The Idea Factory by John Gertner

In John Gertner’s wonderful The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, he mentions a comment made by Bill Baker: “…all of human experience can be expressed in binary digital terms”.  As far back as the 1950’s, or so the story goes, there were several scientists, truly brilliant minds, who were working on what we call cell phones. They also worked on and invented many more gadgets that currently shape our world. This book is the story of how all of this happened. The tome is quite fascinating and written at a caffeine injected speed. Many stories or biographies could be written with this book as an original source of inspiration. Gertner tells us that these are the people who invented our present.

But this reader was left with the question: is all of this a good thing? To be sure, all of the technology that we currently live with has certainly made many things in our lives more convenient, but I am not convinced it has made them wholly better. I realize that I am not a young man anymore, and that it could very well be true that I am an old fuddy-duddy. However, it is strange to see groups of people sitting together not conversing but staring at their smartphones. Manners seem to have also disappeared with the ubiquity of these devices. Alas, I am beginning to obscure the lines between observation and judgment.

Read The Idea Factory if you have any nascent interest in science, technology, ingenuity, industry, and people with vision. I left this volume with a little bit of hope. I felt that if people can create and reconstruct reality just out of sheer will and imagination, then surely we can solve the seemingly overwhelming problems of our own time. Maybe people in the future will look back at what we do, the way we look at Bell Laboratories, and become inspired, not discouraged, maybe not.

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