After reading through the Modeled Behavior Twitter stream and playing around with Google’s new Ngram database (and the Google Body Browser), I had an epiphany, which I immediately tweeted:

Here’s an interesting comparison, but I defy you to counter it: Google (Labs) is the modern-day Bell Labs…

For anyone who would like to read an interesting, if not rather rosy view of Bell Labs in the heyday of its operations, check out the book The Rape of Ma Bell, by Constantine Raymond Kraus and Alfred W. Duerig.

Bell Labs was the research and development arm of the AT&T conglomerate. It subsequently became Lucent Technologies, and then was integrated into the Alcatel-Lucent conglomerate. Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia:

At its peak, Bell Laboratories was the premier facility of its type, developing a wide range of revolutionary technologies, including radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, information theory, the UNIX operating system, the C programming language and the C++ programming language. Seven Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed at Bell Laboratories.

The theme of a productive arm of an organization funding wild research has even transcended the physical universe into popular narratives of late. In Avatar, Giovannia Ribisi’s character, in a tussle with Sigourney Weaver’s character, reveals that it is their revenue stream that keeps her research functioning. Similarly, in GI Joe, Christopher Eccleston’s character informs Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character that once they conquer the world, he can perform all the research he wishes.* Not to mention, the famous conspiracy theories surrounding Nikola Tesla involve the same sort of relationship.

Web 2.0 companies are particularly interested in this sort of symbiotic relationship between profit-generating arms, and public goods research. Was AT&T a glimpse into the future? Will we see more of this?


*Forgive me for not remembering the characters’ names!

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