This past February, with the Southern California days already warm and the sunlight reflecting off the bay and the high-rises along the waterfront, 12,000-odd members of what is perhaps the most important technology industry on the planet converged on San Diego’s convention center for their annual conference.
Since 2005 this event has been called the Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition and the National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference. It’s a mind-numbingly dull name with an unpronounceable acronym (OFC/NFOEC). But the nearly one terameter (1,000 million kilometers) of fiber-optic cable encircling the earth effectively makes up our global civilization’s central nervous system, since it carries Internet traffic and all international telecommunications–including voice calls, which nowadays are transmitted as packets of digital data. The world’s data traffic, moreover, is doubling in volume every two years. Industry critic Robert X. Cringely claims that the only reason video didn’t overwhelm U.S. Internet services in 2007 was that broadband ISPs capped bandwidth and closed switches to control traffic, while pretending that they were taking no such measures. People have been predicting that the Internet would crash as long as it’s existed, of course. Still, it’s worth considering that if, for instance, all of YouTube’s users were to upload their videos in high definition, it would nearly double U.S. Internet traffic.
I went to San Diego because I wanted a better picture of the state of the global telecosm in 2008. What’s a telecosm? As I entered the convention center on the conference’s third morning, I ran into an older gentleman dressed in a blue blazer and beige chinos, trying irritably to get into the main hall. Recognizing him, I said, “You’re George Gilder.” Tetchily, the bespectacled gentleman acknowledged that he was. “This is most annoying,” he told me. “It’s this way,” I said, pointing, and left him. It was a poignant moment: a few short years before, the convention’s officials would likely have sent a limousine and had someone waiting to usher Gilder to his seat. Back then, he’d been a wealthy, honored prophet of technology. In 2000–the year communications carriers and technology suppliers saw their stock begin to collapse–he’d published a book called Telecosm (whose original subtitle was How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionize Our World). In those days, any company endorsed by Gilder’s monthly newsletter–which by the late 1990s mainly endorsed companies involved in the global build-out of optical networks–immediately experienced the “Gilder effect”: its stock value surged.
Unlike most technology promoters of that era, Gilder was an interesting fellow with a history. He’d begun in the 1960s as a speechwriter whose clients included Richard Nixon; in the 1970s he’d penned an antifeminist screed, called Sexual Suicide, that prompted Time magazine to name him “the nation’s leading male-chauvinist-pig author.” After a period promoting supply-side economics in the Reagan era, Gilder established himself as a technology pundit: he published Microcosm, which assessed the microchip revolution, in 1989 and Life after Television, which predicted that “teleputers” connected by fiber-optic cable would make broadcast television obsolete, in 1990. Gilder hadn’t just hit on the coming thing in exquisitely timely fashion, it turned out; he learned so much about the actual technologies that the experts took him seriously.