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  • 04.07.14

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[Photo: Reinhard Hunger for Fast Company]

A Conversation With Walter Isaacson

Join Gregory Ferenstein for a live Q&A with Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson on Friday, November 7th at 12:30 p.m. ET!

Join us for a live Q&A with Walter Isaacson, the author of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution on Friday, November 7th at 12:30 p.m. ET. The Aspen Institute CEO and prolific technology author will be taking your questions. 

After the crazy success of his Steve Jobs biography, Isaacson took a deeper dive into the history of innovation in The InnovatorsThe Innovators unfolds the evolution of the computer, from Ada Lovelace's conceptualization of the computer program in the 1840s to IBM's Watson. Each timeline is like a mini-biography of history's most impactful inventors. Through a range of interviews and archival research, Isaacson has amassed one of the most thorough investigations into the minds of the world's top innovators (including Steve Jobs).

As CEO of the Aspen Institute, he regularly conducts public chats with Silicon Valley's biggest executives. He's a leading expert on what makes technologists tick--especially the ones who build billion-dollar businesses. 

Please submit your questions below using the "Make a comment" box, and Isaacson will do his best to answer as many as he can. I, your humble moderator, will help facilitate the discussion. Readers can also tweet me @ferenstein and I'll try to add those questions to the discussion, too!

Looking forward to Friday's chat!

