Walter Isaacson is an American writer and biographer. He is the President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C. He has been the chairman and CEO of CNN and the Managing Editor of Time. He has written biographies of Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger.
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Hi reddit, Walter Isaacson here. I'm the president and CEO of the [Aspen Institute] (http://aspeninstitute.org/). I’ve written several books — including a biography of Steve Jobs. My latest book, THE INNOVATORS: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, shares the stories of inventors — the great minds and teams who created the computer and the Internet.
UPDATE: I've had a great time answering these questions. They were REALLY good questions, and they provoked me to reflect on many things, so I thank you. That's it for now! Walter
Hey Walter, who is the Ben Franklin of 2014? And, what's the best bar in NOLA?
The Ben Franklin of today is Elon Musk.
The best bar in New Orleans is a tie: Snug Harbor and the Napoleon House. It depends on your mood and who's playing at Snug Harbor.
Hi Walter, Thanks for doing the AMA. My question is have you ever failed at anything and what was your attitude toward it afterwards? Thanks again.
Yes. I was not very good at running CNN. I did not understand, nor have much passion for, television as a medium. So I didn't have a feel for what would work. I liked hiring great folks like Aaron Brown and Anderson Cooper and trying to do smarter TV, but I just don't think I was cut out for TV.
Hello Mr. Isaacson! Very happy to have caught this AMA! Jobs was one of my favorite biographies, only next to yours on Einstein. I wanted to ask if, now that Steve Jobs has passed away, if there were any unanswered questions that you wish you had gotten answers during your interviews with him or have you thought of any new questions that you wish you had asked when you could?
I tried very hard to get Steve to talk about software design -- especially the Darwin kernel in the NeXT OS and how it evolved into the Apple OS when he came back. But I could never, no matter how hard I tried, get him interested in reflecting on the details of software design.
Good afternoon, Walter! Thank you for taking the time to do this.
What are your thoughts on singularity? Do you think it will happen, and if so, when?
The theme of my book is that human minds and computers bring different strengths to the party. The pursuit of strong Artificial Intelligence has been a bit of a mirage -- starting in the 1950s, it's always seen to be 20 years away. But the combination of humans and machines in more intimate partnership -- what JCR Licklider called symbiosis and what Peter Thiel calls complementarity -- has proven more fruitful. Indeed amazing. So I suspect that for the indefinite future, the combination of human minds and machine power will be more powerful than aiming for artificial intelligence and a singularity.
Will you see the Turing movie that's coming out soon with the guy from Sherlock?
I have seen a screening of "The Imitation Game." It is great, as is Benedict Cumberbatch. Turing is a major character in my book, and I hope the movie will cause more people to appreciate him (and maybe read the chapters in my book about him!)
Why is the history of Computing so muddled? Did we really need the abstract mathematical ideas of Turing, Von Neumann etc to create the digital computer? Wasn't it more of an engineering achievement - once the transistor was invented it became easy to see that programs could be stored in transistor memory for fast access rather than on punched cards separate to the data?
This is a great question. As you will see in my book, I believe we needed BOTH the engineering advances AND the theoretical ones: how Boolean algebra could be done in a digital circuit, Turing's concept of a Universal Computing Machine, von Neumann's improvements on stored program architecture. I believe innovation is always a combination of theory and engineering. For the transistor, you needed John Bardeen who knew how the theory of quantum physics applied to the surface states of semiconductors as well as Walter Brattain who knew how to jam a paper clip in some silicon or germanium to make it work.
I'm in the New Orleans area and agree, but don't leave out Half Moon! Or Tipps!
AGREE. I used to go to the Half Moon back when Mike Roccaforte still owned it. And I grew up on Napoleon Ave near Tipitina's. I still go to sleep dreaming of Professor Longhair there.
Hi Walter - when asked this morning at the Washington Ideas Forum, Secretary of State John Kerry said that he hoped you wouldn't choose this current moment to start writing his biography, if you were to do so. Are you working on another big biographical "opus", similar to the one about Steve Jobs? If not, who would you like to write about?
I may do Leonardo da Vinci or Louis Armstrong. But Kerry deserves kudos. He's working very hard in a complex world. I wish him luck with the Middle East.
Hi Walter, Thanks for doing the AMA. Will you write an autobiography?
I see no need to write my own autobiography or memoir. I have been very lucky and even successful. Yet I know I have mainly been an observer, not a person in the arena. My life is not nearly as interesting as the business people, innovators, geniuses, etc. whom I write about.
