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Walter Isaacson - President and CEO of the Aspen Institute

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Video transcript

- [Sal] It's always fun to talk to you. I know the team here are super excited about it. I mean, there's like 10 different things we can talk about with you. I'll start with, kind of, who you are and your background just to get everyone on the same page. You're fundamentally a writer. Right when you came out of college, you went to be a writer in London, then in New Orleans, which is where both of us grew up. What was it early on in your life that kind of convinced you that you wanted to be a writer, that this was something that you would kind of find meaning in? - Sal and I both grew up in New Orleans, and I had a, sort of an uncle in New Orleans, my uncle by marriage. But we never knew what Uncle Walker did, because he was always at home drinking bourbon and eating hog's head cheese, north of Lake Pontchartrain, on the Bogue Falaya, and we'd say, "Ann, what does your dad do?" And he'd say, "Well, he's a writer." And I was like nine or 10 years old. And it was only after, I think I was age 11 or so, The Moviegoer comes out by Walker Percy, and he's a great, or was a great Southern novelist. And I realized that being a writer was something you could do, just like being an engineer or fisherman, or doctor, or whatever. And like, you could actually be a writer, and you got to sit home all day and drink bourbon, which seemed an upside to the whole writing gig. And so I would, you know, grill Walker Percy and say, "Tell me about it, how do you do this?" or whatever. And then I read his novel, by that point he'd come out with The Last Gentleman as well. I read them carefully, and they always were about faith and growth. - This is when you were in high school? - Yeah, it's when I was about 14 years old. - So you were able to track him down and... - Well (mumbles) so we would go fishing on the boat. You know the Bogue Falaya right near Covington? And we had a place up there, our family, and the Percy's did, and we were all kind of related. So, we'd go waterskiing. His daughter, Ann, was my age, and we would waterski the Bogue Falaya and capture turtles and do whatever you did when you were 14 years old. Try to flirt with Ann, but we didn't know how to flirt well, but we could catch turtles well. Then, you know, we'd get home, and I'd... Or get to their house, and I'd say, you know, "Tell me about this thing." And I asked him about the novels and the themes and the philosophical themes and the preacher, and he said, "Look, here are two types of people "come out of Louisiana. "Preachers and storytellers." He said, " For God's sake, be a storyteller. "The world's got far too many preachers." And so I realized that storytelling was sort of a way that you could make sense of the world. You know, make people understand things better. And I said, "Well, that's what I want to do. "I want to be a writer, and I don't want to be "an opinion writer, I want to be a storyteller writer." - And did you have doubt? I know you were a teenager now. Did people tell you that, hey, it's hard to be a writer? Is this kind of a, be a doctor...? - Well, I had, I mean it wasn't like, okay I'm a teenager. I'm going to be a writer. I mean, I was a teenager and then I went to college. And I actually studied philosophy in college, and then went to graduate school and studied philosophy. So, there was a moment, I thought I might be a philosopher, although I didn't quite know, whether, I don't know, in this strip here, whether somebody says, you know, philosopher and you go in and they... I didn't quite know how you become a philosopher. But I was actually thinking of, you know, being an academic and even showed my undergraduate professors the thesis I had written in England. And they said, "No, you'd probably be better off "being a journalist." And so, it was at that point that I joined the Sunday Times of London, and what is now The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. - What was it that first, and Walter's extremely humble. To go from, not a lot of kids go from Louisiana to Harvard to Rhodes Scholar. - You did, sort of. - I didn't do the last part. - You did MIT. - Wait, wait, but the... - We're not that much of a backwater. - Yes, that's right. - A lot of people go... - That's right. - Okay. - Ellen Degeneres went to my high school. - Really? - Yeah. - Did she go to Harvard? - I don't think so. - Okay. - That's um... - Grace King High School. - I know what your high school was. - You went to... - Newman. - The fancy school, where, anyway... - Me and Michael Lewis. - Fewer people from Grace King go to, anyway.. - I love it when you and I are doing competition on our humble roots. (audience laughs) - Ain't gonna work. - Yes, I didn't do a lot of turtle catching. - Yeah, yeah. - You're kind of a young adult at this point. You graduated from... How do you find that first experience? You know, there's kind of this romantic notion of being a writer, and when you're in college and you're doing your thesis, you're doing philosophy. But then there's this kind of real world of kind of being on the beat and writing stories about the local whatever it might be. Was that a disappointment, was it exciting? Was it a mix? - You know, I loved it. I started off... At the Picayune, but I had gotten a summer internship at The Washington Post. It was the summer of Watergate, right? And it was just '74, all about to break, Nixon was going to resign. And either foolishly or not, I decided not to do it. And I worked for T. Smith and Sons, the stevedores on the Mississippi River. You know, the Napolean Avenue wharves and stuff, because I wanted to write and novel about the river. So, I decided I should