Happy Birthday Wired

It's been a weird five years.
George Gilder
January 1, 1998
Print ArticleNear the turn of the last century, scientists contemplated with rising anxiety what might have been termed the Year 1900 Crisis. Embalmed in the mathematical coffins of Newton and Maxwell, the science of matter was undergoing a near-death experience. Except for extrapolating the lordly equations of gravity and electromagnetism, there seemed to be nothing left of any great consequence for scientists to do.

Matter was essentially solid, opaque, and predictable. The sun never set on the British Empire. Movies were black and white. IBM was yet to create an impregnable citadel of mainframes.

In physics, a few annoyingly elusive anomalies lingered - the radiance of black bodies, for one. But these too would soon fall, it was believed, to a few convenient coefficients and constants. The religion of science--hey, don't blame Great-Granddad, we all have our religions--was complacent and determinist. Just integrate the browser into the operating system, as it were, and all conflict would dissolve into monolithic truth.

Then, came the quantum. World wars. Elvis. Lennon and McCartney. Woz and Jobs. Yahoo! and Wired. WorldCom. Java. A carnival of bombs and music, wires and switches, and technologies of sand, glass, and air.

The germinal breakthrough, however, had already taken place. In this century's first decade, the boundaries of both inner and outer space opened up. Within the microcosm of the atom, it turned out, and beyond the macrocosm of the galaxies, Newtonian axioms do not apply. Rather than "solid" matter, the atom turns out to be a quantum kaleidoscope, as empty in proportion to its nucleus as the solar system is in proportion to the Sun. The regularities of Newton and Maxwell gave way to the exotic paradoxes of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Pauli's exclusion principle, and Schroedinger's wave equation.

This nanoleap into infinitesimals, said quantum discoverer Max Planck, was an "enormous step from the visible and directly controllable to the invisible sphere, from the macrocosm to the microcosm." In the microcosm--the foundation of our wealth and technology--everything once solid warped and evanesced into forms of coded information.

Some 90 years later, these microcosmic laws are sustaining whole industries of microelectronics and photonics, including the Internet, Java, and FLAG (Fiberoptic Link Around the Globe). Computer cost effectiveness has risen 100 millionfold since the late 1950s--a 100,000-fold rise in power times a thousandfold drop in cost. Three years ago, all the phone networks in the world combined carried an average of a terabit a second. Today, companies are sending 3 terabits per second down a single fiber thread the width of a human hair. Put those numbers together and--in a direct line from the quantum discoveries at the beginning of the 20th century--you have the assurance of boundless bandwidth in the 21st.

The quantum laws prevent the universe from collapsing into an infinitesimal ball, rolling down a black hole into the hand of Bill Gates. But they remain afflicted with paradox, combining infinite waves with definite particles in a still-baffling enigma. Clouds of mystery still rise on the horizons of the 21st-century mind. The world remains weird. And Wired, by being true to its cosmic subject, is necessarily somewhat weird as well. Get used to it, and revel.

In search of certainty, materialists turn to biology. Just as at the end of the last century, people who have not been paying attention imagine that the key problems have been solved. For Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, Darwin's natural selection is the "universal solvent" that resolves virtually all perplexities. The rest is merely, in the ironic refrain of software coders, a "simple matter of programming."

But in biology, as in physics, the microcosm prevails. Molecular biologists have passed beyond the macrocosmic horizons of the Darwinian flat earth and discovered the microcosm of the cell.

In a riveting book called Darwin's Black Box, now in its 11th printing, a little man named Michael Behe from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, says Dennett and Dawkins have no clothes. In response, understandably, the assailed wave their arms madly and dismiss the heretic from the parade. But eppure si muove--still it moves, as Galileo put it to the priests of his day: Earth moves around the Sun. The molecular biologists reveal that the cell does not function unless its thousands of exquisitely interlinked components are present all at once. It could not have evolved incrementally. In molecular biology, the world revolves around the cell.

Francis Crick, the Nobel laureate codiscoverer of DNA--another priest in extremis--suggests that biology's irreducible complexity was introduced from other galaxies. This is a bit better than the parallel universes that physicists have contrived to answer to their anomalies, but not much. Using cybernetics as a new paradigm, neobiolological writers such as Wired's own Kevin Kelly are offering the real answer: Ruled by DNA codes, cells are chiefly a symbol system governed by information theory. Codes precede chemistry, and are not reducible to it.

