Microcosm, by George Gilder
There is no negotiating with Prophets. With them, the future is all-or-nothing: revelations, accusations, salvation, damnation, finger-pointing, truth or consequences. The best sort of people usually shun them. Sometimes, the authorities have to be called in . . .
These may be modern times, but something akin to that feeling of secular unease has been stirred by the publication of the latest book by George Gilder, the indefatigable author of Wealth and Poverty and The Spirit of Enterprise, Reaganaut exponent of entrepreneurial populism, devout Christian. Most of Microcosm looks to be no more than a journalistic examination of the expanding computer revolution, a topic on which Gilder writes with considerable ability and expertise. But the book wants to be much more than that. It is an ambitious and provocative attempt to link physics, technology, capitalism, and politics within a revelatory framework that is ultimately religious in inspiration (and Christian in content). Gilder believes, and herein attempts to show, that the computer is also a proof of the existence of God.
Actually, if he had put the proposition in those terms, he might have caused less of a stir, by offending a smaller audience. But instead, prophet-wise, he takes on nothing less than what he perceives to be the conventional wisdom of the entire secular, rationalistic order, the prevailing philosophy of scientific materialism which has, he writes, choked the world with bad physics, bad economics, bad politics, and bad computer design. This is the wisdom which is being blown asunder by the advent of the Microcosm, a catch phrase that Gilder uses to describe the subatomic playing field of the people he most deeply admires, the entrepreneur-inventors of Silicon Valley, avatars of a global information revolution. Their efforts are sweeping aside old, “superstitious” verities in the physical universe, and also clearing the way for global entrepreneurialism, a new era of individual and spiritual freedom, and, finally, a return to morality and the contemplation of the universal mind of God.
If all this sounds transcendental, it is. As Gilder puts it:
Overthrowing the superstitions of materialism, . . . modern man is injecting the universe with the germ of his intelligence, the spoor of this mind. . . . Thus the triumph of the computer does not dehumanize the world; it makes our environment more subject to human will. . . . Giving up the material idols and totems in his ken, [man] is gaining at last his promised dominion over the world and its creatures.
Hence the unease. In the New Republic, Robert Wright has argued that Gilder’s Microcosm represents muzzy-headed New Age thinking for conservatives, pop-spiritualism for the supply-side crowd to match the competing, vaguely leftish chorus of Zen-physicist futurists. But is there really no difference between Gilder’s technology-driven spiritualism and the millenarianism of the pyramids and channeling set?
Sandwiched between such classic Gilderisms as “The central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter,” or, “To comprehend nature, we have to stop thinking of the world as basically material and begin imagining it as a manifestation of consciousness,” is an exhaustive examination of the computer revolution, a U.S.-focused capitalistic explosion that rivals any industrial revolution of the past. Gilder tracks this revolutionary movement out of the classrooms at Cal Tech into the entrepreneurial hothouse of Silicon Valley. Much of Microcosm is an attempt to show, through the efforts of such pioneers as Carver Mead, a founding giant of computer-chip design, and Robert Widlar, a strange, alcoholic genius of analogue-computer miniaturization, that the logic of subatomic physics is itself a driving force behind the physical shrinkage, accelerating power, and growing decentralization that increasingly define computer development. This logic is also curiously and fortuitously aligned with the free-wheeling creative mayhem of Silicon Valley, the exact opposite of the cumbersome, centralized planning bureaucracies of IBM and other mainframe behemoths.
Others, less wedded than Gilder to technological determinism, might see the workings of analogy here. Gilder sees an ordained relationship between content (realized laws of quantum physics) and form (entrepreneurial activity). He thereby underlines at least one fact alien to advocates of economic planning and industrial strategies: that entrepreneurial activity is real, and effective, and that it has logical implications for the economic future.
Gilder’s argument leads him to some provocative conclusions. The loss of American economic leadership, he writes, has been overstated by those who do not understand that objects like advanced semiconductor chips have become no more than commodities in the exploding world of sophisticated computer design. With convincing force he maintains that the U.S. is in a good position in the 1990’s to exploit a continuing advantage in the automation of micro-designs—so long as protectionism and managed imports do not upset the advantage. As a fervent supply-sider, Gilder believes that the U.S. trade deficit of the 1980’s masked a healthy importation of capital goods (personal computers) that will power the desk-top revolution of the future. All planning bureaucracies, from IBM to the Soviet Union, are dead, permanently marginalized by the continuing technological breakthroughs coming from small, entrepreneurial firms. For in the computerized universe, “Rather than pushing decisions up through the hierarchy, the power of micro-electronics pulls them remorselessly down to the individual.” Technology is democratic, even libertarian, in its most efficient application.
Contrary to his critics’ assertions, Gilder’s vehemently anti-“materialist” point of view represents not some new Tao-influenced trendiness but an older, more mainstream form of Western thought. His notion of an identity between the laws of the subatomic universe and the “overthrow of matter” are a recrudescence of neo-Platonism, of the kind made popular by another modern conservative guru of global techno-consciousness, Marshall McLuhan. And how did computer science and theology become so intertwined in the first place? The answer lies not in Eastern karma but in a Western search for religious certainty which has gone hand in hand with the growth of mathematics for more than a millennium, from Leibniz and Descartes back to St. Augustine, who declared that it was his knowledge of “numbers and places” that brought him closest to awareness of God. However debatable may be George Gilder’s conclusions, his pedigree is a long and honorable one.