Wil LepkowskiJanuary 31, 2013
The Idea Factoryby Jon Gertner

Penguin Books. 432p $17

Each invention and new research into technological possibilities has its own story, and we can now add to the best of them the latest and probably most compelling one of our time. It is told in the book The Idea Factory, by Jon Gertner, a history of the Bell Telephone Laboratories—or Bell Labs—the epic research center that served the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.

AT&T was founded by Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone more than a century ago. Over time AT&T became a government-sanctioned monopoly, granted to ensure that the newly expanding telephone system—in other words, communications—would be developed in a uniform way, unfettered by disruptive conflicts among competing corporations. It was, in a sense, a public utility whose development had to be federally nurtured for the good of the country.

So what did Bell Labs actually do? Basically, over the years it was busy extending the future. First, it invented the transistor, which led to semiconductors that were composed of, and increasingly packed with, transistors. The tiny transistor was truly a miracle device because it replaced vacuum tubes. Vacuum tubes were hot, heavy, expensive, demanded too much electricity and were too large for the housing needed for the equipment. Transistors generated less heat and were miniscule. Most useful are Gertner’s efforts to give the reader a full reading of the inventors’ personalities, complete with foibles and virtues.

The transmission/voice/switching story serves as the groundwork for the astonishingly inventive era Bell Labs enjoyed for three decades, which will probably never be repeated by one single organization. The story calls upon mathematics, physics, chemistry and the specialty sciences accompanied by brilliance and cooperation.

Consider the communication satellites (the original was called Telstar), the field of radio astronomy, contributions to the development of radar, the invention and original use of digitized computers, the theory and science that made possible the “bit” system of computer language, the laser and basic work in the invention of synthetic rubber during World War II. Add key contributions to the science needed for effective cold war espionage and, highly important, the initial and continuous development of solid state science for the underlying materials that made possible the electronics behind communications. The list is easily extended, but the point is that these and more inventions made possible just about every communication product we see around us today.

The accomplishments of Bell Labs then were the epic phenomenon of the 20th century. A few Bell Labs scientists saw early what the research would accomplish over time. One was John Pierce, the inventor of Telstar and much else. He said that because of the products that Bell Labs produced, “all electronic exchanges—letters, calls, data, television—were likely to merge.” And so, as everyone now knows, they did, and fairly recently, at an almost blinding rate.

The paradox of Bell Labs is that its success led to the diminution of AT&T. Everyone who has carefully observed Bell Labs would add, “Why, of course it would,” since the things produced by Bell Labs simply exceeded the ability of AT&T to use them. The company’s history was in voice communication. It could not easily absorb the immense potential of the laser, fiber optics and the full development and marketing of the cell phone. The merger of these innovations that led to the new era of communications escaped their enthusiasm. Significantly, other companies fought for their own roles and filed suits demanding equal standing with AT&T in the competition for markets. Communications was no longer the industry of a single corporation. It would grow without boundaries and turn out to be fiercely competitive.

Federal litigation against the monopoly function of AT&T led to its breakup, which further led to the diminution of Bell Labs until it became a unit of a company called Alcatel-Lucent that was devoted to competing with other communication companies for the development of communication products. Basic research, except for a few laboratories here and there, essentially disappeared.

The social consequences of the information revolution and its relentless expansion now fill numerous books, including the recent biography of Steve Jobs.

The key questions now are social and moral. Many of them early concerned William O. Baker who headed the Labs a couple of decades before today’s era of communications began.

People spend full days communicating by smartphones, crowding out true, traditional human discourse and producing discourse of other kinds. But sharing information among those with serious intentions to improve the human condition can also depend on these new communication systems. Think of Africa, where so much communication is carried out today by cell phone, and where iPads are increasingly common.

The best solution for satisfying human needs is to recognize the need for communications and the sharing of knowledge, says Steven Johnson, author of Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age. “The world is filled with countless needs for community, creativity, education, personal and environmental health that traditional markets do a poor job of satisfying.”

Michael Saylor, author of The Mobile Wave: How Mobile Intelligence Will Change Everything, says, “Mobile computing will provide a universal computing platform to the majority of humankind and will spur the creation of innumerable new applications that are not possible without a universal networked computer that is carried on one person 24 hours a day. It means the disruption of long-standing behavior.” Saylor adds, “Each revolution creates an upheaval requiring new rules and new cultural dynamics. Information and automation will lead to loss of anonymity. There will always be a trail of who you are, where you are, and what you do. Even as we establish rules to protect the data and limit its use it will still exist. So…it will be a mater of information forensics to dig it up.”

Indeed so. The new problems and challenges are just beginning when the world’s cyber communicators have access to an enlarging family of others. Yes, we will be enabled to apply our mobile communications to new kinds of social good. But mustn’t we also ask what innovative forms of evil might ride the ethers. Might we need a new form of Bell Labs as a new center of research devoted to the ethical implications of all that is unfolding before us?

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