Speed of Light Challenges New Economy

BOSTON (03/28/2000) - The speed of light, processor power and the future demise of television collided here today during an esoteric talk by writer and research George Gilder, who tossed in a brief history of computing and predictions about the "new economy" for good measure.

Although he paints an optimistic picture of the future world thanks to technological advances, the speed of light will present a constraint that must be dealt with soon, Gilder said during the opening keynote speech at the Internet Commerce Expo trade show. Physical objects can only go so fast, after all, and we are quickly approaching the time when ever-speedier processors push those limits.

"It will be necessary to transform the entire time-space grid over the next five years," predicted Gilder, who is president of Gilder Technology Group Inc. in Housatonic, Massachusetts, and also is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Seattle, where he directs the program on high technology and public policy.

Given that light travels in a vacuum at about 186,261 miles per second, it wouldn't seem to present a technological barrier -- that is, "Until you realize that an average microchip now contains about a half mile of wire, microscopic wire, on its surface," Gilder said, adding that future chips will contain seven miles of wire. Intel Corp. has disclosed plans for a chip that operates at 1.5GHz per second, which "means there's no longer enough time to go off chip," making single-chip systems the future, he said.

As a result, the smallest computers will become the least expensive, Gilder said, noting that he has long held that digital cellular phones will provide the form factor for the most ubiquitous computing devices.

"I've been calling it the 'teleputer' for 10 years," he said. "Nobody else calls it a teleputer, so maybe I'd better give up."

Whatever their name, the devices he envisions will provide access to news and e-mail, link to various displays, help us navigate our vehicles, connect to e-commerce sites and "have all kinds of functions that it's impossible to anticipate today -- everything except plow your garden," Gilder said, "but it won't do Windows."

As the audience laughed at his reference to the Microsoft Corp. operating system, he quickly added, "It will do doors -- your front door, your garage door," suggesting the devices could replace a pocketful of keys.

Gilder also enthusiastically predicts the future demise of television; he clearly detests the medium and said, "Television will necessarily have to fall before the new models of the Internet economy." That's because, he said, the primary function of TV is to let viewers waste time watching news that isn't really news and entertainment that isn't really entertainment all so that advertisers can show commercials that viewers do not want to see for products they do not want to buy.

During a question-and-answer session after his talk, Gilder elaborated, saying that companies who try to keep alive "the corpse of TV will relentlessly fail again and again. It's like the dancing dog. You're not amazed at how well it dances; you're amazed that it dances at all."

Gilder also made bold predictions regarding bandwidth. He believes it will be so plentiful in the future that it will be a commodity that we will feel free to waste. Part of the bandwidth crunch will be eliminated by technological advances, including optical networks and the use of infrared, and part will be overcome by placing data closer to users with methods like caching and mirroring, he said.

Though his talk seemed to indicate a healthy future for telecommunications vendors and service providers, he offered a caution when an audience member asked him about the future of telecommunications companies.

"Keep content and conduit separate," he advised. "Content and conduit do not go together. If you have world-beating content you want it on everyone's conduit.

If you have world-beating conduit you want everyone's content on it."

That's why the value of America Online Inc. and Time Warner Inc. fell when they announced they were merging because that pairing is "illegitimate" and ultimately will fail, said Gilder, who had a similar negative prediction for Microsoft in that he thinks most future computer operating systems will not come from that company.

The Internet Commerce Expo continues through Thursday at the World Trade Center in Boston. Additional information about the trade who can be found at http://www.iceexpo.com/. Additional information about Gilder and his work can be found at http://www.gildertech.com/.

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