Category Archives: Innovation

Steven Levy – In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

Steven Levy – In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

A corporate history of Google from its founding up until 2011 or so. This book was written with the cooperation of Google’s founders, so it is not an objective history, nor should it be treated as such. It is still useful. A sequel may also be in order before too long. Since this book was published, Google has created its own parent company, Alphabet, and diversified into areas from video to maps to driverless cars. It is also undergoing multiple antitrust investigations, and growing ire from right and left populists could have massive consequences for consumer welfare, innovation, and for competition policy going forward.

Google has changed quite a bit since its early days, but anything violating the consumer welfare standard is difficult to find in here—though, again, this book is not an objective history. If anything, fear of regulatory reprisal put a damper on some of Google’s innovative ideas almost as soon as they realized the company would be a success. That, as opposed to market share for searches or advertising, is evidence of consumer harm.

Some of Google’s early mistakes and learning experiences still loom large today, such as its acquiescence to Chinese censorship.

Levy also has a forthcoming book on Facebook out in January 2020.

Edmund Morris – Edison

Edmund Morris – Edison

This book is organized chronologically, but backwards, and for no good reason. Morris, who passed away after finishing this book but before its publication, gives no explanation for his mistaken choice. The book begins, as most biographies do, with a late-life “Exhibit A” scene with the main character in peak form. But instead of moving back to the beginning to show how the person became that way, Morris starts with Edison’s final decline, then goes back a decade at a time in each chapter. Each chapter also is roughly themed, though mostly by title only, based on what Edison was working on at the time—phonographs, electricity and lighting, war-related inventions during World War I, and so on. Edison’s approach to life was so scattershot that this approach doesn’t really work, either. The final chapter covers Edison’s formative years, with a brief epilogue returning to his death. This historiographical choice is an experiment, fitting its subject’s temperament. Also befitting many Edisonian experiments, it doesn’t work.

We meet his children when they are already fully-formed adults who have already experienced all of their major successes and mistakes. Only later do we see them falling in love and entering into marriages that we had already seen fail in earlier chapters, or begin to fight personal demons of which we had long since seen the consequences. Only after/before all that, do we finally see them as young children missing their distant father and get a sense of why they turned out as they did.

Edison seems to mostly remain the same person throughout. He had a salty temperament, but wasn’t necessarily mean. He also didn’t necessarily mind being mostly deaf. It spared him from distractions and gave him an easy out in social situations he wasn’t interested in, and gave him a running excuse to be cranky. He insisted on working long hours while barely eating, which led to numerous chronic health problems, though he still lived and worked to an advanced age. He also enjoyed being a bit of a showman, and had a keen interest in marketing his inventions and in promotional gimmicks. He had an odd way of not much caring about other people, yet having a need to be on their mind. He used an earthy, avuncular sense of humor to attempt to endear himself to people, though he could be clumsy about it.

Totally deaf in later years, even the young Edison was deaf in one ear and had limited hearing in the other, unable to hear high frequencies such as birdsongs after about age 12. It is miracle that he essentially invented recorded music. He had a surprisingly keen sense of sonic quality, though he had some odd ideas about, and a stubborn streak that limited his progress as other inventors improved on his technologies. For more on that, see

Morris also has some pretty basic misunderstandings. At the end of the book, when he fially gets to describing Edison’s father, he repeatedly describes him as “libertarian.” The elder Edison was a confederate sympathizer during the Civil War, and didn’t necessarily respect property laws. Opposition to slavery and respect for property rights are fundamental to any liberal philosophy; its is shocking that Morris doesn’t get that—enough to question his ability to interpret other matters more important to his subject.

Arthur Diamond – Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism

Arthur Diamond – Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism

This book reminded me a bit of Wired cofounder Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants in its tech- and innovation-centric hyper-optimism. His optimism isn’t quite as sober as the Julian Simon, Deirdre McCloskey, or Hans Rosling variety, but Diamond’s enthusiasm is contagious. Readers interested in this subgenre might also like John Tamny’s The End of Work and Diamandis and Kotler’s Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think.

One useful contribution Diamond makes is a deep dive into just how disruptive new technologies are. For workers, the changes are often less severe than commonly thought. When cars replaced buggies, they still needed wheels, frames, and upholsteries, for example. Those workers’ skills did not become obsolete, though they did have to evolve. Many disruptive technologies take years or even decades for widespread adoption.

Ultimately, Diamond makes a culture-based argument for explaining technological progress. It takes more than research and development, or available capital for entrepreneurs. It takes a culture that approves of such things. People need to be willing to try something new and see if they like it or not. They need to have a certain audacity, or at least a positive view of it. People aren’t likely to give it a go if it makes them a pariah. Though Diamond openly admires Schumpeter—hence the phrase “creative destruction” in the title—ultimately his argument owes more to Joel Mokyr and Deirdre McCloskey.

James Grant – Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian

James Grant – Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian

Grant finally settles the question of how to pronounce Walter Bagehot’s name (BADGE-it). Maddeningly, he does not do this until the end of the book, leaving the reader unsure to pronounce it in their head for more than 300 pages. Even so, he has written an excellent biography of Bagehot, a prominent 19th-century English banker and economist who favored free trade. He was not the founder of The Economist, though he became its longtime editor and made the newspaper (actually a magazine) into the prominent, and generally classically liberal publication it remains today.

At times Grant seems more interested in the history of English banking than in his ostensible subject, and at times the text bogs down because of it. But he still finds the time to give a good sense of what Bagehot was like as a person. His family life was mostly happy, though not entirely so. He also worked long hours at a frenetic pace, often writing 5,000 words or more per week, every week, on a wide variety of topics. This was in addition to editing and managing a newspaper, commissioning articles, and trying to have some semblance of a home life.

Unlike some of the grandiose, difficult personalities whose biographies I’ve been reading lately (Frank Lloyd Wright, Thomas Edison, Jay Gould, et al), Bagehot seems to have been a good person. He was overworked and often frazzled, but he was a decent family man and didn’t have an extravagant lifestyle, outsize ego, or a need to create drama.

Grant also puts Bagehot in his place as an important figure in the birth of modern finance, journalism, and economics; Bagehot had a place in all three. Only with the beginnings of the industrial revolution did the population become wealthy enough to support full-time journalists. Before, say, Samuel Johnson, writers typically required aristocratic support. They also wrote for a mainly aristocratic audience, spoke to their concerns, and often echoed their points of view. They also did not produce fresh product every week.

Johnson was one of the first to write for a lay audience, and one of the first to make a living from them. This meant smaller per-copy revenues, made up for by selling more copies. This required the ability to print at an industrial scale, and a large middle class that can afford pamphlets and newspapers. This stage of economic development also required modern finance to capitalize. Bagehot began as just such a banker, became a journalist struggling to generate enough copy to print The Economist regularly enough to pay the bills, and to sell it to as many subscribers as possible. Even in London, the financial capital of the world, Bagehot could only wrangle a few thousand subscribers.

Bagehot was also one of the most prolific and eloquent voices in the era’s defining economic debate—free trade vs. protectionism. Bagehot took the free-trade side alongside Richard Cobden and John Bright, and it is for this that Bagehot is chiefly remembered today. The Economist, which more than a century later flourishes on a global scale, still retains Bagehot’s mostly market-liberal editorial voice, and even has a weekly column named after him. In today’s tide of rising tide of protectionism, nationalism, and populism, the world could use more Bagehots advocating for free trade in both quality and quantity.

John Steele Gordon – A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable

John Steele Gordon – A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable

The story of Cyrus Fields, a 19th century entrepreneur who laid the first transatlantic cable. Fields was a man of rare persistence. As Gordon puts it on page 12, “But it was Cyrus Fields alone who made it happen, for he served the same function in the enterprise of the Atlantic cable that a producer serves in a theatrical production. A producer does not act or direct or design scenery. But without him, neither does anyone else.” Fields was around at the right time—but he also the right person.

Telegraphy had been around for a bit by the time Fields got started, and people had also figured out that it was possible to lay cable underwater. Earlier initiatives had crossed the English channel, and of course the U.S. had a transcontinental cable over land. But Fields’ grand project required a new suite of innovations everywhere from sea exploration, knowledge of water physics, electric conductivity, cable insulation, ballast and weight for ships, diplomacy, and international finance. Fields, often through sheer force of will and personality, headed up a multi-year effort using  massive amounts of capital to successfully finish the project. There were numerous setbacks, and the on-the-ground (water?) problem-solving his ships’ crewmembers were able to improvise, at times during hostile weather, are both impressive and inspiring.

