Just as the Western philosophical tradition has been called a series of footnotes to Plato, so too the somewhat skimpier intellectual tradition of ’90s cyberhype may someday be recognized as footnotes to George Gilder. The author of notorious antifeminist screeds in the ’70s (NOW named him Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year) and of 1981’s bestselling supply-sider bible, Wealth and Poverty (Ronald Reagan became his biggest fan), Gilder spent the ’80s delving into the ostensibly much blander subject of the microchip business and ended up writing an almost Pentecostally fired-up book about it. Published in 1989, Microcosm blended a solid, colorful history of semiconductor science and industry with an eschatology of the chip that literally saw God in its circuitry, praising its ethereal workings as a blunt refutation of “the superstition of materialism.” Microcosm anointed the chip’s escape-velocity growth curve as the promise of a new age blessed with unchecked liberty, redignified culture, and cornucopian free markets for all. Other writers would soon ring slicker, hipper, and/or saner changes on this now familiar mix of hypercapitalism and cybermillenarianism, but Gilder did it with unmatched fervor, and he did it first.
And now he’s doing it again—this time exalting and explaining not the silicon and microtransistors inside the computer but the fiber optics and high-speed wireless that are turning computers inside out—in Telecosm: How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionize Our World. Take another look at that subtitle. Note how queerly out-of-date its references to limitless growth and global revolution sound. At a moment when the markets are roundly spanking true believers in the dotcom miracle—and the now ubiquitous Net itself feels, some days, like an innovation no more radical than the snowblower—it takes either profound sloth or transcendent faith to persist in voicing such breathless sentiments. To Gilder’s credit, I suppose, it’s mostly faith that drives him to it. By his lights, the very sacredness of information technology demands the lofty terms in which he speaks of it. “Futurists falter because they belittle the power of religious paradigms, deeming them either too literal or too fantastic,” he writes in Telecosm‘s opening pages. “Yet futures are apprehended only in the prophetic mode of the inspired historian. The ability to communicate readily, at great distances, in robes of light is so crucial and coveted that in the Bible it is embodied only in angels.”
What keeps Gilder’s prose from floating off the page altogether—and makes it of any use to those of us who don’t worship at his particular technochurch—is that he actually pays at least as close attention to the economic and technical details of his angelic telecosm as he does to its metaphysical implications. Swimming in an ocean of facts and insights about the electromagnetic spectrum, lasers, information theory, networking protocols, caching strategies, and other telecommunications arcana, Gilder palpably delights in “listening to the technology,” as he puts it, and helping the reader listen in.
And what the technology seems to have been telling him in the years since Microcosm is that a whole new new age is already upon us, an age of networked abundance that is coming on faster than the old new age of the microprocessor can get out of the way. If Moore’s Law, doubling the power of computers every year and a half, has been the heartbeat of the microcosm, notes Gilder, the telecosm now announces a substantially faster beat, doubling every four or five months the amount of data that can be carried over networks and heading toward a bandwidth nirvana that “will make human communication universal, instantaneous, unlimited in capacity, and at the margins free.”
It’s no surprise to hear this sort of thing from Gilder; in fact it’s really just another version of the broadband fever that’s been dizzying the culture ever since the promise of 500-channel television crudely guessed at what a high-bandwidth world would be like. But Gilder’s version is more convincing than most, fleshed out as it is with thorough, knowledgeable, and sometimes lyrically insightful explanations of the science and technology that are putting the fat-piped future within sight.
The problems begin when Gilder tries to tell us what to make of that future. He seems to assume that what most of his readers want to make of it is a stock-market killing. Hence, as the book wears on, the pages begin to clutter up with hot investment concepts (one word: “storewidth”), chapters such as “Searching for a New Intel,” and corporate profiles that feebly romanticize the careers of men capable of such derring-do as turning “a chain of waffle houses with a small long-distance arbitrage business on the side” into a global telecommunications behemoth. Nothing wrong with a good business story, of course—Microcosm was full of them, and they gave that book a flavorful narrative heft. But that was back before the tech-happy stock market had turned most cyberpunditry into a sort of financial porn, and here you get the feeling Gilder is just tossing off money shots.
There’s nothing tossed-off, though, about the predictable libertarian-capitalist lather Gilder works himself into as the book winds toward a close. Claiming the impending broadband Net in the name of untethered entrepreneurialism, he declares that the telecosm will find its ultimate meaning as both symbol and guarantor of free markets and their bounty. He rails against government regulators who would stand between the telecosm and its destiny. He tut-tuts Alaskan senators who whine about universal access for Eskimos. He decries the judicial dogpile on Bill Gates, just because the poor guy “occasionally overstepped the bounds of business propriety.” He declares Michael Milken one of the great heroes of the 20th century. He crosses, again and again, the thin line between prophet and crank.
And then, just when you’re about to throw the damn book at the wall, he gracefully reverts to what he does best: concocting images of the technological sublime. “Imagine gazing at the [World Wide Web] from far in space,” he writes. “To you, through your spectroscope, mapping the mazes of electromagnetism in its path, the web appears as a global efflorescence, a resonant sphere of light . . . the radiant chrysalis from which will spring a new global economy.” It’s a generous parting gift from the author—a picture of exactly what the title promised: infinite bandwidth revolutionizing our world. It demands no ideological commitment beyond an attitude of slack-jawed awe. Contemplating it, you are free to imagine almost any revolution you please including the one you know in your gut is the likeliest to emerge from the radiant new global economy: There will be a revolution in the ways that jobs can suck. Corporations will evade responsibility with revolutionary new fluidity. People will find revolutionary new means of getting wealthy on the backs of others. And from the perspective of outer space, at least, it will all look perfectly divine.