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"Many times a day," wrote Albert Einstein, "I realize how much my outer and
inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow-men, both living and
dead." The genius of an earlier era saw clearly how contemporary knowledge
and technological advance depend to an extraordinary degree on the efforts
of many contributors, not to mention a continuing cultural investment in
science and numerous other areas of human endeavor. In fact, very little of
what we as a society produce today can be said to derive from the work,
risk, and imagination of citizens now living. Achievements from earlier
eras, including fundamental ideas such as literacy, movable type, simple
arithmetic, and algebra, have become so integrated into our daily lives
that we take them for granted. What we accomplish today stands atop a
Gibraltar of technological inheritance. Seemingly contemporary
transformations inevitably build on knowledge accumulated over generations.
For example, Richard DuBoff, an economic historian at Bryn Mawr College,
observes that "synthesizing organic chemicals...could not have been done
without an understanding of chemical transformations and the arrangement of
atoms in a molecule. After 1880, this led to the production of coal tar and
its derivatives for pharmaceuticals, dyestuffs, explosives, solvents,
fuels, and fertilizers, and later petrochemicals...By the early 1900's the
new chemicals were already becoming an essential input for metallurgy,
petroleum, and paper."
Present-day entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, one of the world's richest
individuals with a personal fortune estimated at $8 billion and hailed as a
technological genius for inventing software for the personal computer,
should therefore be seen as beneficiaries of this long and fruitful history
as well as of significant public investment.
The personal computer itself--without which Gates's software would not be
possible--owes its development to sustained federal spending during World
War II and the Cold War. "Most of [the] 'great ideas in computer design'
were first explored with considerable government support," according to
historian Kenneth Flamm in a Brookings Institution study. Now a specialist
in technology policy in the Department of Defense, Flamm estimates that 18
of the 25 most significant advances in computer technology between 1950 and
1962 were funded by the federal government, and that in most of these cases
the government was the first buyer of new technology. For example,
Remington Rand Corp. delivered UNIVAC, the original full-fledged U.S.
computer, under contract to the U.S. Census Bureau in 1951.
The government's shouldering of huge development costs and risks paved the
way for the growth of Digital Equipment Corp., which created its powerful
PDP line of 1960s computers. In turn, Gate's colleague [and now fellow
billionaire] Paul Allen created a simulated PDP-10 chip that allowed Gates
to apply the programming abilities of a mainframe to a small, homemade
computer. Gates used this power to make his most important technical
contribution: rewriting the BASIC language, itself funded by the National
Science Foundation, to run Altair, the first consumer-scaled computer. And
indeed, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, Altair's developer,
could never have placed a microcomputer of any variety on the market
without the long preceding period of technological incubation.
Thousands of links in a chain of development--our shared inheritance--were
in fact required before Bill Gates could add his contribution. But if this
is so, why do we not reflect more full on why Gates, or any other wealthy
entrepreneur, should personally benefit to such a degree? If we admit that
what any one person, group, generation, or even nation contributes in one
moment of time is minuscule compared with all that the past bequeaths like
a gift from a rich uncle, we are forced to question the basic principles by
which we distribute our technological inheritance.
(Opening paragraphs from Gar Alperovitz's article "Distributing Our
Technological Inheritance" in Oct. 94, Technology Review)