The UK is starting to teach programming in schools. I think from 4th grade up. I understand the problems that come with it such as training teachers, but is this something you think should be talked about for the US?
I think it's wacky and outdated that we teach school math as a process leading up to calculus. That's a relic of the Sputnik era, when were were all going to calculate rocket trajectories. Instead, starting in fourth grade, I think we should be teaching mathematical logic, proofs, and algorithms. We should also emphasize statistics and probabilities. Every kid should be able to do Boolean algebra and formal logic, rather than getting mired in just traditional algebra. We should also teach programming languages, especially C++, but we need to make sure that kids are also comfortable with the theory and concepts of algorithms, which underpins all programming language. Also, like Ada Lovelace, we should learn that math is a beautiful thing to be visualized, and not just formulas to be memorized. When we see an equation or algorithm or logical sequence, we should visualize it just as we do a line of her dad's poetry, such as "she walks in beauty like the night."
Thanks for your reply!
Do you say that one should not watch TV because it's a waste of time or because it may somehow impact your narrative creation abilities?
Both! But mainly because it's a time suck.
Thank-you for doing this. I have read Steve Jobs and Einstein. You other books are on my wish list. I've read many biographies but yours are always way more captivating. Almost like page turners. What would you attribute this to? Why do you think you have become one of the top biographers?
I think there are many better biographers than I am. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro, and David McCullough all of course come to mind. What I try to do is reporting; I am very lucky that because of my days at Time and CNN I have the opportunity to just call people up -- Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page -- and get the chance to go see them and sit down with them. I try to be a storyteller, rather than over-analyze things. I let the reader do most of the assessment -- like on the behavior of Jobs or Gates or others. I try to tell the story and get out of the way so the reader can feel upclose to the subject.
thanks for doing this Walter! Who are your top 3 favorite interview subjects as a journalist and at AI, and why?
Vaclav Havel, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Madeleine Albright. Soory, that's four.
I'm surprised to see computers have not evolved beyond silicon in nearly 30-40 years. What are your thoughts?
It would be interesting if we built computers not based on digital circuits using binary logic -- and instead tried to replicate the human mind in a carbon-based and wetware chemical system, perhaps even an analog one, like nature did it!
Doing your biographies, do you ever learn anything about your subject (Jobs, Einstein, Kissinger, Franklin) that shocks, disgusts, or awes you?
The most amazing thing I always discover is that they are human. That means they have flaws. That also means they are more inspiring than if they were made of marble and kept on a pedestal.
How do you decide on a subject when you are working on biographies? Are they usually through a commission, or are you making the conscious decision to just write about someone you are interested in? What is the tipping point that lets you know you are going all the way with the book?
I never work on commission. I once began work on a biography of Louis Armstrong. I wanted to show how creativity comes from diversity. Through my research I got to know everything about Armstrong -- except who he was. I knew what he did almost every day -- but not whether he was happy, or why he smiled, or why he ragged that opening cadenza to West End Blues the way he did. Maybe someday I will get back to it. Maybe someday I will do it as a multimedia book in collaboration with Wynton Marsalis.
Hi Walter, Silicon Valley gets a lot of criticism for creating "useless" things like social chat apps. I think there are also a lot of really innovative companies coming out of the valley, but we haven't seen the same level of innovation in medicine, energy, etc. as we have seen in computing.
Do you think there is starting to be more of a trend towards applying this model of innovation to the hard problems that make an impact in our lives? And do you think this might take place in the valley, or someplace else?
Yes, I hope we apply innovation to health and transportation the way we have done to networking and information technology. But it's much harder. It takes a bigger investment, is less easy to do in a garage, and there are more regulations.
I thoroughly enjoyed your biography on Steve Jobs! Thank you for your diligence!
I know you talked about how you had never done a biography on a living person before. What it easier to feel like you could get a more accurate picture of a living subject? Did you have a system in place that you felt would prevent the tainting of your perspective based on the bias of the person you were interviewing?
I have done living people before: Kissinger, the Wise Men. With a living subject, you get to know (if you take time to do a lot of personal interviews and listen) a hundred times more than you can learn about a historic person. I know much more about the chamfers of the original mac than about all of Ben Franklin's lightning rod and kite-flying experiments. I tend to be a bit soft when writing about someone alive, because I tend to like most people I get to know.
