The Faith of a Futurist

In the future, as in the past, religious faith is central to the process of innovation
George Gilder
Wall Street Journal
December 31, 1999
Print Article

Every year I host a conference on the future of the Internet in a world of bandwidth abundance. On the last day, I hold a debate or panel on the religious significance of the technological disputes. Every year, some attendees object to this insertion of theology into the midst of a meeting otherwise devoted to the higher vocations of microelectronics and money.

Predicting the post millennial future, so they say, is an intensely practical pursuit, with an unimpeachable test of investment results. Technologies will win or lose on the basis of their performance in the marketplace. All other disputes are merely "religious wars" that will distract the investor from his rapt contemplation of the objective facts.

With any technology that will change the world so radically as the Internet, however, religious wars are important and inescapable. Although no guns will be fired, or armies deployed, net conflicts so engage the deepest beliefs and loyalties of the combatants that they can be defined as religious. Whether the role of the state in an age of strong encryption or the control of speech in a global communications medium, the issues are not merely practical. By dissolving the inhibitions and obstacles, the blinders and ballasts of economic locality, the Internet will essentially make the globe transparent. In much the way Albert Einstein's theory of relativity transformed the time-space grid of classical physics at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Einsteins of Internet communications are now transforming the time-space grid of the global economy.

After Matter's Overthrow

The essence of the change is the overthrow of matter. One manifestation of it, stressed by Alan Greenspan in recent speeches, is falling commodity prices and other trends signifying the declining contribution of material resources to global added value. We have soared higher and, literally, become lighter. The weight in tons of U.S. gross domestic product has dropped 25% in the past two decades, while its value has more than doubled. These trends all have their roots in the scientific revolution of quantum theory at the turn of the last century, when it was discovered that the assumed source of the solidity of matter--the atom--is as empty in proportion to the size of its nucleus as the solar system is empty in proportion to the size of the sun.

The discoveries of the quantum era allowed the manipulation of the inner structure of matter, and unleashed the power of microelectronics to change the inner structure of society. A centrifugal force, it made cheap personal computers more powerful in impact than the most ambitious supercomputer of a decade before, flinging intelligence to the fringes of all networks, industries, and organizations. Lending new meaning to the maxim that knowledge is power, hierarchies and top-down organizations tumbled into heterarchies, knowledge freely flowed across peer networks of powerful technicians and engineers, and CEOs bowed to the superior learning of their nominal subordinates.

In the end, the quantum revolution endowed every teenager at a computer workstation with more potential creative and communications power than a factory tycoon of the industrial era, a broadcast magnate of the television age, or even the youth's often baffled parents, as later generations surpassed the earlier in computer skills.

Now, at the turn of the new millennium, in a further unfolding of the overthrow of matter, we are moving into an industrial era based on photons, totally massless bearers of electromagnetic energy: light. The new paradigm is the all-optical network--in which photonic communication ends by driving even the infinitesimal mass of electrons out of the critical paths of networks. At the heart of this technology is wavelength division multiplexing: sending many different colors of light down a single fiber thread one-tenth the width of a human hair. Soon a single cable will carry as much traffic as the entire American Internet infrastructure carried in one month in 1997.

You cannot deploy a technology so radically superior to the incumbent system of television broadcasts and phone connections without invoking profound forces of social, economic and cultural change. Because the vast flood of broadband services will necessarily overthrow most of the powers and principalities of current world industry, these advances are incurring often tacit but still tenacious resistance from all the beneficiaries of the old narrowband order, from voice based telephone companies to television broadcasters, from mass advertisers to Hollywood producers, from communications regulators to the communications bar, all supported by ranks of mayors, judges and politicians, from Alaska to Florida, intimately entwined and embedded in the old order.

For the new system to prevail, it will be necessary to explain the power of this tool to the public and to politicians. This is the campaign I described as religious, fueled by visions of change and redemption, and powered by faith.

What does faith have to do with it, my critics will ask. This, after all, is a technology of facts and physics, not visions and passions. The answer is that only faith enables us to make this kind of leap.

Faith is central to every process of innovation. A crucial law of intellectual creativity is that belief precedes knowledge. The logic of creativity is "leap before you look." You cannot fully see anything new from an old place. The old saw of "look before you leap" provides only for the continual elaborations and refinements of old ideas that comprise the bulk of scholarship (and the bulk of "industrial progress" in large and static companies).

Imagination, intuition, and hypothesis are the first steps of technical creation. As in love, a man must trust his intuition, and act on faith, before he can really know. Love appears blind to outside observers, but lovers know that it is guided by a more exalted vision and opens new realms of knowledge and creativity. Commitment can create its own confirmation. To the man who dares not commit, dares not love, the entire world seems barren and dull, the future pregnant with doom. It is love and faith that infuse ideas with life and luminosity.

We may not always describe ourselves as religious. But the act of creation is a religious act. Religious faith takes many forms, from church attendance to prophetic visions. But they all entail a commitment to ideas or concepts that are unprovable at the outset, that are empirically incalculable because they refer not to statistical probability but to singular outcomes, whether personal salvation or the success of a business innovation.

