[SIGCIS-Members] Issason, Acknowledgements, and Crowdsourcing

Chuck House housec1839 at gmail.com
Wed Oct 8 07:56:45 PDT 2014

Tom, this is a nice piece of research re Isaacson’s sources.  Sheds some serious light on the subject.  Other ‘popular historians’ — Mike Malone in Silicon Valley calls himself Silicon Valley’s chief historian — suffer some of the same problems.  Malone’s Intel Trinity, recently published, borrows heavily from Leslie Berlin’s work (he does cite her extensively), but otherwise does a very uneven job mostly based on the folk he interviewed who are described in the book—no serious historian of science to my knowledge was consulted, and certainly no serious student of Intel.  The Jobs book by Isaacson didn’t pass muster with most of the Apple folk I know—which means hundreds of folk ‘who were there’ found it wanting in factual detail, while it was great on Steve’s view of the world.

My wife, though, who was at Apple and bitterly complained about the inaccuracies of the book when she read it, also  complained to me when I complained.  Her view is that it got read, and the earlier works did not, and she is proud enough of Apple that she’d like more folk to appreciate the company.  I just think, though, that for such an important company, the historical record should be factual.

I also am mindful of how hard it was for my co-author and I to write the HP book, and get ‘objective’ viewpoints.  And the errors we now have accumulated as a result of reader feedback are sobering, to someone who usually thinks of himself as pretty careful.


On Oct 7, 2014, at 3:20 PM, Thomas Haigh <thaigh at computer.org> wrote:

> Hello everyone,
> I just came across Isaacson’s Acknowledgements page, which gives an insight into how he could do a lot of reading yet still produce a book with so many glaring mistakes (at least in its treatment of ENIAC).
> He mentions interviewing about 50 famous and mostly tech-related people – the Bill Joys, Al Gores, and John Negropontes of the world. He mentions advice from some other people, mostly famous journalists. He mentions that “Raul Mehta at the University of Chicago and Danny Z. Wilson at Harvard read an early draft to fix and math or engineering mistakes.” The other guy who read the whole draft and “made extensive comments” was Strobe Talbot of the Brookings Institute and former foreign policy official. Talbott provided some amazing comments, and Isaacson has “kept every set of his detailed notes as a testament to his wisdom and generosity.”
> Isaacson also “crowdsourced” some parts of the book by posting them for comment on Medium, soliciting “comments and corrections from thousands of people I didn’t know.” These are now deleted, but apparently were the more recent parts – AOL, The Well, etc. He got hundreds of emails and found the process very useful.
> One notable absence from the list: anyone with specialist expertise in the history of computing. (John Hollar of the computer history museum is on the list as someone who gave advice, but Hollar’s background is in the media business rather than history and he’s the CEO rather than a curator). Isaacson mentions that he has used Talbott as a reader ever since his book on foreign policy, The Wise Men. Finding a subject matter expert to read that book was a  good idea, but perhaps repeating the process in this new area would have been wise.
> Historians of computing are not hard to find, and Isaacson does make some use of the publications and oral histories produced by SIGCIS members. So it’s interesting that he would take as his three main fact checkers a foreign policy insider, a high school prodigy (https://www.linkedin.com/pub/rahul-mehta/61/79b/86a unless there is some other Rahul Mehta connected to the U of Chicago), and a Harvard student journalist (http://www.thecrimson.com/writer/1209919/Daniel_Z._Wilson/).
> When even a guy who is writing a book full of old-school history of computing anecdotes about Babbage, Zuse, ENIAC, delay lines, who invented what, etc. doesn’t think it’s worth reaching out to us to anyone in the SIGCIS community to see if he got his facts straight that says something rather dispiriting about popular history, our collective success in winning recognition for our expertise, or both.
> Best wishes,
> Tom
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