Hi Walter, thanks for being a public intellectual! I'm wondering what you think about the role of Congress and other elected officials in advancing or impeding innovation? Are they even relevant to innovation; do they help or hinder it? Wondering if I should factor this in to my vote next Tuesday?
I think our public policy today HINDERS innovation. The media and our gotcha style of political discourse makes it so that everyone tries to cover their ass and is scared of doing anything that might have a risk. So a lot of things get blocked, a lot of regulations are issued, and the government no longer helps fund (as it did during the Eisenhower years) the basic research that leads to future inventions like the Internet and microchip and laser.
What was your favorite book to write?
What was your favorite job you have had?
What do you think is your next adventure?
Favorite book: The Innovators.
Favorite job: reporter for Time, especially in Eastern Europe.
Next adventure: to be determined!
I had the honor to meet you 3 years ago in Marrakech, Morocco, you were one of the most extraordinary yet humble high-profile people I had the pleasure to meet. I also did an interview with you about tech industry, the process of writing your Biographies, and the most important advice you could give to young entrepreneurs. It was a very insightful meeting Mr Isaacson, and I hope to meet you again. (FUN FACT: minutes before the meeting, I remembered I didn't bring my copy of Steve Jobs, so I ran to a nearby mall, purchased a new one, and got the autograph.)
My question to you is, are you planning to open a branch of Aspen Institute worldwide ? maybe for the MENA region ?
Have a good day sir !
I am flattered that you remembered meeting me in Morocco. The Aspen Institute plans to do more int he MENA region. I went to Marrakesh to write my graduate dissertation, and I still love Morocco.
Hi Walter, thanks for doing this AMA.
1.) After having interviewed/researched so many successful people, what characteristics would you say most of them shared that allowed them to translate a passion for creation to a product or idea that changes the world?
2.) You have been sentenced to death for a crime that you did not commit. What would you choose as your final meal?
Hello Mr. Isaacson,
I was hoping you might share how close you have been involved with the film adaptation of your Steve Jobs biography. Are you in contact with the studio or Aaron Sorkin through the script treatment? That book was a highlight read for me, thank you for all your hard work.
I am totally in awe of the genius of Aaron Sorkin, and my ego is not so big that I thought he needed any help from me! He's a genius, especially at dialogue and intellectual character studies.
Do you think other countries are doing a better job of stimulating rather than hindering innovation? If so, which ones and what could we learn from them?
I still think the US is the best, because we are most comfortable with the free and unfettered flow of ideas. That's critical for the information age. But so, too, is good education. We could do well to learn from Finland on that score, or South Korea. I liked Amanda Ripley's book on that, The Smartest Kids in the World.
In any Eastern European countries you have visited when you were a reporter for Time? Where You liked the most?
I was at the Gdansk shipyards with Walesa in 1989 and with Havel when he was released from prison in Prague. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.
Prague and Budapest are among my favorite cities.
People have said you capitalised on Steve Jobs death by rushing your book to sale, what is your opinion on this?
I actually finished the book in August a couple of months before he died. He and I decided it should end with him stepping down as CEO of Apple. It was already printed when he died. I thought and hoped -- and he thought and hoped -- that he was going to be alive when it was published. I still wish that had been the case.
What's your advice for aspiring writers?
Four paragraphs a night. And don't watch TV.
Is today a better or worse time to embark on a career in journalism than 20 years ago?
Twenty years ago was a GREAT time to go into journalism. Ben Bradlee's funeral yesterday reminded me why. Five years ago was a HORRIBLE time. Now is a good time. Journalism is better than ever, there are more ways to do it, and there is less power given to gatekeepers -- and most importantly we are figuring out business models that rely on some user revenue and maybe small bitcoin-enabled payments rather than having to subsist just on ad revenue.
If you could pick 1 person (in history or alive today) to sit down for a day with....who would it be?
Leonardo da Vinci
Hi Walter.Purchased your Steve Jobs book a year ago.What is that one quality about Steve thats makes you think 'Is he for real?'
The quality I most admired in Steve was his passion. The quality that I found the ost surprising, and made him seem the most real, was his emotion. He cried at times.
I've read that the new book actually started years ago and then you had to stop when Jobs called. Was the book you started then much different than the one that just came out? What were the major changes? And is it fair to call this a "passion project"?
