The Madness of King George

Has it panned out? Yes and no. By mid—2000, Gilder had already recalculated his theorem (and immodestly renamed it in his honor): Bandwidth would double every six months. Gilder notes that several years passed before Moore's law revved up to its mind—bending pace. Then he shifts into deep geek mode, rattling off arcana from a recent newsletter in which he compares a fiber—based telecommunications system available in 1995 with one the Columbia, Maryland—based Corvis is selling today. Corvis now offers a 280—wavelength system, compared with a 4—wavelength version available in 1995. Whereas seven years ago each wavelength could transmit data at a rate of 620 megabits per second, each can now transmit 10 gigabits of information per second, which means today's system is 16 times faster. There's been a sixfold increase in the number of fibers that can be jacketed in each cable, and today an impulse needs to be regenerated only every 2,000 miles, compared with every 300 miles back in 1995. By Gilder's calculations, that represents an 11,000—fold advance in just over six years — which indeed works out to a doubling roughly every six months or so.

Eric Schmidt calculates that bandwidth has been doubling more like every 12 months (an estimate confirmed by Probe Research, which has been studying Internet traffic since 1997). But to him, that hardly detracts from Gilder's overall point. "As far as I know, George was the first to see that infinite bandwidth was going to have a similar kind of impact on our world as the microprocessor," he says. "And on that fundamental point, he's been proven absolutely right."

Time has also proven Gilder fundamentally correct about other, less—sweeping technological prophecies. Throughout the last decade, Gilder has been associated most closely with two highly technical debates. One concerns wave—division multiplexing, a means of increasing bandwidth over a fiber—optic network by transmitting multiple signals simultaneously. If not for WDM, Gilder argues, it would cost the telecom industry trillions more dollars in capital expenditures on less—efficient equipment to accommodate Internet traffic. For years, the telco establishment resisted WDM, but eventually even the most bottom line—minded firms embraced it.

Gilder has also been a proponent of code division multiple access, which he maintains is a more efficient and elegant way to split the wireless spectrum. "Gilder has won that argument," says Probe's Hilary Mine, an analyst specializing in telecommunications. CDMA is now a core technology in one—third of US cell phones.

"I think the guy has been a real visionary," says CNET founder Halsey Minor, who has been reading Gilder since the early 1990s. "He, more than anybody else, woke us up to this coming explosion in telecom. He wasn't right about everything, but he was right about a lot."

"My miscalculations were the commercial effect of this revolution, especially as I chose particular companies that were spearheads," Gilder says. "The companies did function as spears, but spears often break." The technologies, he says, lived up to their promise even as the market for them collapsed. "The investment part didn't pan out entirely, particularly for the infrastructure players, but the expansion of traffic is real, and the contribution of optics to enable the expansion of traffic is real," he contends. He knows he shouldn't utter the next line, but the congenitally candid Gilder seems incapable of biting his tongue. "My subscribers hate when I say things like this, but I think we'll look back on the current period as a fairly trivial event."

To buttress his point, Gilder draws a parallel to the tech collapse of the mid—1980s, which compelled some to proclaim the death of the PC era. "We've seen this kind of thing happen over and over again through the history of enterprise," he says. "It's enormously disappointing for the visionaries, yet it's not the visionaries but the people who inherit the infrastructure they've built who typically prosper from it."

It's that final line, of course, that is likely to infuriate the habitués of the Telecosm Lounge. One can anticipate the postings of these people, some of whom have lost millions by following Gilder's investment advice. The only question is whether it will be Networkbull, Optionbob, or someone else who writes, "Nice of you tell us that now, George!"

Gilder is a son of the Berkshires who lives in the red farmhouse in which he grew up. A true New England WASP, he has the vocabulary of an Oxford scholar and the carriage of an aristocrat. There's a jaunty, patrician manner in the way he walks, shoulders high and back, chin thrust forward as if he learned to hold his head by watching clips of FDR. He has bright blue eyes and a broad smile that sits slightly off—kilter on his face, and his hair hovers crazily, as if trapped in an electromagnetic experiment. He generally exudes an aura of unkempt disarray; in our two days together he wore the same outfit and seemed oblivious to the penny—sized splotch of whiskers on his chin.