work the river like Mark Twain did or something. And so I missed all of Watergate. I still have the novel I wrote that summer that's excruciatingly bad. It's about the river and all that sort of thing. And I realized, gee, I will never be a novelist. And then went into journalism. - [Sal] So you actually, you were on a boat? - Well these are called derrick barges, you know if you look at the wharves, and there's these flatbed barges, but they have a crane on them, and they get pushed around by what looked like tug boats, we call them push boats, because they actually, you know, they don't tug the thing, they push the thing. And they go up and down the river in very lazy way. Incredibly hot, because these things had creosote metal, and you'd have to put the creosote on the metal. You'd have to wear very thick soled shoes, because the deck got so hot that it would burn your feet. And the other thing I remember, which I loved, was every time the barge started up, you know, the crane started up, the electricity would go back on. And we had a coffee percolator, and so it would re-percolate the coffee all day, until it was almost the consistency of the creosote. And I loved that really strong coffee. - And so you were working on it? And you said, can I work here and also write? - Yeah, 'cause you... I mean, I don't want to sound too romantic. It was also an incredibly high payed job, at that time. The port in the early '70's was booming, the extraction industries: oil, natural gas, sulphur, were going really well. I don't know why, but I mean, it was the '70s. And so you could make, I don't remember the dollars, but you could also make double time and then two and a half times if you worked Sundays or overtime. And so, I just made enough to last me through college. So, it was partly for the money and partly for the romanticism of writing a novel. And yeah, you couldn't sit there on the derrick barge and type a novel, but you'd sort of meet all the people on all the boats coming up and down in those unloaded boats, you'd go in... So I'd gather stories and at night, I'd go home and write it up, and it was really bad. - (laughs) I mean, you joke about it now, but obviously, this was something you cared deeply about, this idea of being a writer, this idea of being a novelist. I mean, what was, I guess, one, what made you think that this wasn't cut out for you, but also, what allowed you to not give up writing altogether? - Well, I actually liked nonfiction, too. I mean, to be able to tell... And when I started working for the Picayune, I was on police beat. And you'd get these wonderful, wacky stories. I mean Jim Garrison was trying Clay Shaw for the murder of President Kennedy. I mean, I don't know if you remember (mumbles). - One of Jim Garrison's best friends was my AP American History teacher's father. - Oh. - So that's all that... - That makes you really close... - To that story. That's what we did in AP American History. - Can we go to the white board and graph that out? - He's kind of, yeah. Well, I don't know, my... Friend's, my teacher's father in law, anyway. There's a... - So, there are all these wacky people, including Jim Garrison, who was followed by Harry Connick, whose son is the cornet and trumpet player. So, there are all these wonderful tales in New Orleans, and there was a rush... I don't quite know what it is, but there's a rush which, every day almost, I would have a story. And often on the front page, 'cause if you're covering crime, you get on the front page. And there you were, you'd tell these stories, and your name would be in the paper. And so, it wasn't like I was lamenting the fact that I hadn't yet written the great American novel or the great novel about the river. I kept thinking I would, and then eventually, after I wrote my first book or two, I showed it, an updated version of the novel to my agent, who... Was not in any way encouraging, and said... - But they liked your biography. - Right, well they liked, the nonfiction was doing well. And you know, in some ways, if you take Steve Jobs and you take this book, I write narratives. I mean, I don't write... Analytical nonfiction. So these are stories, and I tell you, if you wrote a novel that was word for word that Steve Jobs book, people would say, "Well that's not, you know, credible. "It doesn't feel like it could possibly be true, therefore it's not a good novel." But in some ways, with a piece of narrative nonfiction, you know, you can try to make into the same type of tale a novel would be. Now, obviously, I consider people who are truly creative novelists to be in a quantum orbit you know, above ours. I was once going to a writers conference, and Betsy, my daughter I think you may have met, said, "Dad, why are you going to a writers...?" I said, "Well, cause you know, I'm a..." And she says, "Well Dad, you're not a real writer. "You write nonfiction." And so, we know it's not quite the same, but I do think, if you're telling a tale, and you try to make it a storytelling type thing, meaning chronological narrative, you can have that excitement of watching people grow, ideas forming, one thing leading to another. - And so you, with that in mind, you have this kind of parallel life, or maybe it's not so parallel. The Times-Picayune, you started working for Time Magazine, which is kind of the big piece of your career, Time Magazine. Eventually, you're the editor-in-chief. But at the same time, you're this biographer, and you kind of take on these larger than life characters, Franklin, Einstein, Jobs. Were those two different jobs that you had in your head, or were they the similar type of role, writing for Times Magazine, eventually becoming editor-in-chief. - Well, when I started at Time, I did it with a friend who I'd gone to college with, a guy named Evan Thomas, who