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Monday, December 2, 2013

Give corporations their due

The Atlantic posted a five-minute video interview with the late Benoit Mandelbrot. It's worth watching. Mandelbrot brought focus to some age-old questions and launched a new topic in mathematics, fractals. It became one of the most acclaimed, if not the most acclaimed, topic in mathematics during the last 50 years.

My point is not Mandelbrot himself, his work, or the wonders of mathematics. Rather, I call attention to the fact that Mandelbrot was a career employee of IBM (35 years). He was appointed an IBM Fellow, one of only 256 in the history of that company. Collectively the IBM Fellows have won five Nobel prizes and have been granted over 7,000 patents. Over 70 IBM Fellows have warranted biographies in Wikipedia. AT&T Bell Labs has a comparable record.

Corporations are often the subject of criticism. Many times the criticism is justified; like human beings, corporations are fallible. They do what they should not do, and they fail to do what they should. But corporations also achieve things that individuals on their own, even in a university setting, cannot. Al Gore did not invent the Internet, and neither did any specific corporation; but without the contributions of companies that are not household names (e.g. Bolt, Beranek & Newman), the Internet would not have developed so quickly -- if at all. Similarly, one can rage about the commercial practices of pharmaceutical companies. Reforms in drug development and marketing do appear to be needed. But these companies have, in fact, contributed to the well-being of humanity because they have not only identified and developed drugs that work but also figured out how to manufacture them with very high quality.

I have worked in the corporate world for 31 years; so, as the saying goes, consider the source. But I do believe that people who see corporations as all-bad or inherently evil are way off the mark.