Back in college, I took a course called “The History of Communications.” Taught by a Teaching Assistant in the Ph.D. program named Carolyn Marvin (now on the faculty at the Annenberg School at Penn), it was one of those courses that changed the way I looked at things. Forever.
The course looked at advances in communications technology, from hieroglyphics to the telegraph to the telephone to—what was then, in 1977, the next frontier—the digital age. The curriculum charted the scientific advancement in tandem with the commercial and cultural waves created by the innovations. And it opened my eyes to this: The notion of the boy inventor, of divine inspiration, of magical breakthroughs—is mostly rot.
This isn’t to be a killjoy. Quite the contrary. Because the alternate story, the more accurate one, is more inspiring, more powerful, and more optimistic than that of the brilliant individual.
That alternate story goes like this: We identify, for shorthand purposes, wunderkind inventors. Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Steve Jobs. These people played critical roles, but in reality, they’re contributions were part of a continuum–noteworthy dots on a timeline of hard, persistent work that came before their time, and that was being done in their own time by others—often competitors.
This, to me, is the ultimate collaboration, a collaboration spanning time and space. We toil as individuals, but stand on the shoulders of others, and we contribute to and benefit from the work of others.
You can pretty much take any important technology or scientific advance and find the same story. In the 1990s I had the great good luck of being present at the creation of what we now call the Internet and the World Wide Web. Some upstart, brilliant University of Illinois students created the graphical Web browser, a program called Mosaic.
As is our society’s wont, we identified a boy wonder—in this case, a native Wisconsinite named Marc Andreessen. He and his coding buddies were recruited by a Silicon Valley mogul named Jim Clark (himself already mythologized) to found a company first named Mosaic Communications, then renamed Netscape.
It was brilliant public relations, and Andreessen and company were without question talented young turks. (Andreesen has gone on to be a successful venture capitalist.)
But really, what they managed to do would not have been possible without the hard work and genius of those who came before them.
Those included, among others, Tim Berners-Lee and Vincent Cerf. Way back in 1969, the progenitor of the Internet was the Advanced Research Projects Network (ARPANet), a government-funded project that allowed defense researchers to collaborate electronically.
And on and on and on. For every big deal technological advancement, you’ll find an epic saga that is more complicated but more compelling than the popular story. (Do you really think Newton figured out gravity from a falling apple?)
I was reminded of all this awhile back by an essay called It Is, in Fact, Rocket Science. In it, the author debunks misunderstandings about Charles Darwin’s work—here’s an excerpt:
The mythical stories we tell about our heroes are always more romantic and often more palatable than the truth. But in science, at least, they are destructive, in that they promote false conceptions of the evolution of scientific thought.
This past week, I began to think the same dynamic is true in terms of the slow but steady march of societal progress. Good people have been at the task of universal health coverage for decades and decades. (We’re still not there, but we’re a lot closer.)
People have been working for civil rights—like the right to vote, reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, and same-sex marriage—forever. They’ve been working at it through organized advocacy, but also by speaking up at the dinner table or at social gatherings—even when that wasn’t easy to do.
All this progress—technological and social—relies on individual doggedness, resolve, and brilliance. But, like jazz, it doesn’t work if it’s not connected in purpose.
Finally, David Remnick of The New Yorker had this reflective piece—Ten Days in June—about the tumultuous last week and a half. This passage, quoting President Obama, struck me as consistent with this broader idea I’ve been thinking about.
“. . . we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have. … But I think our decisions matter. And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that, at the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
That’s a pretty good paragraph, if you ask me.