you may have heard of. And we were frustrated, because at Time Magazine, this is in a previous century, let me remind you. There was no website, you didn't have to tweet everyday. You came out once a week, usually, with two pages you write. So, it wasn't the hardest job and the heaviest lifting, you know, in America. And, in fact, it was boring at times. Like, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, you're sitting around trying to figure out what am I supposed to be doing. And then you got frustrated, because you'd go out, and you'd report the story, and you had to keep it to what would we say, 2,000 words. And so, I was covering the campaign of 1980. Ronald Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy. I mean, some larger than life dudes. So, I said to Evan, "You know, we're not getting "this stuff in the magazine, and we just get the... "We should do a story on the great American establishment "and how it created the post-war world." And we'd never written a book before. And it was about six friends that nobody had ever heard of, Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, Bob Lovett. And we walked down the street in the place where we had a summer house, Sag Harbor, and there was an editor, Alice Mayhew, and we said, "We want to do this book," and she said, "I've always wanted to do a book like that. "It's a prequel to The Best and the Brightest," which is Halberstam's book about Vietnam, in other words, it leads into it. "And I've always wanted to call it The Wise Men," because it was about these people. And so, we got to write this book. And it was oddly successful. It it was because it was very, very, long, so people couldn't quite finish it, so they had to say it was good, you know, they couldn't... Whatever it was, it did well, and it made me think, well this is really great, writing narrative about people. The other thing about Time Magazine then, and when I was editor, we always put a person on the cover. It was Henry Luce, who invented the magazine mantra, "Tell the story of our time, through people." The people who make it. Somebody said, "Well, you're inventing personality journalism." He said, "No, Time didn't invent that. "The Bible did, that's how it works." You know, Adam, Eve, Moses, you do it through people. And so, that got me interested in a biographical way of looking at the world. - And what's your, and so, I guess it's some of your really complimentary skills. The biographies allow you to go much deeper than just the... And what's, you know, as you go into, what was it, late '90's, you transition in, I guess Time becomes part of Time Warner. You become CEO-Chairman of CNN, which doesn't seem like a natural jump. - It wasn't, it was a very unnatural jump, which I didn't want to make, and I shouldn't have made. You make mistakes in life. And that was a two-headed mistake for me. As you said, Time Warner owned both, and I finished my stint as editor of Time. They kept pushing me to do it. It was a mistake because I didn't like the medium. I just don't like television. I'm not very good at it, I don't know how to make TV. And I realized I was a pretty good editor of the magazine, simply because I knew every detail of how it was done, meaning if somebody came back and said, "We can't get..." You know, I had been in Russia or Poland, during the fall of communism. I've covered these things. I also had, you know, designed pages, so I could say, you know, "Crop the picture this way, "and you can do it in 2,000 words, but leave out this "part, and make it a narrative. "And there's a billboard graph that will say all of that "and get it out of the way, " or something. I mean, some people are great, and they can be the head of Proctor & Gamble and then be the head of United Airlines and then you know, be a professor and do all sorts of things. Me, I kind of knew how to do what I knew how to do, and I shouldn't have gone into a field where I didn't know it. Secondly, I'm not a great executive manager. I'm not somebody who likes bossing people around. And at Time, it was quite easy because, there are only like 60 or 70 people that I'd deal with. I mean, two floors of the building, you could walk around. At CNN, there were like 6,000 people, and I was supposed to be this manager. And I realized, I like it when people have to manage me rather than me having to manage them. And so I didn't like that executive role. And so, that was a three year detour that was not something I enjoyed. - And then you go to your current position, which is head of the Aspen... - When my current contract was up, I... Well, I mean we had, unfortunately 9/11 and then the war. The first, I mean the Iraq War. I guess the second out of three Iraq wars now, depending on how you're counting them. And so I waited through the end of that. My contract was up, and it was like, I want to write books. I want to be involved in, you know, thought and bringing people together and doing things. And the Aspen Institute came on. - And what's your role, what do you see as the role of the Aspen Institute? It's kind of a really interesting organization. - Yeah, Sal has joined on board. It's a great organization, been around 60 years. And it's partly a think tank. We have policy programs, and everything from the environment, education, whatever. It's partly a tank that does things. I mean, we have Middle East loan funds. We're working with Khan Academy to try to, you know, put together American civics courses. But it's also, and I wish there were a better word for it. Seems like, you know, a 50 cent word for a 25 cent product, which is convening. We bring people together, and that's something that you particularly don't have in Washington or other places these days, with Democrats, Republicans, left, right, people with different persuasions, come