The Idea Factory

Jon Gertner

Sent to me by a colleague, I really enjoyed this read. It follows the story of Bell Labs, a research lab responsible for creating much of the foundation of our modern world (and in some ways actually under-explores this; for example, in computing C and C++ are extremely important languages, both created at Bell Labs, and the book does not discuss these at all). I was intrigued to see how much research went into something that I took completely for granted as a child: a fully-functional telephone network that was available across the entire country. It was also interesting to see a monopoly that was sheltered by the federal government itself, yet not be considered a public utility. The book considers some of the driving forces behind innovation, which I found quite interesting. One thesis seemed to be that there was geographic necessity of co-locating everyone, yet in the post-covid era this assumption seems to be subject to scrutiny. I think the jury is still out on what precisely can be accomplished remotely, but that institutions that recognize the reality of both in-person and remote workers will be more successful. The book also contextualized a certain look of nostalgia in my first full-time supervisor's eyes as he remembered his time at Bell Labs. I find it very thought-provoking to consider how R&D works and what modern R&D might yield for the future. I will say, the last few chapters are pretty serious downers, though.