[Marxism] Bell Labs

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Mar 20 11:06:45 MDT 2012

Kotz argues that the Soviet economy was closing the gap with the 
west through the 70s until it went into a slump around 1975. That 
year the Soviet economy was rated at 50% of the west's from the 
standpoint of productivity. This slump was possible to overcome 
within the parameters of socialism, but the ruling bodies had 
already begun considering dumping the system for capitalism.

The most interesting points were made around the question of 
innovation. Kotz makes a convincing case that competition such as 
the kind that exists in the Adam Smith model is HOSTILE to 
technical innovation. Capitalist firms would under-invest normally 
because their competitors can easily mimic the new improvements 
without undergoing the same expenditures. In reality, monopolistic 
firms are generally the ones that promote R&D, especially those 
that receive tax subsidies or have ties to the military. Bell Labs 
was a major innovator for many decades, but as soon as the phone 
companies were broken up, Bell Labs switched to market research 
from pure science or engineering. The implication for socialists 
is clear. Socialism, rather than capitalism, is potentially a 
source of rapid modernization and progress rather than capitalism. 
Kotz mentioned that the most extensive development of these ideas 
is contained in Pat Devine's articles and books.

full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/economics/markets.htm


NY Times March 19, 2012
What Hath Bell Labs Wrought? The Future

Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
By Jon Gertner
422 pages. The Penguin Press. $29.95

In today’s world of Apple, Google and Facebook, the name may not 
ring any bells for most readers, but for decades — from the 1920s 
through the 1980s — Bell Labs, the research and development wing 
of AT&T, was the most innovative scientific organization in the 
world. As Jon Gertner argues in his riveting new book, “The Idea 
Factory,” it was where the future was invented.

Indeed, Bell Labs was behind many of the innovations that have 
come to define modern life, including the transistor (the building 
block of all digital products), the laser, the silicon solar cell 
and the computer operating system called Unix (which would serve 
as the basis for a host of other computer languages). Bell Labs 
developed the first communications satellites, the first cellular 
telephone systems and the first fiber-optic cable systems.

The Bell Labs scientist Claude Elwood Shannon effectively founded 
the field of information theory, which would revolutionize 
thinking about communications; other Bell Labs researchers helped 
push the boundaries of physics, chemistry and mathematics, while 
defining new industrial processes like quality control.

In “The Idea Factory,” Mr. Gertner — an editor at Fast Company 
magazine and a writer for The New York Times Magazine — not only 
gives us spirited portraits of the scientists behind Bell Labs’ 
phenomenal success, but he also looks at the reasons that research 
organization became such a fount of innovation, laying the 
groundwork for the networked world we now live in.

It’s clear from this volume that the visionary leadership of the 
researcher turned executive Mervin Kelly played a large role in 
Bell Labs’ sense of mission and its ability to institutionalize 
the process of innovation so effectively. Kelly believed that an 
“institute of creative technology” needed a critical mass of 
talented scientists — whom he housed in a single building, where 
physicists, chemists, mathematicians and engineers were encouraged 
to exchange ideas — and he gave his researchers the time to pursue 
their own investigations “sometimes without concrete goals, for 
years on end.”

That freedom, of course, was predicated on the steady stream of 
revenue provided (in the years before the AT&T monopoly was broken 
up in the early 1980s) by the monthly bills paid by telephone 
subscribers, which allowed Bell Labs to function “much like a 
national laboratory.” Unlike, say, many Silicon Valley companies 
today, which need to keep an eye on quarterly reports, Bell Labs 
in its heyday could patiently search out what Mr. Gertner calls 
“new and fundamental ideas,” while using its immense engineering 
staff to “develop and perfect those ideas” — creating new 
products, then making them cheaper, more efficient and more durable.

Given the evolution of the digital world we inhabit today, Kelly’s 
prescience is stunning in retrospect. “He had predicted grand 
vistas for the postwar electronics industry even before the 
transistor,” Mr. Gertner writes. “He had also insisted that basic 
scientific research could translate into astounding computer and 
military applications, as well as miracles within the 
communications systems — ‘a telephone system of the future,’ as he 
had said in 1951, ‘much more like the biological systems of man’s 
brain and nervous system.’ ”

Mr. Gertner’s portraits of Kelly and the cadre of talented 
scientists who worked at Bell Labs are animated by a journalistic 
ability to make their discoveries and inventions utterly 
comprehensible — indeed, thrilling — to the lay reader. And they 
showcase, too, his novelistic sense of character and intuitive 
understanding of the odd ways in which clashing or compatible 
personalities can combine to foster intensely creative collaborations.

Mr. Gertner deftly puts these scientists’ work in the context of 
what was known at the time (and what would rapidly evolve from 
their initial discoveries in the decades since), even as he 
describes in remarkably lucid terms the steps by which one 
discovery led — sometimes by serendipity, sometimes by dogged work 
— to another, as well as the process by which ideas were turned by 
imaginative engineers into inventions and eventually into products 
that could be mass-produced.

Most notably, there’s the team that would win a Nobel Prize for 
its work on semiconductors and the transistor: the brilliant, 
aggressive physicist William Shockley (later to become infamous 
for his unscientific views on race), who “enjoyed finding a 
hanging thread so he could unravel a problem with a swift, magical 
pull”; the soft-spoken John Bardeen, who “was content to yank away 
steadfastly, tirelessly, pulling on various corners of a problem 
until the whole thing ripped open”; and Walter Brattain, “a 
skeptical and talkative experimentalist” who played extrovert to 
Bardeen’s introvert.

Restlessness and curiosity were traits shared by many of Bell 
Labs’ most creative staff members. Mr. Gertner describes John 
Robinson Pierce, father of the communications satellite, as an 
“instigator” who “had too many interests (airplanes, electronics, 
acoustics, telephony, psychology, philosophy, computers, music, 
language, writing, art) to focus on any single pursuit” but 
possessed a knack for pushing others to do their best work.

As for Shannon, the mathematician and engineer whose information 
theory laid the groundwork for telecommunications and the computer 
industry, he burned off excess energy by riding his unicycle up 
and down the long hallways of Bell Labs (sometimes juggling as he 
rode) and building whimsical machines like a primitive chess 
computer and an electronic mouse that could learn to navigate a 
maze, demonstrating the ability of a machine to remember.

Many Bell Labs scientists, including Brattain, Kelly and the Nobel 
Prize-winning physicist Charles H. Townes, who helped develop the 
principles of the laser, grew up on farms or in small towns, which 
Dr. Townes argued were the perfect “training grounds for 
experimental physics.” Such childhoods, he contended, taught a 
person how to “pay attention to the natural world, to work with 
machinery and to know how to solve practical problems and fix 
things innovatively, with what is on hand.”

Mr. Gertner nimbly captures the collegial atmosphere of Bell Labs 
and the mood of intellectual ferment — a blending of 
entrepreneurial zeal, academic inquiry and passion to achieve 
things that initially seemed technologically impossible — that 
suffused its New Jersey campuses.

The very success of Bell Labs, he notes, contained the seeds of 
its destruction. Not only was it producing too many ideas for a 
single company to handle, but some of its innovations (like the 
transistor) also altered the technological landscape so much that 
its core business would be reduced to a mere part of the 
ever-expanding field of information and electronic technology — a 
field increasingly dominated by new rivals, with which a 
post-monopoly AT&T had difficulty competing.

In addition, as a Bell Labs researcher named Andrew Odlyzko 
observed, the new business environment meant that “unfettered 
research” was no longer a logical or necessary investment for a 
company, which, in Mr. Gertner’s words, “could profit merely by 
pursuing an incremental strategy rather than a game-changing 
discovery or invention.”

AT&T’s original mission — to create and maintain a system of 
modern communications — has largely been fulfilled. And according 
to Mr. Gertner, the current Bell Labs president, Jeong Kim, 
believes that the future of communications may be defined by an 
industry yet to be created: a business that does not simply 
deliver or search out information, but also somehow manages and 
organizes the vast flood of data that threatens to overwhelm our 

The larger idea, Mr. Gertner concludes, is that “electronic 
communication is a miraculous development but it is also, in 
excess, a dehumanizing force. It proves Kelly’s belief that even 
as new technology solves one problem, it creates others.”

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