Case Study: Bell Labs, A Factory for Ideas
The lab imaginary, then, has always been unevenly distributed, with some parts of it lagging behind the times and others oriented toward distant futures. In terms of the latter, consider a very different sort of a lab that was operating during the same period that Hamilton was photographing teleplasms. It’s impossible to think about mid-twentieth-century North American labs and the lab imaginary without mentioning Bell Labs, which institutionalized the media lab form at a national level and set a standard for “big media science” for decades. As Jon Gertner details in The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, traces of its vast and impressive infrastructural legacy are still omnipresent in the US (339). Its influence on the imaginary of today’s hybrid labs also remains strong.
It’s easy to understand on a common-sense level that Bell Labs played a significant role in the development of the imaginary of networked computing. What’s eye-opening is the way that the discourse of creativity was cemented into the lab imaginary at the point of its commercialization. At Bell Labs, Gertner writes, “The men preferred to think they worked not in a laboratory but in what [lab President Mervin] Kelly once called ‘an institute of creative technology.’ . . . They were paid for their imaginative abilities” (3; 149). In line with Galison and Jones’s thesis about both modern laboratory and studio taking the factory as their common model, Gertner takes science fiction writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke’s famous observation that while Bell Labs’ main laboratory looked like a factory, it was “a factory for ideas” as the title for his book indicates.42 Within the walls of Bell’s various buildings, creativity took the form of “basic research.” Much university lab research is “basic” in the sense that it is not instrumental in nature, but that surprises no one. At Bell Labs, basic research was suddenly, startlingly visible against the backdrop of applied research, “which was defined as the kind of investigation done with a specific product or goal in mind” (28–29). Successful applied research led to the development, manufacture, and widespread implementation of new products, which was the mission for the lab. In the sense that Kelly and his successors at Bell defined the term, though, basic research was more than research without any immediately application. It was also a set of specific policy decisions and techniques that were as Romantic as they were effective because they permitted a kind of work that was, on paper, totally outside of the organization’s mandate (28–29).
Gertner situates Kelly’s use of the term “basic research” in reference to lab policies that he formulated around the work behaviors of Kelly’s colleague Clinton J. Davisson (28–29). Gertner writes that Davisson “was allowed” to eschew any sort of service commitment in the form of management work or teamwork. Either on his own or as part of a small informal team, at an “unhurried” pace, he pursued “only projects that aroused his interest” with apparently little regard for the larger mission of the lab to serve the business interests of the phone company (30). Perhaps the most famous beneficiary of this basic research policy was Claude Shannon, the founder of information theory. Gertner notes that, even long after the publication of Shannon’s field-defining work, “[h]e was categorized, still, as a scientist. But it seemed obvious that he had the temperament and sensibility of an artist” (145). Not only was Shannon allowed the rare privilege of working with his office door closed, but, after 1955, he spent much of his time building toys and games and pursuing hobbies like juggling and unicycle-riding (132, 319–325). In interviews, Shannon gave Bell Labs as an institution a significant amount of credit for the formation of his most famous work, but as Gertner notes, in this environment he had almost no incentive to publish in his later years (153, 321).
It’s no coincidence that Shannon’s eccentric period occurs during what we now think of as the “Mad Men” moment in US popular culture. In The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank quotes the following excerpt from one of the various pamphlets and chapbooks by advertising executive Bill Bernbach, the “ideologue of disorder” who was one of the inspirations for Don Draper and company: “Even among the scientists, men who are regarded as worshippers of facts, the real giants have always been poets, men who jumped from facts into the realm of imagination and ideas.”43 This idea of the formerly sober businessman or scientist as a rebellious Romantic poet was eminently saleable. It’s not that Bell Labs was unable to capitalize on Shannon’s later, quirkier activities. Objects like his toy mouse, Theseus, and the accompanying labyrinth that it navigated, paid off in huge amounts of positive press for the lab in a way that information theory itself never produced. Even today, it continues to circulate as an object of public interest, at exhibitions like the Lab Cult show at the Centre for Canadian Architecture in Montreal.
Too often, intellectual history has been structured around the figure of the quirky male inventor, without either accounting for his privilege or allowing for the space to discuss the broader constitution of people and labs.44
Beyond the pressing questions, of race, gender, sex, and class, lab denizens in general have retained the reputation for eccentricity that characterizes stories about the Bell Labs pure research employees, and the activities of many hybrid labs (particularly those that don’t make effective use of the code-switching umbrella we touch on in the introduction and in chapter 4) may remain bemusing to outsiders. But, returning to Gertner’s book, other, more salutary aspects of the Bell Labs imaginary have persisted in how we think about labs today. One such idea is the belief that interdisciplinary teams create better conditions for research than individuals or small specialized teams (33–79). Another has to do with the questions of when and where we expect laboratory research to pay off—as well as for whom, and on what scale. The Bell Labs imaginary had a distinct temporality to it, oriented “not only for the near term but for a future far, far away” (19). Of course, the spirit of “inventing the future” becomes the central line in the MIT Media Lab brand. At a moment when research results and “impact” are gaining greater currency by the day as a measure of intellectual efficacy, it’s good to remember that the interests of the market (even the scholarly market) in immediately tangible results don’t necessarily align with the public interest. From the time of Theodore Vail, Bell Labs’ first president in 1907, not only did Bell Labs imagine its research questions in decades instead of years, but it merged “the idea of technological leadership with a broad civic vision” (20). Perhaps the emerging world of hybrid labs will help to restore our sense of the public good in research culture.