Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bell Labs and the question of economic motivation

This NY Times essay on the history of Bell Labs, and its president Mervin Kelly, is a fascinating read. It confirms my understanding of the innovative nature of the entity, which was essentially protected by a government regulated monopoly.

The question the author of the article (and forthcoming book) does not quite address in the essay is the question of economic motivation. The assumption in American culture today is that we should pay the executives of technology companies hundreds of millions of dollars or there will not be innovation in pharmaceutical products, technological products and the like.

Yet, people in lab coats tend to do most of the innovation, and those people are generally employees who make middle class to the lower end of upper class wages--yes, mostly wages. Mervin Kelly, the 1950s era president of Bell Labs, who died in 1971, would probably be bewildered to hear that Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates or the now late Steve Jobs are somehow worth a few billion dollars each.

And yet, the assumption persists--deeply embedded in our culture--that we must allow for this economic state of affairs because these "innovators" need monetary incentive. Somehow if they made only 1,000th of the money they had, they would not have done what they did to pursue their businesses? To start to think about this in any sociological or anthropological manner, with any sense of practicality about the multiple motivations of human beings is to realize the silliness of the assumption about monetary incentives.

I bet the author of the article knows what I am saying. However, he also knows that what I'm saying is a dangerous insight for anyone who expects to be well received by corporate media executives and management who make decisions about what to cover and what not to cover as a news story. So, we remain propagandized as a people as corporate executive power steamrolls us into serfdom.

Ah, at least I am of the vassal class in our New Feudalism as opposed to a mere serf....

ADDENDUM: Another NY Times article, this time from the NY Times Magazine, this morning about how people will give up money for the multiple lures of power, prestige, sex with beautiful actresses/actors and the like, and yes, future money to ascend the ranks of film studio and production companies. Again, limit the money to that of say 5 times what a school teacher makes, and the people will still do what this article is talking about. And that's because power, prestige and sex are really, really significant societal lures.

And if we recognized that, maybe we'd have enough money to fund education and jobs programs elsewhere. Maybe if we recognized that, and stopped funding stupid imperial wars, and rationally allocated health insurance for all, we'd balance our government budgets as well.

I think that is what is most frustrating as we watch another presidential election season of endless horse race talk, endless talk about cultural issues and the underlying assumptions that the current economic situation is simply something we have to accept when we really don't have to accept it at all.


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