The foundations of knowledge quake. So do the foundations of information technology. During the tempestuous era of Wired--I do not believe for an instant that it is only five years--the epochal moment came way back in the antediluvian spring of 1995. Bill Gates booted up his computer and accessed the Internet. Seismic tremors shook his mind and his desk when he discovered that he could reach and search information on the Web more readily than in his own hard drive or LAN. In a prophetic memo, he announced "the Internet tidal wave."

Newtonian reality has collided not only with microcosmic uncertainty, but also with a macrocosmic absolute: the speed of light. The clash forced Einstein to transform what had been the universe's firmest foundation--the space-time grid of classical theory--into the elastic "mollusks" of general relativity. Atomic clocks began shrinking toward red. Measuring rods warped under a newly elusive force of gravity. In a relativistic upset, the Sun once again revolved around Earth.

A similar collision with light's speed limit today is forcing the transformation of the space-time grid of computers and computer networks. Electronic charges move in wires at 9 inches per nanosecond. Microwaves take a quarter of a second to resound from a satellite in geosynchronous orbit. Photons cross a continent in 30 milliseconds.

The telecom establishment, from AT&T to the RBOCs, optimized its networks for voice traffic, in which a quarter of a second or 30 milliseconds passes acceptably quickly. But in data communications those delays are a dysfunctional eternity, and that is shifting the ground under the giant telcos' comfortably Newtonian feet. Just as the market share of centralized computers dropped from nearly 100 percent in 1977 to less than 1 percent in 1987, our research at The Gilder Technology Report suggests that the share of analog voice in the global telecom market will drop from more than 80 percent in 1994 to less than 1 percent in 2004. Thousands of ISPs, with WorldCom at the helm, will prevail, with ever-spreading networks of fiber, optimized for data. And the imperatives of 186,000 miles per second are spawning a whole new generation of low-orbit satellites, from Iridium and Globalstar to Teledesic and now Celestri.

In the inner space of microchips, the speed of light is wreaking changes just as far-reaching. Nine inches a nanosecond seems fast until you realize that a microchip the size of your thumbnail may now bear as much as a quarter mile of infinitesimal wires. A billion-transistor chip at the beginning of the next century could incorporate seven miles of the stuff. With microprocessors running at a billion cycles a second there is simply no time to go off chip. Just 300 trillionths of a second or so is not enough to do much read-ing, writing, or arithmetic. Today's state-of-the-art Pentiums, with their hierarchies of memory registers, buffers, look-ahead branching logic controllers, static RAM caches, and super caches, leave the processor in wait states 80 percent of the time. And they are the last generation of processors in which a clock pulse can propagate across the entire chip within the time of a gate delay, the time it takes for a transistor to flop from 1 to 0. Those and a growing list of exigencies require a new computer architecture optimized for the Net, and for the explosion of bandwidth being created by and for it.

Since the Internet was privatized in April 1995, monthly traffic on the Net has exploded from 31 terabytes to more than 3 petabytes - a hundredfold rise in less than three years. Regulatory sclerosis and network congestion now seem to be slowing the increase to roughly the pace of the growth in the number of users (which is still doubling annually). But any company that believes this pause is permanent will deserve its fate.

During those same not-quite-three years, typical desktop processing power rose only fourfold. Windows 98 will not answer the real Year 2000 problem in Redmond - the endless epicycles of Ptolemaic complexity surrounding the Wintel imperium. We can declare with Copernican simplicity: The Net does not revolve around the desktop. The next five years of Wired will see a thousand companies lay the foundation of a new space-time grid for a new information economy, optimized for the Net. It will be based on component software, sold across the network, and used by a variety of NCs and appliances.

The most common PC of the next decade will be a digital cellular phone, tied to the Net and based on a single chip with integrated analog and digital circuitry. As powerful as a supercomputer of old, it will be as mobile as your watch and as personal as your wallet. It will link to a variety of displays via a quantum cascade laser emitting infrared bitstreams. We will throw our micropennies down quantum wells into heavenly memories.

It will be weird and luminal ...

The last five years have seen the rise of Wired and the final overthrow of the tyranny of matter in both physics and biology. Wired is an information system. In the idiom of the moment, let us propound the ultimate law of God in the information age: In the beginning was the word--the code--and it is not reducible to anything else.