The Gildercosm

On Page 11 of his new book, George Gilder suggests that those readers looking for investing advice might want to skip the next 140 pages. This isn’t a bad piece of advice, in my opinion, but it’s a little surprising. The new book is called Telecosm: How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionize Our World (click here to buy it), and my understanding had been that it would deliver the ultimate vision of George Gilder as worldly philosopher, not “Nine Stocks to Buy Now.”

I suppose Gilder would say that he has always been a worldly philosopher, but really the current book represents a kind of fourth phase in his public thinking. Certainly, he was not always a tech guru. Born into an old East Coast family, Gilder is a graduate of Exeter and Harvard and a friend and fan of the Rockefeller family; The New Yorker described David Rockefeller as “a sort of substitute father for Gilder when he was growing up.” His earliest books, in the 1970s, established him as a thoroughgoing cultural reactionary, impatient with the notion that sexism or racism even exist. At one point he was branded “Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year” by Time and the National Organization for Women. Phase 2 came in the form of the 1981 book Wealth and Poverty, which gave his social ideas and supply-side economics a proper Christian wedding; by this point he was writing speeches for Ronald Reagan. The New Republic convincingly argued that Gilder’s handle on macroeconomics was “more poetical than analytic,” but the book became a best seller anyway.

Gilder, meanwhile, was moving on to Phase 3, as a technology worshiper. Microcosm, which appeared in 1989, was his ecstatic appraisal of the potential of microchips to change the world. In particular, he zeroed in on a guy named Andy Grove at a company called Intel, which he predicted would be a force to reckon with. He also predicted that television would disappear in the 1990s, but it’s the semiconductor stuff, and particularly his incredible prescience about Intel, that people remember. Just imagine if you’d loaded up on Intel stock in 1989 …

Which brings us to Telecosm, the opening line of which is, “The computer age is over.” Gilder’s new idol is bandwidth: “New technologies of sand, glass, and air will form a web with a total carrying power, from household to global crossing, at least a million times larger than the network of today.” Running against current wisdom that sees bandwidth shortage as a problem, he sees hope in technology that will make more and better use of fiber optic networks, he sees those networks growing, and he sees vast bandwidth potential in the electromagnetic spectrum. In short, he foresees an embarrassment of bandwidth. Power (and big payoffs for investors) will migrate away from computers and switches and routers, and toward the network itself. All of this leads to, as he (poetically) sums up a few paragraphs later, “networks of light linking cathedrals of mind.”

Faith in bandwidth might not sound particularly controversial. But when Gilder prognosticates, he doesn’t simply do so in the startling-but-vague manner of the typical futurist. He can be extremely specific. For instance, one of the great causes championed by his writing in his Technology Report newsletter, in Forbes ASAP, and in this book is a wireless standard called code division multiple access (CDMA), which he has argued is superior to and will eventually brush aside the time division multiple access standard (TDMA) that a slew of telecom giants have bet on. On this score, there’s an important point to make about Gilder: I have a hard time believing that there’s another tech writer in America who is as deeply immersed in truly understanding the technology he writes about. That’s what makes the book, especially those first 150 pages or so, rather heavy going. Here’s a sentence picked more or less at random, in which Gilder summarizes the strength of a strategy pursued by the telecom firm Qwest: “Qwest’s WDM systems and erbium-doped amplifiers don’t care what kind of packets are traveling down the pipes.” WDM stands for wave-division multiplexing–does that help?

Being a writer who can master the engineering behind cutting-edge technology is impressive. But it seems unlikely that Gilder’s dizzying command of jargon is what’s going to sell this book, and I suspect that it will sell briskly. So what’s the attraction? There are two possibilities. The first is that a reader might be interested in Gilder’s conceit that the path through the technological details leads to meaning and enlightenment. Certainly in interviews Gilder seems anxious to play up the idea that he’s a tech futurist who not only embraces religion but ties it all together. Thus, the final part of his book is grandly titled “The Meaning of Light.”

But while his “cathedrals of light” theatrics will probably be quoted by everyone who writes about Telecosm, what’s surprising about the book’s climax is how pedestrian it is. Central to his closing is a riff about a family of the future tapping into the mighty Telecosm to check stock prices, shop for groceries, and a take a “virtual walk” on a Hawaiian beach. Is that it? Sounds like the 1964 World’s Fair. The closest he gets to a wild utopian fantasy is the kind of half-hearted declaration that the Web will make everyone more efficient. “Liberated from hierarchies that often waste their time and talents, people will be able to discover their most productive roles and pursue them more effectively.” Sure. Either that, or they’ll watch more South Park. (Whoops! No they won’t: Television, Gilder predicts again, won’t survive.)

The other possible motivation for this book’s readership may be found in Appendix B: “Nine Stars of the Telecosm.” These nine stars are public firms such as JDS Uniphase and Qualcomm, which Gilder has previously touted in his newsletter–a newsletter that has shown an increasing ability to move stocks. What Gilder really seems to tacitly admit in Telecosm is that his ultimate role in American discourse is basically as a stock-picker, and he’s OK with that. It turns out there’s a greater market for his investing advice than there is for his social ideas, supply-side theories, or worldly philosophy. And the market, as Gilder would be the first to tell you, is never wrong.