The most creative innovations of the digital age came from those who were able to connect the arts and sciences. They believed that beauty mattered. “I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics,” Steve Jobs told me when I embarked on his biography. “Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.” The people who were comfortable at this humanities-technology intersection helped to create the human-machine symbiosis that is at the core of this story.
Like many aspects of the digital age, this idea that innovation resides where art and science connect is not new. Leonardo da Vinci was the exemplar, and his drawing of the Vitruvian Man became the symbol, of the creativity that flourishes when the humanities and sciences interact. When Einstein got stymied while working out General Relativity, he would pull out his violin and play Mozart until he could reconnect to what he called the harmony of the spheres.
We humans can remain relevant in an era of cognitive computing because we are able to think different, something that an algorithm, almost by definition, can’t master. We possess an imagination that, as Ada Lovelace said, “brings together things, facts, ideas, conceptions in new, original, endless, ever-varying combinations.” We discern patterns and appreciate their beauty. We weave information into narratives. We are storytelling animals as well as social ones.
Human creativity involves values, intentions, aesthetic judgments, social emotions, and personal consciousness. These are what the arts and humanities teach us – and why those realms are as valuable a part of education as science, technology, engineering, and math. If we humans are to uphold our end of the man-machine symbiosis, if we are to retain a role as partners with our machines, we must continue to nurture the wellsprings of our creativity. That is what we bring to the party.
The converse, however, is also true. People who love the arts and humanities should endeavor to appreciate the beauties of math and physics, just as Ada did. Otherwise, they will be left as bystanders at the intersection of arts and science, where most digital-age creativity will occur. They will surrender control of that territory to the engineers.
Many people who extol the arts and the humanities, who applaud vigorously the paeans to their importance in our schools, will proclaim without shame (and sometimes even joke) that they don’t understand math or physics. They would consider people who don’t know Hamlet from Macbeth to be Philistines, yet they might merrily admit that they don’t know the difference between a gene and a chromosome, or a transistor and a diode, or an integral and differential equation. These things may seem hard. Yes, but so, too, is Hamlet. And like Hamlet, each of these concepts is beautiful. Like an elegant mathematical equation, they are expressions of the glories of the universe.
The next phase of the digital revolution will bring a true fusion of technology with the creative industries, such as media, fashion, music, entertainment, education, literature, and the arts. Until now, much of the innovation has involved pouring old wine – books, newspapers, opinion pieces, journals, songs, television shows, movies – into new digital bottles. But the interplay between technology and the creative arts will eventually result in completely new forms of expression and media.
This innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors. In other words, it will come from the spiritual heirs of Ada Lovelace, creators who can flourish where the arts intersect with the sciences, and who have a rebellious sense of wonder that opens them to the beauty of both.
Walter Isaacson is the author of “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.” Following his biography of Steve Jobs, The Innovators is Isaacson’s story of the people who created the computer and the Internet. It is destined to be the standard history of the digital revolution and a guide to how innovation really happens. Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, has also been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images