Heroes Of Innovation

Big article in the NYT previewing a biography of Bell Labs.

Michael Mandel rightly recognizes his own work in the agenda of the author, which is to establish a strong link between these fathers of many of today’s technologies and the alleged absence of such breakthroughs today.

I like stories of heroes building THINGS like real men do. You know, in factories and stuff. But in the rush to mood affiliation, nobody seems to want to confront two critical counter-factuals:

1. If Bell Labs hadn’t existed, would none of these technologies have existed today?
2. If Bell Labs still existed, would we have any different technologies today/tomorrow?

I hope that this book tries to delve into the scientific context of these researchers’ work. I’m reminded of a line about Einstein that went something like this: “most of his breakthroughs would have been discovered a few months or years after him by someone else: the world was ready for it. General relativity was different. We’d probably still be scratching our heads if he never came along.”

It’s a counterfactual, so who knows if that could be true. Regardless, I’d say it takes a serious shove to put these Bell Labs guys up on that pedestal.

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