Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Walter Isaacson is a renowned biographer, CEO of the Aspen Institute, and previously the chairman of CNN and managing editor of TIME magazine. He is the author of Einstein: His[…]

From the earliest internet message board to today’s highly-watched speedruns on Twitch, digital technology has satiated the human need to connect, collaborate, and form communities. Biographer Walter Isaacson, author of the new book “The Innovators,” explains how innovations such as chat rooms, blogs, and social media all serve the purpose of engendering community. He then predicts how new technologies will only serve to bring us closer together on the virtual stage.

Walter Isaacson:  Almost any time we’ve created something new in technology we find ways to create communities around it. That was true of the Internet with the news groups and the bulletin boards. And it was true of the early online services like AOL and CompuServe. They were there not just to give you the news or give you your horoscope but to allow you to go into chat rooms, into bulletin boards, into ways to sort of form communities of interest. This has been a theme ever since, you know, Vaneevar Bush and J.C.R. Licklider, the great pioneers of the digital age said we’ll form virtual communities. We’ll use our digital tools to form communities of interest. When the World Wide Web came along in some ways it was a tiny step backwards because the Web was initially grabbed on as a publishing medium. Places like, you know, newspapers and magazines or new types of news services could make beautiful web pages with pictures and designs and the community was kind of relegated to a comment section at the very bottom that nobody ever really read.


But then once again the street found its own uses for things and people like Ev Williams who created Blogger and some, you know Swarthmore College sophomore named Justin Hall who started keeping a web log and talking about all of his sexual misadventures and everything else – suddenly we got this notion of blogging and a blogging community. And on top of that we’ve had all sorts of social networks being built whether it’s Facebook and WhatsApp or Twitter, we always seem to want to connect to each other. It hasn’t diminished our desire to meet up physically as well. In fact Meetup is a good example, that service of saying, you know, if you find friends in the digital world you actually sometimes want to get together with people in the physical world. But whether it’s physical or virtual our digital tools sort of grab us and say let’s form communities.


I think that technology has always been driven by engineering but the next phase is connecting the creativity to it, the creative industry. And I can see now evolving this merger of live action role playing games and other forms of games and virtual realities, like oculus rift and many other types of tools that will connect music and multimedia and the fashion industries and journalism industries to this notion of community formation, to Wikipedia, to crowdsourcing. So we could have collaborative new forms of arts and entertainment just like, you know, novels came along when we got the printing press and, you know, different things came along when we got television or different ways of having entertainment and media.


I think we will invent new forms of media that will tend to be more community oriented than television or print is that will tend to be more collaborative where many people will be working together creating a roleplaying game or creating some community around a topic, creating like a Wiki that can do almost anything – discuss any topic, play any game. I am really loving to see how this collaborative interaction, interactive, crowdsource creativity is starting to flourish, especially when you add on top of that a layer of something like bitcoin that allows sort of easy payments and allocating maybe the royalties from something that’s sourced and created by a crowd of people, not just one person.


I think the writing of books is going to change quite a bit in the digital age because even with this book, The Innovators, I put a lot of it online. I put it up drafts on places like so people could write their comments. People could add their own anecdotes, their own tales. And so when I was writing about the hippie movement in California and how it related to the personal computer, Stewart Brand who had been the publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, all of a sudden he’s online and saying here’s some information about the demise party of the Whole Earth Catalog. So I put that in the book. So I could imagine narrative nonfiction, books that are biographies or histories – instead of being written by one author could be curated by an author but written by dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of people who are all involved in a particular process. They can each put up their videos, their notes, their oral histories, their diagrams, write their stories, tell their stories. Videotape their stories and put them all up and they can be curated into sort of a crowdsourced living book that you can explore and interact with not just read what only the author wanted to tell you was the narrative.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton