Telecosm: How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionize Our World

Telecosm: How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionize Our World

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by George Gilder

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The computer age is over. After a global run of thirty years, it has given birth to the age of the telecosm—the world enabled and defined by new communications technology. Gilder puts it all together in a soaring view of why things change and what it means for our daily lives.


The computer age is over. After a global run of thirty years, it has given birth to the age of the telecosm—the world enabled and defined by new communications technology. Gilder puts it all together in a soaring view of why things change and what it means for our daily lives.

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While most of us are still dabbling in microchips, futurologist George Gilder has moved on to the next revolution: the telecosm. This world of infinite bandwidth, speed of light networking, and cathedrals of glass that enable us to communicate hundreds of Libraries of Congress in an instant. This history of these still miraculously unfolding technologies will challenge readers with its new rules (e.g., "the smaller the space, the more the room"), but as the music industry learned, it can be expensive to get caught napstering.

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Chapter 1: Maxwell's Rainbow

The supreme abundance of the telecosm is the electromagnetic spectrum, embracing all the universe of vibrating electrical and magnetic fields, from power line pulses through light beams to cosmic rays. The scarcity that unlocks this abundance is the supreme scarcity in physical science: the absolute minimum time it takes to form an electromagnetic wave of a particular length. Set by the permeability of free space, this minimal span determines the speed of light.

The discovery of electromagnetism, and its taming in a mathematical system, was the paramount achievement of the nineteenth century and the first step into the telecosm. The man who did it was the great Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell. In his honor, we will call the spectrum Maxwell's rainbow. Today most of world business in one way or another is pursuing the pot of gold at the end of it.

Arriving at the profound and surprising insight that all physical phenomena, from images and energies to chemical and solid bodies, are built on oscillation, Maxwell embarked on a science of shaking. For roughly a hundred and fifty years, this improbable topic has animated all physics. Another word for oscillation is temperature. Without the oscillations, the mostly empty matter of the universe would collapse in on itself. In theory, you can make the shaking stop, but only by making things cold indeed -- 273 degrees below zero Celsius, or zero Kelvin. So far unreachable even in laboratories, it is the temperature of the universe's heat death.

When things oscillate, they make waves, and in that magic moment the possibility of the telecosm is born.

Maxwell's genius was to realize that all waves are mathematically identical, and can be arrayed along a continuum known as the spectrum. The unity of the spectrum makes possible the ubiquity and interoperability of communications systems and thus enables the unification of the world economy in the new era.

The light your eyes can see is only a tiny slice of the range of "colors" that actually exist or can be created. They run from the background rumble of the universe at the low, or "dark" end, to shrieking gamma rays that can penetrate a planet at the high "bright" end. Each wavelength has its own distinct characteristics -- some are better at transmitting raw power, others for traveling long distances, others for carrying digital bits.

Slices of Maxwell's rainbow form the core of virtually every significant modern technology: 60-hertz household power cords and three kilohertz (thousand-cycle) telephones; 700 megahertz (mega is million) Pentium PCs; two gigahertz (billion) cellular phones and 200 terahertz (trillion) fiber-optic cables. The neurons in your brain, for their part, hum along at barely a kilohertz; thank the Lord for parallel processing. Dental X rays, at the other extreme, top a petahertz -- a thousand trillion cycles per second. The potential number of frequencies is literally infinite, limited only by how finely your technology can parse the rainbow.

Maxwell's theory informed his several immense tomes on electromagnetism. The fruit of a promethean life ended by cancer at age forty-eight, his work empowered titans such as Erwin Schroedinger, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, and Richard Feynman to create the edifice of twentieth-century quantum and post-quantum physics.

As much as pure scientists hate the idea, however, it is engineers and entrepreneurs who finally ratify their work. Until theory is embodied in a device, it is really not physics but metaphysics. Newton's ideas burst forth as the industrial revolution. Quantum theory triumphed unimpeachably in the atomic bomb and the microchip. In contrast to the intriguing perplexities of particle physics -- Einstein's relativity, Murray Gell-Mann's quarks, Richard Feynman's quantum electrodynamics, Stephen Weinberg's grand unification, Schwartz's karass of superstrings -- Maxwell's rainbow may seem child's play. But as we approach the twenty-first century, the spectrum's infinite spread of capabilities is history's driving force.

