Interview: Steve Jobs Biographer Walter Isaacson on the Internet's Wild 'Innovators'

Dec 10, 2014

Tech maestro Elon Musk worries too much.

That seems to be Walter Isaacson’s conclusion – at least when it comes to artificial intelligence.

Isaacson, the award-wining biographer of "Steve Jobs," recently penned the defacto biography of the digital age. "The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution," rebuffs Musk’s recent and highly publicized notion that artificial intelligence is something to fear. 

Instead, Isaacson says a combination of human creativity and technological tools will always trump either technology alone or humans alone. 

"Think about what Austin, Texas is about: it’s about connecting creativity to technology," he says. "That’s what South by Southwest is about, that’s why Austin has become this great hub."

In a wide-ranging conversation with Texas Standard host David Brown, Isaacson, who now heads the Aspen Institute, compares the digital age with the Vietnam war or the Industrial Revolution in terms of its generation and larger historic importance. “We know the heroes of past generations, but who are the heroes of the digital era?” he asks.

Isaacson recalls a moment from the early 1990s, back when he was a technology reporter. “My boss asked me at one point ,‘Who owns the internet’? And I thought, ‘What a clueless question.’ And then he said ‘But I mean, who runs it – who’s in charge of building it?’ And I realized this is the most important thing: [the story of] the connection of the Internet to personal computing. So I started gathering string on this history.”

Isaacson points to a distinctly pre-digital era thinker – 19th century mathematician Ada Lovelace – as laying down the philosophical grounds for the emergence of the Internet as we know it. He says her fascination with the intersection of art and technology makes Lovelace “the patron saint” of places like Austin, Texas.  

Still, somehow Austin – and Texas for that matter – missed out on becoming ground zero for the emergence of high-tech culture. That's despite the fact that were it not for micro-circuitry innovators like Texas Instruments’ Jack Kirby, there might never have been a ‘Silicon Valley’. 

In the late 1960s and early ‘70’s, while the hippies and the rednecks joined forces over music in Central Texas, longhairs and the hackers were finding common ground in the Bay Area – awash in a druggy culture of anti-authoritarian sympathies. Isaacson calls it “a mix of tribes … the hippies and the hackers and the hobbyists reading the Whole Earth Catalog, with access to tools. And they don’t want the corporations, and the Pentagon, and the power structure to have control of the computer. They want ‘computing power to the people.’” 

Isaacson says the very technology that the revolution fostered promises to fuel a new trend – a decentralization of high tech, which has seen rapid gains in Austin and Boston in recent years. Isaacson will explore those trends in further depth during a public conversation with Texas computer entrepreneur Michael Dell, tonight at the Blanton Museum of Art at 7 p.m