And so an unbroken line leads from the invention of the telephone, the vacuum tube and the transistor, the awarding of 30,000 patents and six Nobel prizes, to a regional phone company serving Texas and parts of the Southwest. Huh?
That’s right folks the local telephone company of Texas–whose services I only subscribe to out of utter paranoia about having hard-wired 911 service due to owning a swimming pool–SBC, has acquired its own progenitor, AT+T.
It’s interesting and a little sad, I think, that because nearly everyone we encounter these days “works in computers,” the truly astounding science done by a place like Bell Laboratories is trivialized. I mean when everyone has a PC (or three) and a web-enabled cell phone, what’s the big deal about inventing the transistor? The interesting thing is that viewed with a long enough lens, the AT+T monopoly actually looks like a socialist enterprise (in fact, some of AT+T’s patents were voluntarily socialized consequent with the antitrust process). Because in today’s hyper-competitive corporate climate, that’s almost what it takes to roll a relatively large percentage of your profits back into basic research. And you know it’s basic when it’s winning Nobel prizes. A portion of your long distance dollar used to go directly into investigating particle physics and cosmology! You don’t see Microsoft and Nokia doing that.
There’s a real temptation in our technology-driven culture to think that everything “basic” has already been done. This is because the focus today is on productizing existing inventions. It’s much easier (and more profitable) to make a cool new cell phone with twice as many features as last year’s than it is to come up with a breakthrough in direct solar-electric energy technology. Of course “unintended benefits” has always been the argument for basic (and not-so-basic, look at the original space program) research. But with the government continuously cutting back on this kind of program, and private enterprise engaged in a do-or-die battle with global competition, this kind of long-term, low-expectation R+D falls by the wayside.
Today we have entire industries that can’t agree on standards and sometimes actively conspire to destroy a significant new technology or application (hence the demise of Beta, BlueRay, and other technologies). At first glance open source looks like a possible bright spot in all of this, but consider that open source is very application-oriented–it’s not really performing the functions of basic, undirected R+D, but instead is more of a self-organizing outsourcing of the production of technology based on existing science. This is not to say that no one is doing true science. But few institutions are doing it on the scale that Bell Labs could.