Maxwell had transformed the mindscape of metaphor and analogy by which human beings grasp reality. For Newton's medley of massy and impenetrable materials, he substituted a noosphere of undulatory energies. And woven uniquely into the warp of nature was the resonating speed of light. As Maxwell and others discovered, the speed of light is a basic constant in our universe -- no matter the speed of the observor or the medium. Frequencies and wavelengths may change, but light speed delay -- the time it takes to propagate an electromagnetic wave -- never changes.

As we will see, light speed is both the crucial enabler and limit of the telecosm. Without it, radiation would be chaotic and uncommunicative. It would be noise that could not bear a signal. Yet communication can never exceed this speed, a fact that will keep us forever distant from other planets and even from ourselves.

There are no practical limits to the spectrum's range of possible wavelengths and frequencies. Nor is the spectrum expressed only by the physics of electromagnetic waves. Spectral frequencies translate into temperatures, into atomic signatures, and into photon energies.

Let the action begin by beating on a drum at a rate of once each second: one hertz. Translating these drumming "phonons" into electromagnetic form, a one-hertz frequency would command a theoretical wavelength of three hundred million meters. Applied to a single photon, its energy in electron volts would be Planck's quantum constant -- 6.63 times 10 to the minus 34th power, close to "Johnson noise," the background chill of the cosmos. Slowly accelerate the drumming to the fast be-bop rattle of a Max Roach or Buddy Rich, perhaps 16 beats per second. That is 16 hertz, around one fourth of the rate of an electrical power station. Suppose that your drumming skills are superhuman, moving at 3,000 beats per second; you are transferring the same number of oscillations that can be carried by a telephone wire. At some 30,000 hertz you have broken the sound barrier because you are sending out wave crests faster than they can be heard.

Nonetheless, you remain near the very bottom of the electromagnetic spectrum. At the other extreme are gamma rays, creatures of cosmic explosions and giant particle accelerators, a frequency of 10 to the 24th hertz. Their wavelength, 10 to the minus 22 meters, is small enough to get lost in an atom. Between Johnson noise and gamma rays is the telecosm, the gigantic span that Maxwell bridged with his mind, most of it now open to human use.

Above 14 gigahertz -- at wavelengths running from the millimeters of microwaves down to the nanometers of visible light -- is the new frontier of the millenium, empires of air and fiber that command some fifty thousand times more communications potential than all the lower frequencies we now use put together. A purely human invention, they provide the key arena of economic activity for the new century.

To put this huge span of frequencies in perspective, a factor of some 10 to the 25th stands between the lengths of the longest and shortest known forms of electromagnetic waves. As molecular biologist Michael Denton has observed: "A pile of ten to the twenty-fifth playing cards would make a stack stretching halfway across the observable universe." Seventy percent of the sun's light and heat occupies the band between near-ultraviolet and near-infrared -- the width of the edge of just one playing card in Denton's cosmic stack. This little sliver of the spectrum providentially sustains life. Maxwell opened the rest of it up for human use: the telecosm....

Meet the Author

George Gilder publishes the Gilder Technology Report, a monthly newsletter, and is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, where he directs the program on high technology and public policy. He is a founder and contributor to ForbesASAP, a contributing editor of Forbes magazine, and a frequent writer for The Economist, Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. His previous books include Microcosm and Wealth and Poverty. He lives in Tyringham, Massachusetts.

