The Gildered Age

By Michael Schrage, CIO |  Networking

But even as CIOs curse his name, they can't help but admire the craft Gilder brings to describing the revolutions that have concurrently and convergently occurred in the realms of fiber, frequencies, lasers and satellites. Just as he did in his earlier book The Meaning of the Microcosm, Gilder tracks, identifies and credits the people and teams that made telecosmic innovations possible. People like Elias Snitzer, Will Hicks and Charles Kao -- who has heard of them? -- made commercializing fiber optics possible by figuring out how to manipulate photons as adeptly as the microcosm boys manipulated electrons. Gilder's tale of the coevolution of fiber optics and semiconductor lasers is truly a multibillion-dollar story of disruptive technology. Gilder has found dozens of such visionaries; they deserve the attention.

In fact, one of Gilder's greatest strengths is just how skillfully he blends his techno-tales with the business side of the equation. I've heard ex-Bell Labs Nobel laureate Arno Penzias once backhand a compliment to Gilder by describing him as a poet who understands essential truths about technology without quite understanding the technology itself. However, few poets have as strong a sense of marketplace narrative as Gilder.

This comes across particularly strongly in Gilder's discourse on an engagement with Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe. It is no small irony that, in most respects, Gilder the poet has done a better job of predicting the Ethernet's evolution than its MIT-Harvard-trained creator. To grotesquely oversimplify, Metcalfe -- as a truly brrilliant and insightful engineer -- believed that greater intelligence leads to greater networks; that was the essence of how he transformed the Aloha protocol into the breakthrough Ethernet innovation. By contrast, Gilder looked at Ethernet and recognized that the brilliance of the innovation relied more on its dumb qualities than on its intelligence. Think about it: How many world-class engineers value "dumbth" over "smarts"? What we have here is not so much a clash of intellects but a fundamental difference in values. What gives you more bang for the buck: souped-up simplicity or elegant complexity?

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