One of Gilder's great—grandfathers was Louis Comfort Tiffany, the glassmaker; another was the editor of Century magazine and a friend of Theodore Roosevelt's. As Gilder describes it, he grew up "shabby gentry." Today, friends describe him as singularly uninterested in earthly possessions. One colleague jokingly says that Gilder is so true to his hills Yankee roots "he has furniture in his living room that even Goodwill wouldn't take."

His father, Richard Gilder, a writer, was killed during World War II; however, Richard's college roommate, David Rockefeller, made sure that George secured spots at Exeter Academy and Harvard. Gilder was expelled from the latter during his freshman year for poor grades but readmitted after a short stint in the Marines, and he graduated in 1962 with a BA in government.

Through most of his twenties and thirties, Gilder toiled as a freelance writer, reasonably successful but constantly broke. His first two books, Sexual Suicide and Naked Nomads, might best be described as antigay, antiwelfare, antifeminist screeds in which he argues that equal pay between the sexes is in fact antifamily. They won him notoriety among feminists but little in the way of royalties.

Gilder's breakthrough proved to be his fifth book, Wealth and Poverty, published in 1981. Released shortly into Ronald Reagan's tenure, it hailed the entrepreneurial spirit as the most effective cure for poverty, thereby securing Gilder's place as one of the new president's supply—side gurus. The volume sold more than 1 million copies, and the 41—year—old Gilder found himself suddenly rich and famous. Yet it was precisely at that point, despite having a wife and two kids (they'd eventually have four) and no background in the hard sciences, that he decided to chuck his career as a political gadfly and teach himself physics. How does he explain a choice that seems at once preposterous and prescient? Peering into the future, he imagined a restless life tilling the same tired soil yet never quite matching the success of Wealth and Poverty. Another factor, of course, was that he could suddenly afford the folly of a whim.

Gilder's decision didn't arrive entirely from out of the blue. He'd devoted a whole chapter of Wealth and Poverty to the semiconductor industry(though he now confesses that his views were based almost solely on an article he had read in Time). The parsimonious Gilder seemed enchanted by the fact that silicon was really nothing but sand, so readily abundant a raw material. He was friends with National Semiconductor board chair Peter Sprague, who had mentioned to Gilder that they soon would "put scores of transistors not on the head but the point of a pin." Above his bed at home, Gilder has a famous Blake quotation about seeing all the world in a single grain of sand. "I loved the idea that the computer was a world in a grain of sand," he says.

Over the next five years, he split time between coasts, studying at Caltech under the eminent physicist Carver Mead, who became his mentor and sage. Gilder took classes when possible but mainly studied on his own. He hired a tutor to teach him calculus so that he could better understand physics. In all, he figures he read "hundreds of books," most of them textbooks, to learn the sciences of the microprocessor.

The years of self—banishment served him well. His resulting work, Microcosm, published in 1989, influenced a generation of people, including former FCC chair Reed Hundt. "Microcosm is a great visionary document," Hundt says. "It helped change my thinking." If anything, Gilder's next book, Life After Television, published in 1990, proved even more prophetic. A strong anti—TV bias prompted Gilder to predict its imminent demise at the hands of the PC — but he also spotted the potential for convergence between the tube and the microchip and, before Tim Berners—Lee had conceived of the World Wide Web, wrote about "a crystalline web of glass and light."

Tags: gary rivlin, george gilder, technology, telecosm, wired magazine

    • Gary Rivlin
    • Long-time journalist Gary Rivlin is an Investigative Fund Fellow at The Nation Institute. A former New York Times reporter, he is the author of five books, including Fire on the Prairie: Chicago's Harold Washington and the Politics of Race. That book that prompted the late Studs Terkel to compare him to I.F. S...

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