Stuck in Commercialization
And Building Replacement Institutions for the 21st Century
October 7, 2023
If the founding of Bell Labs in 1925 marks the start of a period of research, and Apollo 11 landing on the moon in 1969 marks the start of a period of development, then the release of Apple II in 1977 marks the peak of Silicon Valley, and the transition to a period of pure commercialization. If it is not to close out as a century defined by globalized rent-seeking, the 21st century is in dire need of healthy research institutions, as technological progress is not just about inventing things, but also about inventing ways of inventing things.
Google has famously gone above and beyond to copy the Bell Labs model. With its great cash reserves, it has built sprawling campuses and informal office environments aimed at fostering creativity. And they pay high multiples of the market rate for ostensibly the brightest minds. Google even has the 20% rule which encourages employees to spend 20% of their time on side projects not directly related to their main tasks to inspire exploration. The 20% rule was directly inspired by Bell Labs and has led to some of Google's successful products like Gmail and Google News. But as American mathematician Charles Peirce feared, "I am afraid there will be little tangible left in a later age, to remind our heirs that we were men, rather than cogs in a machine."1 Like an overweight runner with the latest gadgets and high-end shoes, Big Tech has managed to copy Bell Labs in all the ways that do not matter.
Whilst certainly smart, the Google engineer is not a pirate. Bell Labs engineer Claude Shannon built mechanical maze-solving mice in his spare time, the Google engineer reads "The Lean Startup" and practices Leetcode. The Google engineer views work, not as honorable, but as a continuation of school, a series of tasks to be done – a line item on the resume. Pirates are not bought with a nice boat – they pledge their allegiance to whoever is going out on a great adventure with the slight possibility of loot and glory. Google has loot, but glory it cannot offer.
Another tempting contemporary Bell Labs analog may be OpenAI. OpenAI is not yet as tracked as the rest of Big Tech, but ChatGPT is a closed project of narrow scope. The transistor was a multidisciplinary achievement involving solid-state physics, material science, electrical engineering, chemistry, mechanical engineering, and mathematics. ChatGPT was built using all but one of those disciplines. This is not a competition in what project can invoke the highest number of disciplines. Nor am I questioning the utility of a product like ChatGPT – I am using it to write this very article. And OpenAI might one day create "safe AGI," but the company is not yet as exploding and cross-disciplined of an institution as Bell Labs was.
So where does one go to learn all these disciplines? Out of all of the STEM fields, computer science, a subfield of mathematics, is arguably the easiest to self-study, which in part explains why software has become such a popular resort for the institutionless and benefited from an explosion in creativity thus. The colleges will deny the effectiveness of self-study no matter the field; that knowledge acquired in one's chamber is somehow inferior to knowledge acquired in a classroom setting. The reactionary view becomes that there is no value whatsoever to communal learning. But as with most extremist positions, they are a tell that both parties are overcompensating. If MOOCs were a sufficient substitute, the dropout would not feel the need to constantly assert it (but as a culture, we are still over-indexed on college, so I will not countersignal the dropout anymore). Likewise, if our institutions had been working, they would not have been so occupied with trying to deny lone genius theory, or a priori discount the ideas from those who try their luck outside – it would have been a non-issue. But because the colleges are not delivering, they need to excommunicate critics and belittle the alternatives.
But what are the alternatives? The most recent Bell-like institution is Apple. Apple was founded in 1976, and in its first 20 years, it completely defined a new era of personal computing and technology business. This would not have happened without Steve Jobs' vision. When Bell Labs was first developing the mobile phone, their marketing study in 1971 concluded that "there was no market for mobile phones at any price." Engel, the head of cellular system design at Bell, discounted the study and later came to believe that marketing studies could only tell you something about the demand for products that already exist.2 Steve Jobs had a similar view that people do not know what they want until you show it to them.
Lastly, consider the metainstitution Y Combinator. YC is a San Francisco-based startup accelerator that has produced some of the highest market capitalizations of the 21st century, including Airbnb, Dropbox, and Stripe. Again we can pose the question of whether these services have pushed civilization to the same degree as the transistor. YC claims to have been successfully able to formalize 30% of technology business, which reveals the institution's philosophical flaw: the YC adherent will outsource thinking to the crowd whenever possible – because fundamentally, he does not believe his brain. "Make something people want" is great business advice, but had Jobs and Wozniak followed it, they likely would have ended up as a computer parts retailer. But in the end, even Apple was a project of commercialization. Apple did not make scientific breakthroughs, but rather took previous ideas and made them accessible to the masses. And this commercialization has only accelerated in the recent decade. Apple had a telos, but the modern west-coast entrepreneur will conduct a random walk until all old ideas are exhausted by incrementalist companies, which in turn drives academic overspecialization. This leaves us with all but one contemporary institution: the Internet.
