08 May 2020

The Month in Which the Modern Information Age Was Born

In December of 1947, Bell Labs researchers laid the foundation for the world that so defines us today.
Doug Ring and Rae Young wrote a memo "Mobile Telephony: Wide Area Coverage," in which they laid out the idea of a honeycomb of hexagons and repeating frequencies within cells, a system that would eventually be called cellular phones.
John Bardeen and Walter Brattain - working under the management of William Shockley - were perfecting the transistor that became the foundation for computer chips.
Claude Shannon coined the term "bit" as he defined a new field that would be known as information theory. (No one had previously thought of a unit of measurement for something as abstract as information.)
All within one month.
Why mention this?
World War 2 ended in 1945. A tremendous amount of money, problem-solving and research went into this problem of how to save democracy. WWII was a tragedy but it triggered a tsunami of problem-solving and breakthroughs. More importantly, it was a catalyst for new ideas and exposed everyone to new situations. It wasn't just that a lot of knowledge came out of this. It set in place processes, practices and new technologies that continued to generate new knowledge. As all that potential shifted from war to peacetime, it created new possibilities. About two years after the world war was over, its momentum helped to lay the foundation for the smart phone you're holding in your hand right now, a supercomputer in your palm linked to endless libraries of information.
Our response to COVID-19 could be very similar, a catalyst for ideas that will create new worlds. Some good will come out of these odd times.

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