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Telecosm: How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionize Our World 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although not overly technical, ¿Telecosm: How Infinite Bandwidth with Revolutionize the World¿ by George Gilder is still a fairly complicated exploration into the way exploding bandwidth affects the way we live. Gilder contends that we are now in the ¿age of the telecosm,¿ which he defines as the world ¿enabled and defined by new communication technology,¿ and he points out that bandwidth has replaced computer power as the driving force for technological advancements. Gilder discusses the promise of fiber in replacing ¿switches and air and microwaves and computer displays and geo-synchronous satellites¿ instead of simply being a retrofit for copper wire. But, he reminds the reader of the speed limit of light and that abundant bandwidth does not accelerate the time the first bit in a given message can travel. At the end of the book, Gilder translates his thoughts into 20 ¿Laws of the Telecosm,¿ some of which were intriguing and others common sense. He also offers a telecom glossary, which he describes as ¿An Opinionated Lexicon.¿ His metaphors helped me (a non-techie) to visualize and understand telecom technologies. For example, he described TDMA as being like each person at a cocktail party who restricts his/her talk to a specific time slot while everyone else is silent. In contrast, CDMA would allow everyone to talk at once but in different languages. Everyone would listen for messages in their own language and ignore all other sounds as background noise. Gilder makes suggestions about investment opportunities. However, his advice wasn¿t always accurate. He speaks highly of Global Crossing, which is now beset by challenges. This book presents the science, history, business stories, investment advice, and predictions for the future of telecommunications networking. An interesting perspective if you can tolerate the complexity or don¿t mind wading through the detail.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Reasonably enjoyable if you can get around the awful way way it is written. Gilder appears perpetually out of breath, and while I'm all for enthusiasm about your subject, you should never let it become an impediment to understanding. Why for example, does Gilder eat not merely Sushi, but 'Sushi and Wasabi' if you please - and twice in one paragraph at that? Is it to sound grandiose? Still, the book has its points. I enjoyed learning about how existing technologies were developed, and by whom. When he drops his attempts to be poetic, he tells a pretty good story. He should have someone edit his next effort.
Guest More than 1 year ago
George Gilder¿s new book Telecosm will become ¿must reading¿ for everyone who wants to know what comes after the computer-internet revolution. While the essence of Gilder¿s argument is easy, the details are complex and sometimes daunting. Essentially Gilder argues that the ability to send messages is about to explode in capability and crash in price. The result, he argues, will be a revolution in the volume of information we can rely on and the cost of getting it. Most Americans at home use a 56k (56,000 bits of information per second) or slower modem to connect them to the Internet. At work they are lucky if they have a T1 system with about 1.2 million bits per second. Gilder wants us to prepare for a world in which you will have a billion or more bits per second available to you which may be available on a portable wireless system you can carry around with you. In general I agree with Telecosm¿s assessment of the coming large-scale change. As I have argued in ¿the Age of Transitions¿, we are entering a period of such dramatic change that the amount of change we saw in the entire twentieth century will almost certainly be matched by the changes of the next 25 years. This rate of change guarantees that the world will not stabilize in our lifetime, and we will therefore be engaged in a series of transitions in which we learn one new thing in order to move on and learn another new thing.Gilder focuses on changes in one crucial area, and in his general orientation he is almost certainly right. Gilder offers a series of arguments for the practicality and reasonableness of his projections. He carries you through a history of the laser, fiber optics, the use of frequency modulation, the opportunities inherent in low orbit satellites and wireless. Anyone interested in how science becomes engineering and engineering becomes entrepreneurship will find much of this book fascinating and useful. Given Gilder¿s earlier prescience in Microcosm (a study of the silicon chip and the computer revolution) his credibility forces you to automatically take Gilder seriously. One of the implications of this forecast is a radical redistribution of cost structures. In the current world of limited bandwidth, and therefore limited information transfer, it makes a lot of sense to put money into sophisticated processing which enables us to compress data and maximize the current bandwidth. The result is a system in which the embedded communications base has enormous investments in sophisticated message carrying and translating equipment. In Gilder¿s analysis the future will belong to relatively simply fiber optic systems with very limited investments in processing the communications and the intelligence will drift to the periphery. You will be able to send so much data so inexpensively that the emphasis will rest with increasing the capabilities of individual users¿ computers to deal with the flood of information rather than investing in the communications network. Gilder believes the traditional telephone companies are trapped into a system of stunningly complex investments that will become obsolete as the fiber optic world evolves. Gilder further believes this new revolution will use frequency modulation to create enormous information carrying capability for local wireless systems. A fiber optic cable will carry giga (billions), terra (trillions) and peta (add three more zeros) bits of information, and will broadcast them locally so they will literally leap over the twisted copper which today keeps all of us moving at a snail¿s pace in our local network. The result will be more information in a home than currently exists in the fastest supercomputer. It will be a world in which expert systems explode with capability and work, shopping, health, politics and entertainment are explosively liberated from geographic constraints. Gilder believes the initial low-orbit-satellite telephone systems were misdesigned, and that the