would go off and do things on their own, but that the trajectory of invention and innovation would be to connect humanity to our machines better, to make our machines much more personal, so they really become part of our lives instead of this quest for an artificial intelligence or a singularity, where machines will get to think without us and won't need us anymore.

DAVIES: Well, Walter Isaacson, it's been great to have you back. Thanks so much.

ISAACSON: Thank you for having me. It's great to be back with you.

GROSS: Walter Isaacson's new book about the creators of the digital revolution about is called "The Innovators." You can read an excerpt on our website Isaacson spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also senior reporter for WHYY. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Brian Morton's new novel, which she describes as extraordinary. This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Writer Brian Morton is best known for his novel "Starting Out In The Evening," which was adapted into a movie of the same name starring Frank Langella. But critic Maureen Corrigan says if a movie is ever made of Morton's new novel "Florence Gordon" the late Anne Bancroft might just have to return from the dead to play the role. Here's Maureen's review of the novel.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Last year, the big debate in the world of books was over the question of whether or not a novel has to feature likable main characters in order for us readers to identify with them, or make us want to stick with their stories. The debate had a sexist tinge to it. Females characters seemed especially burdened with the need to be pleasing. In fact, the whole issue was ignited by reaction to Claire Massud's novel "The Woman Upstairs," which features as its protagonists a rather glum elementary school teacher in her 30s. This year in books brings us a new novel that, to my mind, shoves the likability issue into the dustbin of beside-the-point literary debates where it belongs.

Brian Morton's novel "Florence Gordon" features a 75-year-old woman, an icon of the Second Wave Women's Movement, as its heroine. She's a self-described difficult woman. Even those who love her regard her as a pain in the neck. Don't think of Florence Gordon as some egghead version of Betty White. Florence isn't cute or sentimentalized in her crankiness. She's more in the intimidating Lillian Hellman, Susan Sontag, Lioness-In-Winter mode - someone who doesn't suffer fools or most anyone else gladly. You wouldn't want to be her friend or family member. Rather, you're deeply grateful, at least I was, to meet her in the best way possible - in the exquisitely crafted pages of Morton's witty, nuanced and ultimately moving novel. Florence lives in Manhattan - where else? And on the opening page of the novel, we find her at work on her long deferred memoir. Here's how Morton's omniscient narrator introduces this woman.

(Reading) Florence Gordon was trying to write a memoir, but she had two strikes against her. She was old, and she was an intellectual. And who on earth, she sometimes wondered, would want to read a book about an old intellectual? Maybe it was three strikes because not only was she an intellectual, she was a feminist, which meant that if she ever managed to finish this book, reviewers would inevitably dismiss it as strident and shrill.

That passage, by the way, constitutes practically the entirety of chapter one. Morton toys with the length of chapters throughout his novel, mimicking the rhythms of life. Some chapters are one paragraph long and end abruptly, like many of Florence's conversations. Others are a bit longer and more lyrical, like the one in which Florence's daughter-in-law falls slowly and regretfully in love with a coworker while they go bowling together. Florence's writing is interrupted by her nice adult son, Daniel, who's a cop living in Seattle. Florence has always been bored by Daniel and what she thinks of as his cottage-cheesy politeness, as well as by, what is to her, his bizarre career choice. Also intruding into Florence's precious time, are Daniel's restless wife of 23 years and teenage daughter, Emily. Emily dislikes her semi-famous grandmother, especially because Florence can't seem to remember her name. And yet as weeks go by, she's intrigued by Florence's grit and what Emily thinks of as a rather different model of how to be human. An even bigger disruption enter Florence's life in the form of a glowing Sunday New York Times review of her last book, written by the eminent philosopher, Martha Nussbaum.

Morton's novel, by the way, frequently drops the names of thinkers, like Katha Pollitt, Raymond Williams and Tony Judt. Suddenly Florence is embarking on her first-ever book tour, dealing brusquely with fawning female fans of a certain age, parrying with some patronizing younger feminists and, along the way, sensing the chill of mortality on her skin. Why spend time in Florence Gordon's severe company? Well, as one of her simpering admirers who's just been verbally assaulted by Florence tells her, you're brutal, but I appreciate it. "Florence Gordon" is one of those extraordinary novels that clarifies its readers' sense of things, rather than cozying up to our conventional pieties. Morton's ending is straight out of off Chekov; it's up in the air and brave, a closing vision of a life, in all its messy contradictions, just limping down the street.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of the new book "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "Florence Gordon" by Brian Norton. You can read an excerpt on our website,

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Remembering Michael Apted, Creator Of The 'Up' Documentary Series

The documentarian, who died Jan. 7, spent decades following the lives of a group of British citizens, updating their stories with a new episode every seven years. Originally broadcast in 2013.


Remembering Neil Sheehan, Vietnam War Correspondent Who Revealed The Pentagon Papers

Sheehan, who died Jan. 7, broke the story of the Pentagon Papers and wrote A Bright Shining Lie, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Vietnam War. Originally broadcast in 1988.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.


Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue