Is the Internet the new Bell Labs?

Written by: C. Titus Brown

Primary Source: Living in an Ivory Basement

I just finished reading The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, by Jon Gertner, an absolutely fabulous book on Bell Labs, and their invention of the transistor, the laser, and almost everything to do with modern telecommunications and computers ;).

The final chapter is about the future of research, and this passage in particular caught my eye:

[Kelly’s] larger view of innovation [ … ] was that a great institution with the capacity for both research and development — a place where a “critical mass” of scientists could exchange all kinds of information and consult with one another for explanations — was the most fruitful way to organize what he called “creative technology.”

Later on in the paragraph, Gertner continues:

“It’s the interaction between fundamental science and applied science, and the interface between many disciplines, that creates new ideas,” explains Herwig Kogelnik, the laser scientist. This may indeed have been Kelly’s greatest insight.

Now, I know I’m a bit of an idealist, but to me this sounds like the way I and other scientists are using the Internet. I post ideas, they post ideas, and we interact on those ideas. I think things like arXiv and blogs like Haldane’s Sieve are moving it in the right direction: free exchange of often rather deep scientific ideas.

Just to follow up this idea, as well as pimp it to those darned Open Access fanatics… it seems to me that further developing this kind of free exchange of ideas is what we should be striving for as science moves forward. Not a new thought, but it does require that we be prepared to engage with what other people post — something I’m trying to do more — and develop good sites like Haldane’s Sieve where we can build fluid communities around our own little research focus of the moment.

I’m sure others have written much better things than me about this. I’d be interested in pointers… comment or drop me an e-mail!


p.s. This book, and another book, The Emperor of all Maladies, are two of my must-read recommendations on science and technology. Along with anything written by Atul Gawande.

p.p.s. It is eternally frustrating that we know how to make this stuff work, or at least have Bell Labs as a model, and yet we end up with siloed “departments” of researchers at universities. It’s almost the antithesis of the way Bell Labs was run. Argggggh.

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C. Titus Brown
C. Titus Brown is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. He earned his PhD ('06) in developmental molecular biology from the California Institute of Technology. Brown is director of the laboratory for Genomics, Evolution, and Development (GED) at Michigan State University. He is a member of the Python Software Foundation and an active contributor to the open source software community. His research interests include computational biology, bioinformatics, open source software development, and software engineering.