Without religious commitment, new ideas cannot take flight and flourish, new technology cannot be projected into untilled markets, and new systems cannot be built. No market test can prove the demand for what does not yet exist. You cannot build bridges by counting the swimmers. The investor who never acts until the financials affirm his choice, the athlete or politician who fails to make his move until too late, the entrepreneur who waits until the market is proven--all are doomed to mediocrity by their trust in spurious rationality and their failures of faith.

In the United States on the eve of the new millennium we face the usual calculus of impossibility, recited by the familiar aspirants to a master plan. Abundant bandwidth is a delusion; the Internet is chiefly a sump of pornography and trivia; the most decentralized network in history is prone to oligopoly; television is forever; voice will always be the key source of telephony profits; strong encryption, the key tool of electronic commerce, must be suppressed and thus relegated to foreign companies; insidious global warming, pollution, ozone depletion, and other chimeras of popular "science" require a radical cutback in energy usage; tax rate cuts require spending cuts, which are impossible. At a time when the global afflictions of poverty, famine and disease are about to succumb to a world-wide tsunami of new commerce and invention, prominent politicians prattle about a fanciful "digital divide" and promise to impose "level playing fields" on the sprouting skyscrapers of new wealth.

The enemies of the future all betray a tragic failure of faith. Their blindness to opportunity and their bias toward regulation and redistribution is chiefly a religious disorder, a rebellion against the inevitable risks and uncertainties of human life. Their regulation of telephony and cable TV--the best current candidates to bring broadband net access to the home--has already inflicted a last mile bottleneck on the information economy. Their drive to extend this regulation to the Internet is the greatest threat to the redemptive economy now in view in America.

We are entering a new millennium when computers will soon achieve a processing power comparable to the 10 billion neurons in the human brain and communications technology will reduce the limits of human achievement to the dual constraints of time: the speed of light and the span of life. As Internet traffic grows at a pace of a thousandfold every five years and Web pages multiply at a pace of a million a day, Internet ventures currently face volumes just one tenth of one percent of their likely business half a decade hence.

The Nineteenth Century Model

In the face of this immense vista of opportunity, the current anxieties and doubts of the world political order, its chimeras of ecological doom and digital divides and dim monopoly threats and dire impending shortages, are all profoundly reactionary. These concerns have their roots in the zero sum assumptions of the premillennial economy. The overthrow of matter, however, entails as a corollary the ascendancy of ideas as the prime objects of economic output and consumption. Essentially infinite in its horizons, an economy of ideas brings the issues of faith and spirit to the fore.

As we enter the frontiers of this new economy, what the nation needs is a renewal of the faith that sustained our forefathers at a similar time of change and opportunity on the frontiers of 19th century America. The old frontier of the American West also appeared closed at first. It became an open reservoir of wealth only in retrospect, because the pioneers dared to risk their lives and families in the quest for riches, looking for gold (of which there was little) and finding oil (then of little use). Our previous accomplishments as a nation were based on faith, the faith of our fathers, the belief in things hoped for and things unseen.

All the great figures of our history--from Washington and Lincoln at war to Reagan at the Berlin Wall, from Henry Ford with the Model T to Bill Gates with the PC--had to act before the facts were in and thus had to move under the auspices of faith.

Even more poignantly, in order to create and preserve the riches that we now enjoy, our fathers were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in four major wars. Immigrants were willing to risk everything so that their children could experience a better life. They believed in the ultimate power of goodness--that there were things more important, more ultimate, than their own flesh and blood and happiness. The difference was faith--the belief that the things of the spirit are the real ultimate things, the belief that human life is supremely meaningful and important, the summit of the universe.

This belief is not entirely rational. But it is entirely essential to human achievement. Another way of putting it is a belief in God.

How to Believe

What does it mean to say you believe in God? A minimal definition of God is an omnipotent force of goodness. The Judeo-Christian tradition upholds a faith that God is one, God is good and God will prevail. A belief in God asserts that virtue will finally triumph. No matter how dark and menacing seems the world at any particular time, goodness will win. The believer's sacrifices will be redeemed in the future by the eventual triumph of goodness over evil.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once summed up our predicament:

Nothing worth doing is completed
In one lifetime
Therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful makes
Complete sense
In any context of history
Therefore we must be saved by faith
Nothing we do, no matter how virtuous,
Can be accomplished alone.
Therefore we must be saved by love.

These are the religious rules of economic success in millennia past, and they will obtain in millennia to come. The twentieth century has been an era when an atheistic belief in the ultimacy of matter and the triviality of man led to the horrors of Nazism, Communism, and an epoch of total war. Now sweeping through the global economy, the overthrow of matter will unleash an undertow of religious belief that will make the new millennium a time of awakening to the oceanic grandeur and goodness of the universe. An economy of ideas and innovations ultimately means an economy ruled by spirit and faith.

Mr. Gilder is a fellow of the Discovery Institute and editor of the Gilder Technology Report (www.gildertech.com).

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