On this week’s Interviews with Innovators show I spoke with Harry Lewis and Ken Ledeen, two of the three authors of the forthcoming book Blown To Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion. The book explores why information technologies continue to produce surprising outcomes, and how society responds to them.
One of the threads running through the conversation is a perennial topic among thoughtful technologists: How much can most people understand about the underlying principles of information technology, and how much should they need to understand?
The authors believe that those principles are more explainable than we think, and as evidence they cite the remarkable tale of Hedy Lamarr, the famous Hollywood actress who — in collaboration with the musician George Antheil — invented and patented the idea of frequency hopping. Their goal was to help American torpedo guidance systems resist jamming by the Nazis. Now, of course, it has become one of the foundations of wireless communication.
Ken Ledeen tells the story at length, and with great animation, in our interview. Coincidentally, today’s NYTimes has a review of “an imaginative, two-character multimedia 80-minute play, ‘Frequency Hopping'”, that brings that same story to life.
We need to be careful about the lessons we draw from this tale. Although Lamarr the actress and Antheil the musician are usually referred to as the “improbable inventors” of frequency hopping, it didn’t happen by accident. They may have been scientific and engineering amateurs, but they were inspired and talented amateurs. And as Ken Ledeen explains, Hedy Lamarr’s social circle included a number of leading professionals from whom she absorbed a great deal of knowledge and understanding.
Still, if a pair of inspired and talented amateurs could invent such a thing, maybe we should have more faith in the ability of most people to understand its basis, and to reason about its implications.