Word came recently, via one of those catch-up obituaries in The New York Times, of the passing of Bob Allen, who had been the chairman and CEO of AT&T during a time of merciless transition in the telecom industry during the 1980s and 1990s.

I have a reminiscence to offer, not as a criticism of Allen, who by all accounts was a decent man and strove mightily to reinvent AT&T in the wake of the forced 1984 divestiture of the regional operating companies, but to underline an example of “innovator’s dilemma” with which I had direct experience.

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A 220 mph High Speed Rail Preliminary Feasibility Study — prepared for the State of llinllinois Department of Transportation by the University of Illinois in collaboration with three private-sector engineering firms — cites in its introduction Gov. Quinn’s “vision to more closely connect the University of Illinois to Chicago” as the animating idea behind an interest in the southbound O’Hare-Chicago-Champaign1 route as a priority for further study, evaluation, and development.

Whether this idea is a serious stab at improving university/industry linkages to a fairly remote campus or only a political stunt is hard to tell. I can find no further reference to the matter in Gov. Quinn’s public speeches or on the website of the University of Illinois system trustees. Regardless, it was a deliberate choice: Gov. Quinn already backs a well advanced project to serve Chicago-to-St. Louis with 110 mph service via Springfield, and there are several other credible possibilities in the envisioned Midwest High Speed Rail network, such as Chicago-to-Minneapolis.

But the idea of connecting the state’s principal city to the state’s own flagship research university at true high-speed (which is to say >155 mph, by all standards except those prevailing in the U.S.) apparently held enough appeal to warrant separate study. Under the vision for operation at maximum speed of 220 mph, rail travel time from Chicago to Champaign would drop from 2:10 on Amtrak currently to just 45 minutes via HSR.

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  1. and thence onward to either St. Louis or Indianapolis []

Because I style myself as “consultant in technology-based economic development,” I’m often asked my opinion on this or that development in the “tech” world. Sometimes I can answer, but sometimes not, because “tech” is not what I’m primarily about. To me, the word “technology” means the full range of practical arts enabled by advanced scientific knowledge and engineering skill. When I use the word, I’m pretty certain I mean something different from what the general public and the media now mean by “tech.”1

Back in the dot-com boom, the public and the investment community began using the word “technology” as a shortcut for what was really just “information technology,” and “technology” soon shortened further to just “tech.” Actually, in Silicon Valley, “tech” seems to have a broader meaning than here, because there it encompasses not just the big Web successes like eBay, Facebook and Yahoo, but also a broad range of firms that actually manufacture materials, systems, and devices based on a wide array of modern technologies (think Intel, Cisco, or even Tesla Motors). But here in the Big Apple, because our local venture capitalists have rightly perceived that our economy’s comparative advantage lies in those technologies that hold potential to “disrupt” our world-beating advertising, media, financial, and fashion sectors, “tech” has come to mean largely “soft” technology: Web 2.0, social media, and now, above all, mobile apps. In a word, software.

All this raises some points I’ve wanted to make about New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “applied sciences” initiative, which I’ll write up in a subsequent blog post some time before he leaves office, but I before I do, I need to clear some linguistic underbrush. As a long-ago undergraduate historian of science, I have a stake in clarity.2

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  1. Of course: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” []
  2. Oh, and that headline for this post is a kludge/joke: apparently you can’t put HTML character codes like ≠ into WordPress headlines, so I borrowed the “bang-equals” symbol from software coding which requires no special characters. []