This history of the digital revolution is a passion project. I've been gathering string for years. It was mainly going to be about the Internet. But putting it aside to do Steve Jobs (and getting to know Bill Gates) made me decide to instead combine the history of the Internet and the personal computer. That's what made the powerful combination that ignited a revolution. They made me realize I should do all aspects of the digital revolution.
What was the best piece of advice steve jobs gave to you?
Be brutally honest even if it's painful. He encouraged me to put in stories that were critical of him.
You've written about a lot of "great" people – that is, people who have accomplished amazing things with their lives, even in vastly different fields. I'm wondering if you see any commonalities between them. Do they share any habits or characteristics that make them great? Is there a common thread that allowed Jobs, Ben Franklin, and Einstein to accomplish so much?
They are all rebellious. They question received wisdom, are curious, think out of the box. As Steve would say, they think different. When Einstein read Newton in the Principia say that time marches along irrespective of how we observe it, he asked: How do we know that, how would we test that.
Hi Walter, this is Sorina, from Aspen Institute Romania. Could you please share with us what's the hardest question that you could ask yourself on the topic of innovation? And your answer to it, of course :)
Q. Am I willing to fail?
A. Of course. I already have at times, and I have survived it!
I've read through Steve Job's biography twice now and am about 1/3rd of the way through The Innovators. Do you have any plans for writing another book soon? Perhaps not another commentary such as The Innovators, but maybe another biography? Also what should we, the college population of the world, the next generation of thinkers and such, need to do in order to continue this current age of innovation?
The most important thing necessary for keeping the US as an innovative place is to make the current digital revolution more inclusive. Women and people from less privileged backgrounds need to be made part of it. And we have to make sure we have great educational opportunities for all, no matter what zip code they were born in.
Hey Walter, I'm a huge fan. What are your upcoming books? Would you do a Biography on Elon Musk if he asked you to?
I got to interview Elon Musk at the Vanity Fair / Aspen Institute New Establishment summit two weeks ago. It's on YouTube. He is amazing. But it's far too early to be writing his biography. He still has much to accomplish, and must keep taking his vision and executing on it.
Thanks for answering,that made my day.The fact that he used to cry surprises me since his Passion was way stronger than his weaknesses.
I do not think that he believed crying was a sign of weakness.
I am currently a freshman at community college. I am currently a biochem major in the path to becoming a doctor. However, I hope to make a difference in the world beyond the scope of the lives of my patients. I want to be an innovator, a pioneer, but feel as if spending the next 8, or however many, years filling my mind with medical terms and such may kill my creativity/passion. I am interested in physics, nanoscience, biology, and chemistry, and I figure there is a lot more left to learn (and then be applied to solve humanity's problems) in these fields. Is my fear of imaginectomies unfounded? From the lives of those you have written about, is there any advice that you can give me about staying motivated/passionate? Im just scared that in the future I wont have time to question the things I learn and seek more knowledge, and instead be sucked into working to get paid instead of workign to justify my life.
I think the next huge wave of innovation will come in the field of biotech. The combinations of data, genetic engineering, biotechnology, and medicine will be hugely exciting.
Hey Walter, When will the other interviews and stuff be available for us to see? Do you have any special facts about steve jobs you can share with us?
All of my on-the-record interviews with Steve are in the book.
I'm looking forward to reading The Innovators. Seems like you spent a lot of time revisiting the 1990/00s as you researched the book. Do you have any favorite failures from the early commercial days of the Internet that now sound far ahead of their time? Kozmo.com, that sort of thing?
My favorite failures were the original systems to do digital payments and ways to disrupt the kludginess of the traditional banking system. Steve Crocker tried one. I think in the age of bitcoin, the opportunity has come roaring back to have digital micropayment systems.
This is kind of a personal question, but I thought I might as well ask:
I've been debating between going on an entrepreneurial route, versus an academic one. I'm hoping to be entrepreneurial within academia, but that will be hard to do. Any advice or guidance?
Harvard and Stanford and Penn -- among others -- are now making it very easy to be both an entrepreneur and an academic at the same time. This is a great change in higher education -- for the good. GO FOR BOTH!
Who is your favorite innovator of all time?
Hey Walter, what was it like having one on one time with Steve during the writing of the biography? That is easily one of the best written books I've read to this day.
It was very emotional (and sometimes unnerving) to be on walks or sitting around for hours with Steve. But also hugely inspiring.
And, thanks for the kind words.