Fields paved the way for today’s transoceanic cables capable of carrying not just phone calls, but Internet traffic, video communications, and more around the world. As heroes of invention go, Fields deserves a much more prominent place on the list.

Richard L. Currier – Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human, Transformed Society, and Brought Our World to the Brink

Richard L. Currier – Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human, Transformed Society, and Brought Our World to the Brink

I hastily bought this book on sale thinking it was a yet another Schumpeter-inspired history of technology by an economist. I was pleasantly surprised to find it is written from an anthropologist’s perspective, and most of the book has little to do with economics or markets. Moreover, it is excellently done.

Currier has packed Unbound with evolutionary, biological, social, and behavioral insights into how technology has influenced the human condition, and vice versa. Causality’s arrow points in both directions, with massive implications for everything from our anatomy to gender roles, sexual behavior, and even our species’ geographic range. Bipedalism freed up our hands to use weapons and tools. The extra food provided calories for larger brains to use and improve these tools. Larger brains meant longer gestations and tougher childbirths, which effectively made hunting a men-only activity; this is the origin of gender roles that are unique to our species, though obviously this dynamic does not apply as it once did. To tease out these insights, Currier ranges all the way back to our Australopithecine and Homo habilis ancestors, as well as other primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos.

Among the other things the reader learns is that our species’ relative hairlessness was a direct result of our taming fire. This had obvious safety benefits, and I was probably not the only reader to have a Gary Larson-inspired chuckle at how this may have affected some of our more hirsute ancestors as natural selection did its work.

Chapters on tools, fire, clothing, and language give way to agriculture, transportation and eventually industrial production, around which point the book changes tone. By the 19th century or so the book begins to read less like an anthropology story and more like a history of business and technology, along the lines of Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators. The eighth and final technology is the emerging digital age, which is still maturing as we speak. Even at this early stage, Currier is correct about how the Internet, digitalization, and rapid globalization are having a transformative impact on par with the other great technologies.

There is another abrupt change in the final chapter, which is mostly paint-by-numbers hysterics over mass extinction and environmental apocalypse. This is alluded to in the book’s subtitle, though mostly absent until this point. Here, Currier shows that he has not often ventured outside his disciplinary home of anthropology. He would have benefited from an understanding of more diverse thinkers such as Julian Simon, Hans Rosling, Johan Norberg, Deirdre McCloskey, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Joel Mokyr, Bjorn Lomborg, and other scholars from a range of disciplines from statistics to economic history to psychology, who are more adept in the study of progress.

Unlike the rest of an otherwise carefully written book, this final chapter reads like it was written in a single caffeinated cram session. Cautious words like “could” and “might” gradually morph into more certain proclamations such as “will” and “have” as the chapter proceeds. The very end also oddly mentions the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariffs, but Currier correctly identifies tariffs as harmful policies, and his emotions carry him in favor of international openness and inclusion. At the very end, Currier suddenly goes through another mood swing and ends on an optimistic note about. Unlike just a few pages before, Currier now argues that dynamism and progress might forestall the coming environmental apocalypse after all. Before he can change his mind again, the book ends. In all, that odd journey reminded me of the occasional all-nighter I pulled back in undergrad trying to finish term papers on time.

Despite the weird rollercoaster ending, Unbound was one of my better reads of the year. It is almost like a wider-ranging sequel to Richard Wrangham’s excellent Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, which Currier cites liberally in his early chapter about fire. It also pairs well with Arthur Diamond’s Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism, though that book’s Pollyanna-ish tone is a bit much even for this optimist.

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

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

Think Joseph Schumpeter’s ethos of creative destruction mixed with economic historian Joel Mokyr’s emphasis on technology and how culture enables it, as told by a tech journalist, and you have this book. It’s essentially a history of great personalities of the digital age, with the broader aim of identifying cultural factors that aid innovation. While Isaacson’s arguments are nothing groundbreaking, he is a compelling biographer, and he ties together some wildly disparate personalities into a cohesive narrative of computer history.

One of the first great personalities behind the computer was the mathematician Ada Lovelace, who of all things was the daughter of the Romantic-era poet Lord Byron. Lovelace’s work with Charles Babbage would go on to influence Alan Turing, and when their efforts combined with the invention of the transistor, the cascading effect led to the emergence of numerous other innovations and innovators, who are all more interconnected than most of them realized.