together, sit around a table, spend a few days together, exchange ideas. It's particularly interesting to me that in the digital age, when we thought that we could all Skype and do things on Google Hangouts, and chat rooms, and live virtually, there's actually more a hunger for in-person meetings. This is why you have a room like this, is why people hang out. And in some ways Googleplex meets Google Hangouts, having a nice environment like this. So, the Aspen Institute has grown quite a bit through ideas, festivals, and many other things, which is where people watching things on YouTube, doing Khan Academy videos. But at the end of which they kind of say, "Okay, now let's get together. "I want to be in flesh and discuss it." - That's, I think, what's interesting about you. You have this, you're a historian and now the Aspen Institute. You're kind of a convener; you're very plugged into kind of, the current state of affairs. You've been in Washington. But you're also intimately involved in Silicon Valley. I know this, the latest book, which isn't even out yet. - Not until next month, but you get an advance copy. - The innovators... It's a history of Silicon Valley, essentially. - Correct. - And obviously, you've done the biographies... - It actually starts at your alma mater, MIT, with the Tech Model Railway Club, and the people creating Spacewar, and all the people in the late '40s, who come up with those video games and hands on computing. But then it moves west, and it tries to explain why people like yourself move from MIT to the Valley. - And that's whats fascinating, because it's a history about kind of something that is defining the future. And then you also have this Aspen Institute, what's going on in DC. And so, with this kind of futurist slash historian hat, I mean, where do you think we are? It's very easy for us to get caught up in the, you know, what's going on, week by week, you know. You're on the Apple board. Apple announced it's new iPhone today, all this craziness. But you know, 25 years from now, 50 years from now, 500 years from now, how are people going to think about now? - I think they'll think about it just as they thought 100 years ago, about 1840 and the Industrial Revolution, where you start having steam engines and mechanized products, and it changes the whole way. I mean, instead of people, artisans weaving fabrics, it's now done, and it changes employment and everything else. So, I think you have that disruption. I think we're at the stage of the Digital Revolution, where we're just getting out of pouring old wine into new bottles. You know, for the first 20, 30 years of the Revolution, we had the internet, we had online, we had computers, but we were still taking op-ed pieces and pouring them online, you know, blogs or something. Or we were taking Time Magazine and putting in on the Web, and it would be an online, you know, Time Online. But we weren't inventing whole new things. There were three or four industries that did not get disrupted, which gets back to Khan Academy. Early on, healthcare and medicine did not get disrupted the way it should have. And K through 12 education, I mean, I wrote about Ben Franklin. He invented a type of school that he called The Academy for the Education of Youth, and what it was was about 24 kids sitting in a row, and the teacher in front and a blackboard, and a lecture and then a test. That was, whatever, 1740. And you flash ahead, you know, two and a half centuries, and we're still doing it that way. So, the disruption you all in this room are bringing to K through 12 education, and in your book, The One Room Schoolhouse. That's beginning to kick in. So, the next phase is when we quit pouring old wine in new bottles, and frankly the first people doing online learning and stuff, it was simply taking a camera, pointing in Sanders Theater to Mike Sandel, and he would give a lecture, and they would call that an online course. I do think especially with Addax, you're seeing a platform that does it quite differently now, and has a feedback loop that says, "Okay, that works, that doesn't,". Likewise, you're doing it much differently. You're not just putting a high school course online. And that's what I mean about new wine for the new bottle. So, we're getting into that age. I think there's a lot still to be done. I mean, books have not been disrupted. I wanted with Steve Jobs, and now I'm a whole book later, and still don't have it happen, I want to take a book and write it, and curate it. But I want it to be open source, like Wikipedia. I want everybody in that book, from Wozniak to Bill Gates to Dan Bricklin, or you know, or Stewart Brand. I mean, they don't have to be major characters. Or even people who aren't in the book, but have, "Oh, I have this video, I was at this (mumbles)," to be able to put stuff up. So, you write a collaborative book that's multimedia. People putting up the code they wrote for the first basic interpreter for the Altair, and somebody else is putting up the circuit design for the Altair in the book, and somebody else is saying, "Here's the video "of Steve's first launch of the Apple II." That sort of thing. If you had a collaborative project like that I think should be curated, 'cause I'm a control freak. I don't want everybody just to put whatever they want, but I want, and I was working with Ev Williams yesterday. I don't know if you know who he is, but he did Twitter but now does Medium. I put some of my chapters on Medium, and people could put comments and things, but I could reject them, or I could include them. So, it gives me some curatorial power, and then eventually we'll have to have payment systems, where, especially, I mean, I'm not trying to do this, you know, for money the now. If my book is written and 40 percent of it is people