8.18.2016

Too Short for a Blog, Too Long for a Tweet XLI

Here's 5 excerpts from a book I'm reading, "The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution," by Walter Isaacson:

I also explore the social and cultural forces that provide the atmosphere for innovation. For the birth of the digital age, this included a research ecosystem that was nurtured by government spending and managed by a military-industrial-academic collaboration. Intersecting with that was a loose alliance of community organizers, communal-minded hippies, do-it-yourself hobbyists, and homebrew hackers, most of whom were suspicious of centralized authority.

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Atanasoff’s enduring romantic appeal is that he was a lone tinkerer in a basement, with only his young sidekick Clifford Berry for a companion. But his tale is evidence that we shouldn’t in fact romanticize such loners. Like Babbage, who also toiled in his own little workshop with just an assistant, Atanasoff never got his machine to be fully functional. Had he been at Bell Labs, amid swarms of technicians and engineers and repairmen, or at a big research university, a solution would likely have been found for fixing the card reader as well as the other balky parts of his contraption. Plus, when Atanasoff was called away to the Navy in 1942, there would have been team members left behind to put on the finishing touches, or at least to remember what was being built.
 
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Over the ensuing years, at patent trials and conferences, in books and dueling historical papers, there would be debates over who deserved the most credit for the ideas developed in 1944 and early 1945 that became part of the stored-program computer. The account above, for example, gives primary credit to Eckert and Mauchly for the stored-program concept and to von Neumann for realizing the importance of the computer’s ability to modify its stored program as it ran and for creating a variable-address programming functionality to facilitate this. But more important than parsing provenance of ideas is to appreciate how the innovation at Penn was another example of collaborative creativity. Von Neumann, Eckert, Mauchly, Goldstine, Jennings, and many others batted around ideas collectively and elicited input from engineers, electronics experts, material scientists, and programmers.

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These patent disputes were the forerunner of a major issue of the digital era: Should intellectual property be shared freely and placed whenever possible into the public domain and open-source commons? That course, largely followed by the developers of the Internet and the Web, can spur innovation through the rapid dissemination and crowdsourced improvement of ideas. Or should intellectual property rights be protected and inventors allowed to profit from their proprietary ideas and innovations? That path, largely followed in the computer hardware, electronics, and semiconductor industries, can provide the financial incentives and capital investment that encourages innovation and rewards risks. In the seventy years since von Neumann effectively placed his “Draft Report” on the EDVAC into the public domain, the trend for computers has been, with a few notable exceptions, toward a more proprietary approach. In 2011 a milestone was reached: Apple and Google spent more on lawsuits and payments involving patents than they did on research and development of new products.

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At his product launches, Steve Jobs would conclude with a slide, projected on the screen behind him, of street signs showing the intersection of the Liberal Arts and Technology. At his last such appearance, for the iPad 2 in 2011, he stood in front of that image and declared, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” That’s what made him the most creative technology innovator of our era.  The converse to this paean to the humanities, however, is also true. People who love the arts and humanities should endeavor to appreciate the beauties of math and physics, just as Ada did. Otherwise, they will be left as bystanders at the intersection of arts and science, where most digital-age creativity will occur. They will surrender control of that territory to the engineers. Many people who celebrate the arts and the humanities, who applaud vigorously the tributes to their importance in our schools, will proclaim without shame (and sometimes even joke) that they don’t understand math or physics. They extoll the virtues of learning Latin, but they are clueless about how to write an algorithm or tell BASIC from C++, Python from Pascal. They consider people who don’t know Hamlet from Macbeth to be Philistines, yet they might merrily admit that they don’t know the difference between a gene and a chromosome, or a transistor and a capacitor, or an integral and a differential equation. These concepts may seem difficult. Yes, but so, too, is Hamlet. And like Hamlet, each of these concepts is beautiful. Like an elegant mathematical equation, they are expressions of the glories of the universe.


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