It From Bit

By Stephen Rosen
Walter Isaacson Patrice Gilbert

“The Innovators”
Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, $35

The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.     — Muriel Rukeyser

“The Innovators” offers you a splendid journey through time and space via personalities, facts, and ideas. It is rich in stories, both personal and historical, easy-to-understand technical details at the intersection of the humanities and technology, and the importance of “human-machine symbiosis.” I recommend it highly to anyone who wants to know how we got to here and now, and how “it” came from “bit” — the striking idea that information sits at the heart of all reality, just as it sits at the core of a computer.

Walter Isaacson has set out to report on how innovations actually happen in the real world. How disruptive ideas became realities. Who made the dozens of breakthroughs that gave us the digital culture we inhabit (and many enjoy) today. How collaborations among peers and between generations emerge in creating the digital revolution. (But not universally — think solo innovators like Newton, Einstein, Godel.) What the ingredients of “creative leaps” are. And how cultural and social forces made possible the “climate of innovation” that led to our digital era. In this ambitious undertaking, he is (happily) very successful.

According to the celebrated physicist John Archibald Wheeler, “ ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has . . . an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of ‘yes-no’ questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.”

On the other hand, the poet Muriel Rukeyser believed that stories trump digits. Can they both be right?

This book illuminates the human stories that drive the technology and science developed by many well-known characters — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Alan Turing, IBM’s Deep Blue chess-playing computer — and dozens of unsung heroes, such as Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815-52), a brilliant eccentric. And thereby hangs a beguiling tale, one of many Mr. Isaacson tells.

Ada was the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, the famous (and infamous) Romantic poet who was “seductive, troubled, brooding, and sexually adventurous.” Ada inherited her “poetic and insubordinate temperament” from her father and her interest in mathematics from her mother. (Think Rukeyser and Wheeler as a team.) This created a combination Ada called her love for “poetical science,” and she felt comfortable at the crossroads of the hard sciences and the soft humanities.

Mr. Isaacson comes back to this dual constellation of interests over and over again as he discusses the other heroes of the digital revolution, yet she is the most notable woman to play a starring role in this story of digital innovations.

Ada had inherited many of Lord Byron’s eccentricities and passions. While a teenager, she had a liaison with her tutor. She studied mathematics, was enamored of technology, and was impressed with an automatic weaving loom that used punched cards to instruct a single piece of equipment to create varied fabric patterns. These were precursors of IBM’s punch cards that told early mainframe computers what to do.

Ada befriended many talented think­ers of her era, such as Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine, a mechanical device that calculated trigonometric values and logarithms by breaking the process into “baby steps” that entailed only addition and subtraction. It could even solve differential equations. Babbage later developed the Analytical Engine, which could be “programmed” (as we would say today) and was a century ahead of its time.

In an essay on imagination, Ada wrote that Babbage had been able to do this using a trick employed by many great innovators: a facility for combining ideas from many different fields of activity. Again and again this quality appears to an extraordinary degree among the larger-than-life personalities whose vivid stories appear in Mr. Isaacson’s book, abetted by their ability to work together in teams focused on inspired collaborations.

To some, Lady Lovelace was a computer pioneer and a feminist icon. But she was ridiculed as delusional, gran­diose, and flighty by others. She appreciated, popularized, and even financed Babbage’s pioneering work. She figured out how to “program” a Difference Engine. Sadly, after becoming addicted to gambling and opiates, she died penniless at age 36 — the same age Lord Byron died — and was buried next to her father.

Alan Turing’s story (and that of his universal computer) has been well told in biographies and the cinema, but other major characters who appear are Vannevar Bush (who first described a personal computer), John von Neumann (who built an enormous modern computer at the Institute for Advanced Study), Stewart Brand (who developed the Whole Earth Catalog), Linus Torvalds (creator of Linux open-source software), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (creators of Google), and many others.

Before Google came along, computer geeks avoided anything in their field that might have been considered “touchy-feely” — their pejorative term for human responses to hardware and software, the humanities. Mr. Page and Mr. Brin changed all of that in 1998. Vannevar Bush had said in 1945 that knowledge was expanding at such an astonishing rate that it was virtually impossible to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. Mr. Page and Mr. Brin, in their paper “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” showed how they could “map” billions of Web pages and rank a website according to how often people visited it or other Web pages cited or referred to it (called backlinks), which was roughly congruent to a billion-member crowd’s subjective idea of a website’s importance.

This vision culminated in such an intimate linkage between computers, networks, and humans that we can now search for — and promptly find information on — virtually any subject, from antiprotons to zebras. Searching Google these days begins to feel spooky, like having an infinite IQ . . . something I’ve always wanted!

“The Innovators” contains a valuable timeline that provides a synoptic overview of the innovators and their contributions to the digital revolution, and a brilliant summary of Mr. Isaacson’s theme that diverse teams made this one hell of a revolution.

Stephen Rosen, a physicist, lives in New York and East Hampton. His latest book is “Youth, Middle-Age, and You-Look-Great! Dying to Come Back as a Memoir.”

Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time magazine and the author of “Steve Jobs,” has spent summers on the South Fork for many years.