have collaborated and crowdsourced it, when people read those sections, there should be some metering, and the royalties should go, just like if a song is played on the radio, the original composer of that song gets a fraction of a cent royalty. We ought to have ways to collaboratively crowdsource things and to allocate royalties based on that. That's just one example of where I think things might go. I wanted always to do a book on our hometown boy, Louis Armstrong. And I want to do it with Marsalis. I want Wynton to be able to say, "Okay, when we do "West End Blues, we see him take this 17 bars, and". (scats) "You know, just rag it." And if I wrote that, nobody would know what I'm talking about, but if Wynton is saying, you know, "Here's how Kid Ory did it, and now here's how "Louis Armstrong did it," you'd say, okay, I get it. And so, those type of projects, we aren't there yet. But I keep waiting for those platforms to be built. - Yeah, that's, that's amazing. I mean, one thing that's fascinating about you. I mean, you even just mentioned it now. Even with Louie Armstrong is, you know, the thread of all the people you write about, and especially with this book. This is kind of a combination of a bunch of books. Whether it's Franklin or Einstein or Louie Armstrong or Steve Jobs, they're all, actually, innovators, And in some degree, kind of scientists in their domain. - Absolutely, I mean different biographers or writers are interested in different things. Some people like crime stories. Some like war heroes. You know, writing about Eisenhower, D-Day. Some like sports heroes, some like... You know literary biographies. They want to write, you know, the biography we've all been waiting for for Joyce Carol Oates or something. I like people who are imaginative and not just smart, because you know you're in this room. Smart people are a dime a dozen. What really matters is being imaginative, being able to thing different, to use Steve Sperling's... And, so I sort of say, "What makes..." You know, Ben Franklin wasn't the smartest of the founders. I think Jefferson, Madison, you've got a lot of really sharp cookies in that box. But Franklin had a certain ability to think more imaginatively, to be more creative. What makes for creativity? And I don't know that I said out, I like to think okay, when people ask me, if they're not a friend, and I'm... You know, I'm being more honest with you. Normally I always say, "Yeah, I try to write about "creativity, what happens, how people think differently." Actually, I wrote about Kissinger, which believe it or not, was a very creative thinker and the balance of power he did with Russia and China, during our extrication from Vietnam. And then obviously, Franklin, Einstein... But it wasn't like I started out saying, "Let me make a list of people "who have thought imaginatively." It was only two or three books into it that I said, "That's sort of the theme that I keep exploring." - And what do you think it is, I mean, you mentioned this. It's not necessarily the raw mental horsepower that's doing it. I mean, do you think it's think it's just this kind of creativity gene, or do you think it's something that they developed and that they cultivated, and they... - Well, the good news is there's not a once sentence answer, which is why you get to write 600 page biographies, instead of saying, "Here's the answer. "You don't need to read the book." However, part of it, I do think, is being able to connect the arts or humanities, having a real feel for beauty, let's say, with technology, engineering, and science. And if you, and I'm sure some of you've actually worked at Apple. I don't know, I assume Tim did not do it today, but in every one of Steve's launches, the last thing on the screen would be that intersection of the streets, the liberal arts and the sciences, I think it was, technology, whatever. And he said, and it's the very first pages of my book. He says, "When I was a kid, I loved the humanities, "but I was also an electronics geek," and then I read something that Edwin Land, who invented Polaroid said, which is, "If you stand at that intersection, "of the arts and the sciences, that's where true value is." That's what Leonardo da Vinci did, that's what... And so I think that's one of the secrets of true creativity. Far too often, and it's why the Khan Academy videos are important to me, and I think are great, and why your whole learning growth thing is important, if you're a humanities person, meaning you studied you know, literature, the arts, maybe history, you get intimidated by science and math. And it's odd, maybe not people you know, but people that I know would even brag, "Oh, I don't know math. "I couldn't tell you an integral from a "differential equation or a transistor from a resistor, "or a gene from a chromosome." They would never brag about saying, "I couldn't tell you "Hamlet from Macbeth" or couldn't, you know. And so it's socially acceptable not to know math and science. And that should not be the case. And that's why I wrote the Einstein book, in particular. Part of our problem, of the C.P. Snow's two culture problem comes from Einstein. It's not his personal fault, but up until then, the Newton mechanical universe was something the average person, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, they all could pretty much understand. You know, the laws of motion, the equal and opposite reactions, balances. You read it in the Constitution, the balances that come in. With Einstein, suddenly, time is relative, and you know, gravity bends light, and the quantum, you know... At the subatomic level and quantum mechanics, you know. We're not, have strict determinate, strict laws... And, whoa, all of a sudden, science becomes something that the average person can't cope with. - But that's