peteg's blog

Jon Gertner: The Idea Factory

/noise/books | Link

The subject of not one but two reviews at the New York Times, this is putatively a rational reconstruction of Bell Labs' successful pipeline that took basic research into the massive telecommunications network we have these days. We get a potted history featuring the major players and the major early discoveries and developments (the transistor, information theory, masers, ...), with a special focus on foibles and colour. Unfortunately the author, being a business journalist, is not too savvy about the technical details ("the Unix programming language"), and the book doesn't meet the potential of its topic.

The emphasis on colour robs the book of some relevance; the most risible example is eclipsing William Shockley's early technical successes with his poor abilities as a manager and his later fixation with the genetic determinants of intelligence. What deserved far more attention was how anyone managed to get him to cooperate in the first place. The book also rushes the main narrative thread, which could have situated the prevailing attitudes about AT&T against the economic and social conditions of the day. Why did the U.S. Department of Justice under Nixon (1974) decide it was time to split the company up? I would have thought that Bell was still contributing to the Cold War, and greed-is-good was so 1980s.

These days it seems clear that Bell's original goal of universal connectivity has more-or-less been achieved and delta improvements in engineering will take care of what's left to do. I guess we see the results of monopoly busting in the slipping quality of U.S. internet (at least according to some metrics) and the slow roll out of the internet in Australia. (Then again, I don't know if Australian Telecom / Telstra ever engaged in much research beyond the adaptation of technology developed overseas.)

Most frustrating to me was that computer technology doesn't receive much discussion; I wonder why AT&T's post-breakup computer ventures did not succeed. Anyone with an interest in the area knows of the complete mess that UNIX was in the late 1980s, and the legal wrangling that continues to the present year, which is at least somewhat due to the breakup of AT&T. The book takes an overly narrow focus on the modern tech giants (Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook), ignoring IBM (one of the few with a sizable research division engaging in basic research, and a historic competitor of Bell Labs), and only mentioning one other industry (medicine, and not pharmaceuticals). The materials companies like Dow, 3M or Corning that were pivotal in scaling up some of the research are missing too.

I would have preferred a proper, more thorough, history of Bell Labs, and a more rounded discussion of the role of such industrial research labs. Why doesn't the U.S. government get up on its hind legs and explain its role in innovation to the people? How can the market be kept at bay while long-term research is undertaken? How are these organisations to reconcile allowing researchers to follow their curiosity with the companies' long-term commercial development needs, as Bell Labs did so successfully?