Heeding the Instinctive Call
The problem with the internet is that it does not offer the same adventure as crossing the Atlantic for the first time or racing against the Soviets to the atomic bomb. In contrast to Bell Labs, the internet is not teleological. The facilitation of an unrestricted flow of information is not rooted in a deep need like survival, or virtue like honor. This meaninglessness recently reflects itself in culture with the "Literally Me" meme.
The "Literally Me" meme portrays an archetype embodied by fictional characters such as Rust Cohle in True Detective, William Foster in Falling Down, and Tyler Durden in Fight Club. These characters are often nihilists whilst still being portrayed as being "right" in some sense. The archetype's name derives from the fact that so many viewers indeed feel like it is "literally" them. And it is certainly not your grandparents, but frustrated 20-plus guys, who feel a sense of absurdity and disappointment for the status quo. Young men used to be able to exercise their adventurous spirit in war or by sailing the seas, or satiate their intellectual hunger in academia. But now all the seas are explored, the wars are fake, and a degree is more degrading than it is intellectually stimulating. The "Literally Me" phenomenon represents the frustration of having these natural instincts denied.
But we cannot escape into the cloud, for the simple reason that humans are embodied. Contrary to what many propagated during the remote boom of 2021, ideation is stunted in virtual space, as humans need to interact in physical space to feel alive and use their fullest potential. And while it is true that the logic of violence has changed and that today's wars are informational – and fighting in them can be a noble pursuit – TikTok is too abstract an enemy to be a comparable motivator to the USSR. So the internet is incomplete.
The network state solves the internet's denial of nature. The network state, originally conceptualized by the author James Dale Davidson, and recently popularized by the technology entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan, is about instantiating value-driven internet communities in physical space with the ultimate goal of diplomatic recognition. But for the network state to become the replacement institution of the 21st century, its raison d'être must not be political, but to enable the return to human nature – heeding the instinctive call to adventure.
Honor is the reason Bell Labs feels instinctively anachronistic. The surface-level reasons are the formal dress code and the frequent cigarette breaks – both overlooked practices that contribute to a culture of seriousness and socialization. But the more vicious explanation is that the virtue of honor is forgotten. Bell Labs presented the opportunity to be within walking distance of "the guy who wrote the book" on circuits, information theory, or electromagnetism (and encouraged by management to never hesitate to bother them for help). Today, "the guy who wrote the book" is in the nursing home. And unlike the modern west-coast engineer, the Bell engineer was not given stock options, but the opportunity to carry the torch of Western civilization.
The internet has been a powerful globalizing force, but it has not unequivocally improved the quality of ideas. If anything, increased screen time has narrowed our view of technology. Akin to how college students can only come up with business ideas for college students, a life lived through apps can only think of such. Bell Lab's headquarters office was known for its long hallways, designed to encourage serendipitous interactions among researchers who would otherwise never meet: As Jon Gertner observed, "Physical proximity [to the guy who wrote the book] was everything. People had to be near one another. Phone calls alone wouldn't do."3 Technology business is converging towards the same level of sophistication as a laundromat and the way out is with physical research institutions.
The turn-around scientists of the 21st century will be dropouts and excommunicados, driven by virtue, and gathered in meatspace. The current paradigms, in science and technology, have become too dogmatic, and paradigm shifts require individuals who are green enough to have not been indoctrinated into it, but who are also not driven by novelty alone. The states which realize this will eventually surpass legacy nations' GDPs through the power of new ideas. With the right population and constitution, a network state could enable research timelines unheard of in for-profit funding, and motivation akin to physical war.
Technology is the weapon at hand. No matter the conspiratorial programs – whose existence should not be ruled out in principle – there is always wiggle room for individual action. And with the network state as the replacement institution, technology is once again about to display its inherently disruptive and political nature. “There is no need to fear or to hope, but only to look for new weapons.”4
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory (Penguin Books, 2012), 360.
Gertner, The Idea Factory, 289.
Gertner, The Idea Factory, 151.
Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control (1992), 3.