The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

10. Online

  • The Internet and the personal computer were both born in the 1970’s, but they grew up apart from one another. The only people connected were associated with major research institutions. In the late 1980’s, however, they would start to intertwine. A big driver of the online culture was email, a 1972 invention on the ARPANET. It became the main method for collaboration and comprised 75% of the traffic. Access to the phone lines connecting computers was stalled by AT&T who owned the wires and only wanted its devices connecting. In 1981, the first Hayes Smart-modem came on the market. This device could convert digital signals from a computer to analog signals used by the telephone lines at one end, and reverse the process at the other end. This allowed PC users to dial in to early computer information services like CompuServe. By the late 1980’s more services were available. The most prominent of these was America Online. This allowed for a great expansion of people interacting on the Internet, and email became the Internet’s killer app.
  • At this time, the information services were self-contained. It wasn’t until 1993 that America Online and others opened there portals to allow members access to the newsgroups and bulletin boards of the Internet. Ironically, this was made possible by legislation championed by former vice president Al Gore. While Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet, he did claim for have taken the initiative for creating the Internet, which has made him the but of a joke ever since.

11. The Web

  • Unlike other stories in the book, the creation of the Web is focused mostly on one innovator, Tim Berners-Lee. His key vision was that computers could become more powerful it they could be programmed to link otherwise unconnected information. For Tim, the only limitations for computers were limitations of the imagination. His vision of a single global web of information lead him to use hypertext to connect one document to another. By the end of 1990, he had created the necessary tools. First he need a protocol to connect one document on one computer to another elsewhere on the Internet. Hypertext Transfer Protocol or HTTP was the answer. This also featured the unique addresses or URLs for each page. In order to create a screen image with clickable sections he came up with Hypertext Markup Language or HTML. Finally he created a rudimentary browser that would display the HTML pages. His other key contribution was that all of his work was free and open.
  • Unfortunately, Berners-Lee did all of his work on a Next computer and it could only run on this system, which existed in very small numbers. It took the creation of the multi platform browser call Mosaic for the Web to really take off in 1993. The main player here was Marc Andreessen who also had the vision that the Web feature graphics in addition to text content. It wasn’t long before Web Logging or blogging started to appear and grow along with collaboration sites or Wikis. Here we get the story of Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia. By 2003 his online free encyclopedia had more articles than common print versions. Today the number of articles has passed 30 million in 287 languages.
  • The final story in this chapter involves two grad students from Stanford who were both rejected by MIT. While Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s Google search engine wasn’t the first of its kind, it did become the most popular, and as a result, we say “Google It” when we mean to look something up on the Web. This was one of my favorite stories in this fine book.

12. Ada Forever

  • Here we return to Ada Lovelace and her thoughts from 150 years ago that computers would one day become beautiful machines. She would be happy to learn that her prediction that computers would never become intelligent like humans was still true. Unlike computers, the brain is a distributed system, much like the Internet with almost countless connections between neurons that are in constant communication. While computers constantly perform one command after another, the human brain is carrying out many things at once, including the creation of knowledge.
  • It’s clear that brains and computers each have their strengths, and that together, they can accomplish things that neither could do alone. It’s this man-computer symbiosis that lets us think things we never would have thought, and process information in ways that machines could never do. While this book stresses the collaboration that was necessary for it’s many innovations, as we go forward the big innovations will arise from the people who can best partner and collaborate with their machines. One example is the collaboration between IBM’s Watson Jeopardy playing computer and medical doctors. Another is the fact that the best man-machine collaborators of modest ability can defeat the top computers and the top chess masters working alone.
  • The other main lesson here is that we should all strive to appreciate the arts and the humanities at the same time we work to better understand math and physics. This book is full of people who stood at the intersection of the arts and sciences as they made their contributions. There is no reason to suspect that future innovators won’t be found in the same neighborhood.
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