You have lots of stories of golden age R&D orgs where they’re literally just trying out a lot of stuff. “Hey, we came up with this new chemical, what’s it useful for?” In the startup world, that’s often derided as a “solution looking for a problem.” Arguably though, many important technologies started off this way - they weren’t a hole-in one solution to a problem. We don’t seem to have a place for this targeted dicking around to happen anymore for situations that require specialized knowledge and equipment.
It’s important to call attention to the “targeted” part of “targeted dicking around.” Contrary to common perception, Bell Labs and PARC didn’t give researchers free rein to work on whatever they wanted. There were relatively few milestones and researchers had enough slack from management to explore adjacencies. However, people were explicitly asked to work on high level goals that would benefit “The System” of AT&T.
It’s almost impossible to confirm, but my hunch is that researchers who portray themselves as having free rein (Alan Kay comes to mind) are unreliable narrators. My hunch is that they perceive themselves as having free rein because the lab managers were good at hiring people whose interests were sufficiently aligned with the lab’s target that anything they chose to do was within some window. Another alternative is that they gave a few people free rein and the personal accounts are from the wunderkinds. The famed bell labs research was a fraction of their activity
Disciplines where targeted dicking around can happen seem to be more healthy. You still see it a lot in software. It seems like there is a tradeoff between the democratization of a technology and the ability to dick around with it. Corporate R&D labs may have been able to change that equation. Stories about heyday chemical and other company R&D that created physical products - Dupont, 3M involved a lot of just ‘trying stuff out.’ It’s unclear that happens anymore
There’s an implicit assumption that targeted dicking around happens in universities. This may be the case with ideas but it’s less so with technology applications. You can’t really write a paper about how you spent a year modifying your novel technology to 100 specific applications.
Making a general purpose technology requires both generality and specificity. Great results have come from both a mode where people grope towards a general goal and also a mode where they grope towards a specific one. The development of the GUI at Xerox PARC is a good example of the former mode. The PARC folks created general paradigms for computing like overlapping windows and visual representations of files that continue to dominate today by doing the hard work to build a full system, using it themselves, and seeing what worked. Edison’s Lab also did a lot of “trying stuff out” but in contrast to the taste-based cycles at PARC, the inventors at Menlo Park had a concrete application like a long-lasting-lightbulb in mind went through a thousand materials to see if they would fit the bill. This ‘iterating towards a concrete target’ mode of experimentation is much more suitable for startups.
However, the two modes seem like they could be strongly coupled. While you’re trying out a thousand things to do a specific thing, you may realize that the five hundred and twenty first thing is no good for the intended purpose, but might be amazing at another thing. The ability to say ‘huh that’s funny’ is important for discovering new phenomena. However, that realization can easily be tossed out the door without the room to explore that hunch (because usually it’s a hunch.) Startups, academia, and 21st century R&D are rarely set up incentive-wise to enable to run that hunch to ground. You do see this happen with software startups because it is much easier to do targeted dicking around with software. Arguably this could be one reason that we’ve seen less stagnation in software.
In contrast to many modern corporate R&D labs Bell labs asked people to do useful things but left them room to say huh that’s funny. Google Brain feels like it does the same thing. And perhaps that’s why it feels like a much more ‘healthy’ corporate R&D organization. In fact a lot of the pure AI work feels a little bit like this targeted dicking around. Except that they actually don’t take it the one step farther to be an experimental product.
This “targeted dicking around” could be a different way of describing what hanging out in The (idea) valley of death looks like! 🤔 An organization to generate quantum technology leaps and bridge the idea valley of death
Targeted dicking around requires Slack - concept that you don’t have at startups or in academia, and increasingly don’t have in corporate R&D either. R+D orgs are answerable to shareholders both in scope and timescale.