part of what you're saying is that, in order for some of these folks to, the kind of culture is in the wrong place right now. It's not favoring more of the creativity and innovation, because there's a lot of very smart people, probably on either side of that Venn diagram who are afraid to go into that intersection. - Yeah, and I'm trying to say if you look at Ben Franklin, the most important scientist of his period. Even though you probably don't... You know, we think of him as a doddering dude playing his kite in the rain. Single fluid theory of electricity that comes from his electricity experiments is up there in that century, you know, with Newton, even. I mean, he's the best experimental scientist of his time. Jefferson would have thought you were a Philistine if you didn't study botany and everything else. Nowadays, people like a Ben Franklin don't do electricity experiments. And even when I was growing up... I'm in a slightly different category. My dad is an electrical engineer. All my uncles were electrical engineers, so I grew up with heathkits and ham radios and soldering irons and figuring out different transistors and making circuits. But many kids in the '60s did that. And there's a problem now, too, that if you're a computer kid growing up today, you're not even allowed to change the battery in your computer, much less, you know, screw with the circuit board. - Kind of, taking that too, this book, which is as we said, it's about the founding of this tech revolution that we're in in Silicon Valley. When you wrote this book, and I'm sure this is something that you've been thinking about, especially with the Steve Jobs book, what do you think is special about either Silicon Valley or the time we're in now that it's allowing it to be what it is? - Yeah, I mean there are multiple layers of this. One is, why does the United States tend to, still, even with the 17th best education system in the world, meaning, we're not the best educated these days, but we still invent more things than get invented in other countries. And secondly, why was there a migration to Silicon Valley in particular, in the 70's? I have a whole chapter, besides writing about people, you also have to write about cultural forces. I mean, history is also cultural forces. It's not just people doing things. And in the late '60s and early 70's, you had a lot of movements out here. One was sort of the hobbyist movement. The other was electronics, because Westinghouse and all the defense industries coming. But also, there were two counterculture movements, the hippie movement with a lot of, you know... Personal empowerment, and, you know... Likewise, the anti-war movement and the free speech movement at Berkley. And they all come together in the Bay area with a lot of great music, the soundtrack by the Grateful Dead. And it's rebellious. It's personally empowering. It's defiant of authority, all of these. And it creates an atmosphere where the computer, which had been thought of as a big Orwellian, George Orwell type thing that governments and the military and big corporations got to have. It's like, no... There's a wonderful... The Homebrew Computer Club had a newsletter. "It's computer power to the people," was the mantra. And that played off the "power to the people" mantra of the 60's and 70's in this area. So, you had that cultural stew, that milieu. I remember talking to Tim Berners-Lee, obviously the guy who creates the web protocols, and he said, "I'm the exact same age as Steve Jobs "and Bill Gates," born in 1955, my generation. He said, "I was doing the same thing they were. "Every time a new electronic component would come along, "like a new transistor, that was really cool, and then "I figured out, okay, microchips come along. "I can make more things... "Home microprocessors, so I went down to Oxford, "and I was there, same age as Woz "and Steve and all. "And I created my home computer, the way they did. "A circuit board," and he said, "And then I got to Oxford here, and what was "I supposed to do with it?" There was no (mumbles), there was no guy driving up like Don Valentine to Steve Jobs' family garage, and saying, "I'll fund you, make this into a company". And so he said, "We didn't have that entrepreneurial stew "and that rebellious spirit in England "that you had in the Valley." - And where do you think we are now? What do you think, do you think the Valley, do you think this is, what's the next 30 years going to look like? Do you think it's only gaining more momentum? It's definitely changed. - No, and I don't wanna, I mean... You may not all definitely want to hear it, because I love the Valley, but I think when you... The next phase, as I said, is the connection of the creativity industries with technology. And it's not as much as an engineer-driven game as a creativity-driven game, whether you're in fashion or journalism or playwrighting or RPGs and LARPs, whatever it is that makes you creative. The tying in of creativity to technology is the creation of the new wine for the engineered bottles that we now have. And that's why I think you're seeing San Francisco property values... I just came late last night from San Francisco. And I was even at the Pier 48 area, where you just stand outside and watch condos rise, and you know people have bidding wars for them. And so I think, that's something you and have talked about, Mountain View, Palo Alto, whatever, how are you going to have a more culturally rich life, for creative people who want to do things like go to talks, go to plays, go to music, go to whatever. There is some of that here, but not as much as in San Francisco, so you want to build up the magnet of creativity and diversity. You and I know, growing up in New Orleans, if you have blacks and Creoles and Vietnamese and Spanish, and people coming back from the Spanish-American War, and the sanctified church, and you know, Italians and everything else, all in the neighborhood, then you're going to get a stew that produces jazz. So, I think one of the things for the next few years would be, how do you have the diversity and the creativity everywhere? Why is Austin doing well? And I think that's a challenge for Mountain View and Palo Alto, and it's a challenge that's easily met. And I guess the second big trend is some of the technology that's coming up will be biotech, not infotech, and that's harder to do in garages. I mean, that's wetware, not software. And you kind of need the big hospital systems and other things, which is why your old haunts of MIT and Harvard may get a second bite of the apple, no pun intended. - Yeah. Kind of just to put everything together, as you know we're going this whole campaign around, you know, you can learn anything mindset. Given all your experience and the people who you have known, interviewed, studied, what would you tell to a young person who may be a person who considers themselves good at writing, but is fearful of math? Or someone who considers themselves good at math and is fearful of writing? What advice would you have for them? - Well, since I'm not a preacher, I'm a storyteller, I'll tell a story, which is that Einstein was no Einstein when he was a kid. He was slow in learning how to talk. You know, so slow they consulted a doctor. And the family maid called him "der Depperte", the dopey one, in the family. And so it takes him awhile. He doesn't... He's not able to do things in a verbal way as easily, so he thinks in pictures, what he calls "thought experiments. Like what would happen if lightning struck both ends of a moving train? Would you see it the same if you were on the train or on the platform? All of his great breakthroughs are done through visual thought experiments. So, you begin by thinking, if Einstein was no Einstein when he was a kid, I can be anything if I want to learn. Also it's why I like journalism and why I like doing what I do, which is everyday I could learn something different. I could be in Eastern Europe and try to figure out why communism was falling, and then I could go to CERN and figure out what they were going to do with the Higgs boson particle if they found it. I had to learn these things. And for me, once I got successful enough as a biographer, that's when I bit off things like Einstein. Partly because I wanted to tell people, "Hey, you should learn," and that you shouldn't be intimidated by science. But partly I wanted to tell myself, which is, can I understand general relativity? I first got turned on to Khan Academy when I had to learn tensor calculus, which is not so much in the book, but I had to understand the tensor calculus that Einstein used to show the curvature of the universe, or the fabric of space and time. And I realized that I've got to get all my calculus dusted off, and I started going to Khan Academy and saying, "Okay, let me boom, boom, boom." And also, this was a cool thing, which is, you're never too old to learn. I can now learn... not enough of general relativity that I'm going to be able to debate Brian Greene on string theory, but enough that I can talk to him about it and learn from him. - And I guess just one last question, what advice do you have for us? You're familiar with the organization, Khan Academy, and kind of some of our aspirations, but you have a historian's mind, so what advice would you have for us if we really do want to, over the next 50 or 100 years, become something that can empower billions of folks? - You know, I'm going to blow smoke for a moment. Which is, I actually think what you're doing is so good, which is why I've been a fan, which is why I felt lucky to get to know you. I watch other people trying to do things, pouring old wine into new bottles, Michael Sandel making... which is now a good course bit it took awhile. I think what you're doing really is defining it very well. How learning can work. I've tried to do one additional angle in our work with you, which is my belief that people can learn alone by doing these videos and it's good because they can learn at their own pace, but there's something that's probably the oldest philosophy around, which is Aristotle's. Which is, man is a social animal. That, in the end, people kind of like getting together. That it's a collaborative, personal, group process of learning and exchanging ideas. So I've pushed a little bit, and we've been trying to do it at the Apsen Institute, is to combine the online learning with a place-based convening, which is, if you get through this course, and you do this essay, and you pass it, and you... Not only do you get a badge and something signed by Sal and everything else, but you can apply for scholarships, because we'll raise the money, and you can come to, say we do something as we're doing now on privacy and the constitution with Sandra Day O'Connor and Justice Roberts and a few other people, say, "Okay, you take that course, and if you do well, "apply for one of these things, and we'll pick 100 scholars "from around the country who finish the course", and you get to go to Philadelphia and sit down with Sandra Day O'Connor, have a weekend. You come to Washington and you get to hang out at the Supreme Court, and get to meet the other people who did the course with you. So, I think combining virtual learning with place-based learning, which is obviously something you write about in One Room Schoolhouses, it's obviously things that Rocketship have done. That's next phase of the revolution, is how do you blend it in, because we're never going to be something Aristotle wouldn't recognize. We're never going to be people who like to learn alone. I think it was Franklin who said, I know it was Franklin. What he said was, "He that would try to learn alone "or drink alone, would be like the person who "tries to catch his horse alone." It's something you have to do with other people. This is why I don't get asked to speak at high school graduations that often or college graduations. Almost every one of my characters drops out and runs away. Einstein, you know, hates school, drops out in Germany, runs away to Switzerland. Ben Franklin runs away to Philadelphia. Steve Jobs drops out of Reed. I guess that's all, Franklin... Kissinger doesn't, I mean, that's... The Nazis take over, so that's a different issue. All of them are rebellious, in a way. They all run away from home. And that makes them, in some ways, more open to learning experiences, I think. Or to think out of the box. I mean, one way to answer is, I go back and forth about writing about current figures and writing historical figures. And you know, there's an different set of muscles you need if you're going to interview somebody like a Steve Jobs. The interesting thing about the innovators is it's both historical, you know, people like John von Neumann and Alan Turing, who obviously I never got to meet and do it through archival research. But then people like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, who spend hours and hours allowing me to interview them. So, I try to do the mix there. I think you always have to put someone in historical context, but you also have to judge them by how history turned out. The best example is slavery. In the end, I don't think Jefferson was a great man. In the end, he didn't even free his slaves. And you say, "Well, you have to understand "the historical period. "He was back then, and that's what they did." No, Benjamin Franklin also, at one point, had two household slaves, and it occurs to him how abhorrent that is. And so he becomes the President of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery. So, this is the great debate in history, which is, do you judge people by their period, or do you say, "No, history proved them wrong. "And that's something we judge them by." I'm a little bit in the latter camp. Even a Churchill, who's a great man, but so against the anti-colonial, you know against Ghandi, against everything else. Well, you look at history. He was on the wrong side of that one. So, as great as he was during World War Two, you say, "No, umm...". Even though a lot of people were racist and anti-semitic and pro-colonial and everything else back then, not that he was anti-semitic, but you know, people... You don't just say, "Yeah, I excuse them because "that's the way they were at the time." You say, "No, these people turned out "to be better than these people." Well, two things, I would like to invent the new wine for the new bottle. I would like to invent what I told you about, a collaborative, multimedia, crowd sourced, yet curated, guided, new thing that people would say, "Oh yes, when Gutenberg did the movable type printing press, "pretty soon afterwards lots of things happened." The Reformation would have... But even novels begin to happen. You can have novels if you have a printing press. I want to say, "I was involved in figuring out "what type of new narrative "nonfiction," and it can be fiction, but I'm... I'll probably leave that to somebody else. Just like, if it's fiction, you would say, "Okay, let's take "role playing games and LARPs," and blah blah blah and say, "How are we going to have interactive "storytelling fiction?" I want to do that with nonfiction. And I think that would be cool. I've been somewhat involved over the years, and not truly inventing the future like the real innovators. But I ran a digital media, TimeInc, in the early '90s, and it was right when the web browser was first invented, which is, I think '93 or '94, when Mosaic comes out of University of Illinois. And we said, "Okay, let's create websites," and even we invented some things that probably weren't good, like banner ads and popup ads and ways to pay for things that we do. And I was part of the team that invented some of those things. I'm not going to take blame or credit for it, but at least I was in that mix of people, who said, "We will create websites. "We will take news and journalism "and invent things like Pathfinder." I mean, new brand names that would create ways of doing news and blogs and integrate them. And we had a lot of failures. I mean, one of which is, we were totally advertising dependent, because we were making so much money on ads. So, we didn't become reader dependent, and so we began catering to advertisers. Another is that we took the community that we had created before the Web was invented, the community found on the WELL, or America Online, where people write bulletin boards and chat rooms, and every night they'd be discussing issues. And we relegated those to comments on the bottom of our articles, that were stupid, anonymous, dumb, and nobody read them. So, we went from being a community service to being a publishing service online. And that was a step backwards. I like to think we did some things that were kind of good, though, like create beautiful web pages and designs. We integrated words and multimedia and video and pictures, and that was sort of a new thing. We created those, you know, in Pathfinder, and Hotwire did it better than we did, a lot of the early websites of 1994. So, I would like to say I want one more turn at the wheel on invention. And I have a couple of biographies, just plain old biographies that I'm gonna write, including a historical one about the ultimate guy, Leonardo da Vinci, who combines art and science like nobody else did. - Well done, that's a great note to end on. Well, thank you so much, Walter. Real honor. - My honor. (audience claps)