Management gurus who have long touted the value of teamwork and productive collaboration now have new evidence from journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson.
In his new book The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Isaacson makes the case that the great digital transformation of our time has not been the creation of one or two solo geniuses tinkering away in a basement or a garage. Rather, the people who brought us the transistor, the personal computer, the Internet, Google, and the smartphone (among other things) collaborated creatively with others to innovate, execute and deliver their products, building on what went before them to advance technology.
Isaacson sees a very long tail. “I think we’ll have even more ways in the future to use technology for creative endeavors, such as writing narrative nonfiction collaboratively,” he said. “I crowd-sourced some of the chapters in my book, for example. I hope we'll be able to do more of that, with role-playing games, or interactive plays, or new forms of media.”
He shared more thoughts in an interview:
The Fiscal Times (TFT): How can commerce work better in the creative economy you describe?
Walter Isaacson (WI): I hope we’ll have a simpler, easier micropayment system on the Internet that doesn’t have to go through the antiquated financial and credit card systems we have, so that people can very simply pay small amounts to buy a song or be part of a play or game. I think Bitcoin is helping us create such an economy.
TFT: In terms of privacy protection in an era of hacking, how do you see that improving?
WI: Anybody who wants to can try to protect his or her personal data. Protections should be standard. But if you get so over-worried about privacy, you’ll end up not having innovation in health care or innovation in technology.
Related: Sony Hacked Again. Who’s at Risk?
TFT: Let’s discuss the economic promise of the digital revolution. Where do you see this going, and what are the pitfalls as well?
WI: For 2,000 years people have been worried technology will put people out of work, that it will destroy jobs. I begin my book with Ada Lovelace, the pioneer computer programmer in the 1830s whose father, the poet Lord Byron, was a Luddite – literally. His only speech in the House of Lords was defending the followers of Ned Ludd, who smashed mechanical looms because he thought the looms would put weavers out of work. But Ada understood punch cards and looms would allow new forms of creativity, and she was right. People have always worried that technology would put us out of work and they’ve always been wrong, and they’ll be wrong today. You see all sorts of new jobs coming from creative economies and sharing economies today just because cell phones became smartphones.
TFT: There are the challenges of execution when it comes to new technologies, of course. It’s not enough to have a great idea.
WI: The people who are creating startups today are realizing that the hard part is not creating the initial idea – it’s creating a collaborative team that knows how to execute it. All the innovators I write about had a great vision but they knew that vision without execution was hallucination. So they found partners who were engineers, or business strategists, and they built a team that turned the personal computer, or Google, or Facebook, or anything we have today from being an idea into being a product. Even at Texas Instruments when they created transistors, they realized they needed a consumer product that would drive demand, so they created the transistor radio. Likewise, Steve Jobs knew how to create consumer demand when he created the iPod, the iPhone, or the iPad.
TFT: The “bad period of technology” was in the 1960s, you say. Why?
WI: TV was the dominant medium then and people sat passively in front of it, consuming mindless products instead of being able to interact or pick and choose the type of innovation they wanted. Today, people get to express themselves. They get to choose the information they want and they get to interact with it. The value of this is truly glorious.
TFT: You personally no longer watch television. Do you miss it?
WI: Not at all. I can get what I want on my iPhone or my computer. I don't need a TV. I think the era of television is over. The era of television as the dominant way we consume media is ending.
TFT: Technology and education are intertwined today. How do you see this progressing?
WI: If I want to learn how an electric circuit works, I can take an online course. Students anywhere in the world can learn about American history on Khan Academy. The experimentation is very encouraging. We have EdX; we have Khan Academy. A few years ago, people thought online courses would heavily disrupt education, but, as usual, it takes a little bit longer than we thought for some of these transformations to happen.
Today, teachers can tailor lessons to each kid in the classroom so that students learn at their own speed. By watching videos or doing lessons on their tablets, students can catch up or get ahead of others in the class. Technology allows for new ways of teaching and I think this will be a big story in the next decade. The model will be flipped. You will listen to the lectures at home on your devices – but do your “homework” with colleagues and teachers in class in a collaborative environment.
TFT: How will the American workplace change as well, beyond the ways it already has?
WI: We thought technology would allow us to telecommute, but creativity is better in person. People like to be around other people. You’re seeing the migration into creative cities, rather than people living off on their own and telecommuting. People are moving to Austin or New Orleans or Brooklyn or San Francisco because they want to be around other creative people.
TFT: So Marissa Mayer at Yahoo was right when she told workers to quit telecommuting and come to the office?
WI: She made a good point. I don’t think technology was created to keep us apart. We’ll continue to have open workspaces, flexible hours and family-friendly policies, but I think the most creative companies are the ones that bring people together. Steve Jobs felt that way, too, because of the serendipitous improvisation that can result when people are together.
That's why he designed the new headquarters for the Pixar movie studios the way he did, with an atrium in the middle so people would encounter others when they walked through it. One of his last creations was the plan for the Apple headquarters, a circle of rings with open workspaces surrounding a central courtyard area. When Intel created an open workspace with no corner offices or hierarchies – and today when you walk around the Googleplex or Bloomberg or Facebook and see people collaborating in big open spaces – the value of people being together physically is hard to overestimate. Most ideas are created collaboratively and they come from understanding the history before them and from people with a wide array of specialties.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: