by Michael Schrage

The Gildered Age — Book Review, Telecosm: How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionize Our World

Nov 15, 2000 9 mins
IT Leadership

Buying a condo in the Cayman Islands from your living room in Cairo. Converting a car stuck in a Philadelphia traffic jam into a physics class at Caltech or a bay-window view of the North Sea into a three-dimensional Rio beachfront. Having dinner with your daughter at Dartmouth College—and your wife at home in Massachusetts—while sitting in an office in Sausalito overlooking San Francisco Bay. You’ve heard the bandwidth “fantasies” before. But there’s nothing fantastic—it will happen.

-George Gilder, Telecosm: How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionize Our World (Free Press, Sept. 2000, $26)

Should Telecosm become the runaway business best-seller it deserves to be, its author, George Gilder, is sure to become the man most hated by CIOs worldwide. Why? Because CEOs, boards of directors and management committees will read this book, look twice at their IT architectures and start peppering their CIOs with questions about whether this Gilder fellow is right about infinite, unlimited bandwidth coming to define and characterize tomorrow’s infostructures.

The overwhelming majority of CIOs—who better have a firm and articulate grasp of Gilder’s arguments—will be reduced to giving one of two answers:

“No. I mean, the guy’s brilliant, but he’s a crackpot. He takes perfectly legitimate trends in technology—which, by the way, I want you to know we’re completely on top of—and pushes them way beyond the point of absurdity. Here’s why what we’re doing now is the right thing.”


“Well, yes, kind of, but it’s not a good idea to confuse a clear view with a short distance. We’re not getting free infinite bandwidth anytime within the next five years, OK?”

In other words, Gilder’s telecosmic visions will make life a living hell for CIOs already struggling to align technology infrastructures with business goals. Less than 10 years ago, most Fortune 1000 companies could effectively manage telecom and IT as largely separate business entities. Tomorrow, says Gilder, enterprise computing will be both the spectral and fibrous subset of whatever (largely) dumb networks run the business. By many orders of magnitude, Gilder asserts, sheer, raw, unadulterated bandwidth overwhelmingly trumps intelligent processing in terms of enabling cost-effective computational performance. “This is the law of the telecosm,” Gilder proclaims. “Use bandwidth to simplify everything else.”

Ain’t that a kick in the ASP? The network truly is the computer, but in ways unimagined by Sun Microsystems.

Conventional open systems interconnection networking standards and architectures are thus as anachronistic as Morse code. Gilder says the old model in which “a Brahmin class of engineers” presides “over the center of the system telling all of the Untouchable users what they can and cannot do” is about to be destroyed.

“Ultimately,” Gilder writes, “the Brahmins are no match for the revolution of the Untouchables. The latter will become free agents, and their intelligence, distributed around the end points of the network, will take control.” The new network will be “faster, dumber, unlayered.” Messages will “careen around on their own. Let the end user machines take responsibility for them.”

The Shock of the Infinite

Mass multimedia madness? Maybe, but Gilder makes a persuasive case. Ignoring for the moment that he writes very well and that his anecdotes and asides enhance the credibility of his technical claims, understand that Gilder’s core argument is economic. In fact, his grasp of the economics of technological abundance and scarcity will command the attention of the global business community. CEOs may not appreciate why low-Earth satellites should be used for wireless networking instead of cells, but, by God, if there’s one thing they do get it’s supply and demand. Gilder, better than anyone, can articulate meaningful business scenarios describing what happens when infinity invades a marketplace.

“Every age defines itself by the resources it wastes,” Gilder keenly observes. “Our agrarian forefathers wasted human time. The Victorians wasted coal and iron, and the 20th century wasted electricity. During the past decade, the world had to learn to waste transistors. Now it needs to learn how to waste bandwidth and begin rebuilding the world yet again.”

That scenario will spawn daily management nightmares for CIOs. They won’t have to artfully manage constraints; Telecosm proffers a future where CIOs (should we now call them CBOs for chief bandwidth officers?) are continually called on to find innovative ways to productively waste bandwidth. Managing infinity requires a radically different mind-set than managing scarcity. Just how many CIOs are designing and implementing architectures based on the premise and promise of infinite bandwidth? Today’s rhetorical question becomes tomorrow’s business imperative. What the Internet is to the telegraph, the telecosm must be to the Internet. This next decade will be even crazier than the last.

Masters of the Infinite

If Gilder is to be believed—or even taken seriously—then it’s as clear as a fiber-optic strand that CEOs and their boards have little choice but to prod, poke and push their technical people to reconcile tomorrow’s telecosms with today’s enterprise resource planning systems, ASPs and netcentric and mobile computing. There’s nothing quite like having to conduct a comprehensive strategic and capital budgeting review because the boss who barely uses e-mail has read a pop technology book, is there? Good luck!