-- Gregory Ferenstein

  • Looking forward to the chat this Friday!
  • What is the main motivation behind many of the innovators you profile?
  • They are motivated by product more than profit. They want to make something insanely great. As Steve Jobs told me, if you focus mainly on profits, you will cut corners in making your product. But if you focus on making the greatest possible product, the profits will eventually follow.
    by Walter Isaacson edited by Anjali Mullany 11/7/2014 5:32:41 PM
  • Reading about the book in the New York Times, I'd love to hear more about how stubborness relates to success and innovation.
  • Stubbornness can be destructive. But passion is key. A good innovator will "distort reality," as Jobs sometimes did, in pursuit of vision. But the important thing is knowing when to listen and change your mind. Innovation is a team sport. Creativity is a collaborative effort. That means balancing the desire to push your own vision with the ability to glean wisdom from others.
  • Love the book - I don't fancy myself a future Bill Gates, but I wonder what advice you have to us little people who have an idea and a dream and want to pursue it despite a lot of odds.
  • Innovators come in various shapes and forms. Not everyone has to be a tough entrepreneur. If you have good ideas, you should find people who can help implement them. Create a group or a team or a club.
  • This book was such a massive undertaking-- how did you organize the research process for this book? How long did it take to write and how did you decide who to interview?
  • I have been doing research for this book for 20 years, off and on. As a journalist and digital media chief for Time, I met a lot of the players in the early 1990s. I grilled them all, and I said "tell me your story." It's important to talk to people, to do a lot of interviews, and to report if you want to write something. People love to talk and tell their tales, but many writers these days don't call them up or ring their doorbell and spend time doing first-hand reporting. That's a shame, because it's a real blast to meet people and hear their stories. Then, when I had gathered all the info, and read the secondary sources and other books, I made a huge outline. I picked the 15 most interesting (to me) innovations -- such as the first computer, the transistor, the microchip, the pc, Wikipedia, blog, Google -- and organized the book around the people who actually created those things. It meant a lot of great players of the digital revolution weren't in the book, but I wanted to keep the book focused on a manageable number of stories to tell. I write at night, from 9 pm until 1 am. (I sleep until 8 or even 9 am if I can get away with it!) I have a lot of time because I got rid of cable TV and almost never watch TV.
    by Walter Isaacson edited by Anjali Mullany 11/7/2014 5:46:29 PM
  • Was it a challenge to make sure women were adequately represented in this particular history?
  • Women have been unjustly minimized in the history of technology. Women were at the forefront of programming. Ada Lovelace in the 1840s is the first person ever to publish a computer program. ENIAC was programmed by six really amazing women mathematicians. For example, read Jean Jennings Bartik's memoir "Pioneer Programmer." Grace Hopper was a math PhD who joined the Navy at the outset of World War II and became lead programmer on the Harvard Mark I computer. Unfortunately, they do not get their due in history. So I spent a lot of time highlighting them in the book. I fear that one reason there are not many women in computer science -- the number of women CS majors has fallen from 38% in 1984 to about 18% today -- is that women don't have enough role models. That's why my book emphasizes the role of these pioneering women. And why I think more publicity should be given to great women in tech today, such as Megan Smith, Sheryl Sandberg, and Marissa Mayer.
    by Walter Isaacson edited by Anjali Mullany 11/7/2014 5:51:55 PM
  • What innovation battles are currently underway that you'd think might be included in the next revision of your book? Do you think readers of the web will ever use micropayments to make the web economy work?
  • I am a big fan of bitcoin, because I think it will disrupt our kludgy banking and financial system. We need to have easy micropayments for digital content, and we need to make sure that it doesn't require credit cards and bank accounts. The banking system is dreadful in dealing with small online payments. So I cheer for bitcoin or any other cybercurrency and the coin purses online that can be built with them. I also support things like the Akimbo card that make it easy to send money to friends. If there were easy small payments for online digital content, it would open a whole new economy for people to sell their own songs, plays, stories, journalism, blogs, RPGs, etc online. We could then encourage journalism that was not overly dependent on churning out clickbait to get eyeballs for advertisers and instead catered to what readers found of value.
  • Can you speak a bit more about the ingredients of creativity as it relates to innovation. Where do the arts fit?
  • I think that creativity requires thinking out of the box -- the ability to "think different." It also requires being able to touch human emotions. This is what the arts and humanities teach us. The great innovators of the digital age loved art as well as science, they loved the humanities as well as tech. This included Ada Lovelace, JCR Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay, and Steve Jobs. They knew that value would come from connecting art to science. That beauty mattered. That's why Jobs ended his product presentations with street signs showing the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. Ada Lovelace could see the beauty of a mathematical statement, knowing that it was a brushstroke painting something beautiful in the universe. And she knew the same was true of a line of her dad's poetry, such as "she walks in beauty like the night." So she pursued what she called "poetical science." All great innovators do that.
  • How and where do ideas come from? Do you think meditation helps?
  • Einstein said that ideas come largely from intuition, but he added that intuition is the sum of all of our experiences. It helps to have a multitude of experiences in the arts, the real world, with people, and with hands-on playing with the technology. Out of that innovation sprouts. Meditation can help achieve focus. That's a key part of turning intuition into an idea. Arianna Huffington, Ray Dalio, Steve Jobs, and many others have shown how meditation -- and Zen practices in general -- can clear the mind while also letting intuitions gel.
  • Can you talk more about what you learned about Job's creative process? Fasciniating.
  • Steve Jobs had an intuitive feel for beauty and technology and consumer desires. He did not overanalyze his thought process. Instead, he liked to walk around the design studio at Apple each afternoon, fondling models and saying what he liked and what he thought sucked. He had a keen instinct for what would please people, which partly came from knowing what would please himself. He knew it was important to build products that you, the innovator, would passionately want. That's why he did the iPod, and most everything else. When someone on the original Mac team asked if they should conduct focus groups to see what users might want, he said "how do they know what they want until we have shown them what they want." It was like Henry Ford's line: If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, 'a faster horse.'
  • These innovators seem to be strongly driven by a vision of the world they want to create. What do you think that vision is, if there are any common patterns?
  • Some innovators are motivated mainly by figuring out what will make money. Those are the ones whom history will forget. The lasting innovators -- the ones whose fingers ripple the surface of history -- are those who are driven by something larger. The best of those motivations is the desire to find ways to empower people -- to empower other people to be creative, or have better control of their lives, or to share their ideas. Technology that empowers individuals is the great theme of the digital revolution. It's why the most successful innovators are the ones who make our technology more personal and more connective. It allows everyone to be more empowered, more creative, more fulfilled. If you have that vision and you set your moral compass true to that course, you are likely to create things that will benefit others, which is actually the best way to succeed. As Benjamin Franklin put it, it's "doing well by doing good."
  • Thanks to Walter Isaacson for taking questions from our readers. You can read more in his new book, "The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution".
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