But even as CIOs curse his name, they can’t help but admire the craft Gilder brings to describing the revolutions that have concurrently and convergently occurred in the realms of fiber, frequencies, lasers and satellites. Just as he did in his earlier book The Meaning of the Microcosm, Gilder tracks, identifies and credits the people and teams that made telecosmic innovations possible. People like Elias Snitzer, Will Hicks and Charles Kao—who has heard of them?—made commercializing fiber optics possible by figuring out how to manipulate photons as adeptly as the microcosm boys manipulated electrons. Gilder’s tale of the coevolution of fiber optics and semiconductor lasers is truly a multibillion-dollar story of disruptive technology. Gilder has found dozens of such visionaries; they deserve the attention.

In fact, one of Gilder’s greatest strengths is just how skillfully he blends his techno-tales with the business side of the equation. I’ve heard ex-Bell Labs Nobel laureate Arno Penzias once backhand a compliment to Gilder by describing him as a poet who understands essential truths about technology without quite understanding the technology itself. However, few poets have as strong a sense of marketplace narrative as Gilder.

This comes across particularly strongly in Gilder’s discourse on an engagement with Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe. It is no small irony that, in most respects, Gilder the poet has done a better job of predicting the Ethernet’s evolution than its MIT-Harvard-trained creator. To grotesquely oversimplify, Metcalfe—as a truly brilliant and insightful engineer—believed that greater intelligence leads to greater networks; that was the essence of how he transformed the Aloha protocol into the breakthrough Ethernet innovation. By contrast, Gilder looked at Ethernet and recognized that the brilliance of the innovation relied more on its dumb qualities than on its intelligence. Think about it: How many world-class engineers value “dumbth” over “smarts”? What we have here is not so much a clash of intellects but a fundamental difference in values. What gives you more bang for the buck: souped-up simplicity or elegant complexity?

Engineers Versus Poets

Indeed, if you look at Metcalfe’s collection of his InfoWorld [a sister company to CIO’s publisher, CXO Media] columns, Internet Collapses and Other InfoWorld Punditry (IDG Books Worldwide, May 2000, $19.99), you’ll find a remarkable array of well-reasoned and well-written but ultimately flawed predictions about the telecosmic future (such as the collapse of the Internet). Why? Are poets smarter than engineers? Of course not, but it’s not unfair to observe that engineers have a greater emotional investment in rational analysis and intelligent design than most poets do. Moreover, we don’t want “reliable” networks designed by wild-eyed radicals and dreamers; we want them designed by folks who err on the side of robustness and conservativeness. The result? Engineers are probably going to be better at identifying the threat of top-down risks rather than the opportunities from bottom-up rewards. That’s culture.

To wit: Is the Internet the product of top-down planning or the by-product of bottom-up (r)evolution? The fact that the Net reflects both imperatives reaffirms a profound truth: Technological innovation depends as much on how individuals and institutions interpret market forces as it does on how engineers interpret scientific equations. Now, when you’ve got market forces investing in interpretations of scientific equations, well, then you’ve got something.

So is Moore’s Law (computational power doubles every 18 months) really a law? Or is it an ideology, a self-fulfilling prophecy, because so many smart, creative and market-driven people are investing in its promise? You can’t cheat the laws of physics. On the other hand, human beings can be quite clever at arbitraging physical laws to their advantage.

Telecosm does an impressive job of exploring and explaining how the physics of the telecosm are being transformed into the business of the telecosm. However, it’s fair to say that this is as much a polemic and manifesto as it is a history of telecosmic dynamics and a portrait of a possible future. I don’t agree with many of Gilder’s assertions and predictions. I don’t believe, for example, that simply because we can throw cheap bandwidth at a problem that that is inherently going to be the way problems will be solved. But there is undeniably a “there” there. You’ll read this book not because it’s “true,” but because Gilder has captured a few fundamental truths that, sooner or later, will have to be reckoned with.

This is passionate propaganda based on a credible synthesis of current trends and deeply held personal and political beliefs. The most provocative analogy I can come up with for Gilder’s Telecosm is Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Both works simultaneously predict and call for a revolution. Both authors loved being best-selling radical provocateurs. I doubt Telecosm will endure as well as Common Sense but, unfortunately for today’s CIOs, there’s a genuine chance that Gilder’s work will be seen both as tomorrow’s common sense and business’s next agenda. Gilder has the rare gift of using both his bandwidth and his processing power to simultaneously be both an inspiration and a pain in the butt.