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"Arguing in My Spare Time," No. 3.26

Arnold Kling

Nov. 13, 2000

Michael North and George Gilder are ideological bookends for the philosophy that I call techno-mysticism. This is the view that the diffusion of information technology is an inevitable and uplifting process.

Michael North is a left-wing social entrepreneur. His most recent project is Greenstar, which installs self-contained, solar-powered, Internet-connected "community centers" in locations that are "off the grid."

The phrase "off the grid" refers to the electrical power system, yet it symbolizes a larger disconnect from modern technology and affluence. The first Greenstar installation was in Al-Kaabneh, a Palestinian village on the West Bank of the Jordan River.

George Gilder is a right-wing technology pundit. His most recent project is the book "Telecosm," which describes the billion-dollar investments and advanced technology that are involved in creating high-speed communication connections using fiber optics and the wireless spectrum.

Gilder sees in the Telecosm another instance of increasing returns. With computers and the Internet, we have enjoyed the benefits of Moore's Law and Metcalfe's Law. These have given us ever-faster computer chips and ever-larger benefits from using the Internet, respectively. He argues that the cost of bandwidth is falling even faster than the cost of computing, leading to an abundance of capacity for transporting information.

I seem to be one of the last hold-outs for the theory of diminishing returns. In that role, let me give four reasons to be skeptical about the techno-mystical promise of increasing returns from higher bandwidth.

1. Power Fatigue

As Gilder points out, mobile devices depend on batteries, for which the technology improves only slowly. Have you driven an electric car lately? Or ask me how I feel about mobile computing devices after having two of them ruined by catastrophic failures of the backup battery.

The features of an ideal mobile Internet terminal (or a "teleputer," as Gilder calls it) include:

All of these features are feasible with existing technology. The problem is that if you tried to combine them into a single device, you'd probably need to carry around a power pack the size of a cantaloupe.

2. Attention Fatigue

The strongest refutation of techno-mysticism would be for its wildest predictions to come true. When you ask what is the "killer application" for fiber to the home, the answer is "movies on demand." When you ask the same question about the wireless Internet, the answer is "stock market alerts."

Think about it. Umpteen trillion dollars to be spent on fiber and wireless infrastructure, so that we can have movies on demand and stock market alerts?

One would hope that we can do better. After all, at the dawn of the personal computer era, nobody foresaw word processing and spreadsheets. Pundits talked about home computers being used to store recipes.

The most obvious implication of an increase in bandwidth is an increase in the number of messages that can be transmitted. Based on that fact, where I think we are headed is a world that is optimized for people with Attention Deficit Disorder. We will be bombarded with messages in various media. As a result, we will be forced to use various forms of human and computer intelligence to help juggle our communication priorities.

In this environment, live human speech will slip off its pedestal and be reduced to just one more messaging format. Today, a teacher in a classroom or a speaker in a meeting has a presumptive ownership over the attention of the audience. My guess is that within five years or so this will have broken down completely. You simply will take it for granted that while you address an audience, people will be engaged in electronic communication with external parties, only intermittently tuning in to what you have to say.

This, too, may not sound like a vision that is worth umpteen trillion dollars to set up. In fact, I can imagine that there are people who might instead prefer to pay something to avoid it. But it represents a reasonable guess about the impact of high bandwidth.

3. Chasm fatigue

Consultant Geoffrey Moore has given us the wonderful phrase "crossing the chasm" to describe the process of getting a new product to move beyond early adopters to the mass market.

I do not see signs of mobile Internet devices crossing the chasm. Palm Pilots have been around for a few years now, and I am still waiting for a compelling reason to buy one. I'm sorry, but the way see it, if I need something to keep myself occupied when I'm traveling, I can pack a book.

Gilder takes it for granted that the early adopters will drive the market to select products that ultimately can be mass-produced. However, it is unclear to me how fiber-optic cables will cross the chasm from big corporate towers to my one-person office in a strip mall.

4. Cultural fatigue

Suppose that Gilder is correct and the economics are in favor of mass-market adoption of high-bandwidth technologies. I continue to believe that the "digital divide" is a cultural phenomenon. As I argued in Information haves and have-nots, it takes knowledge and skill to make effective use of technology. This is an issue of cultural adaptation.

For example, the Greenstar solar-powered Internet community center in Al-Kaabneh came out of the Wye River peace accord. President Clinton asked his Cabinet for ways to deliver on some of the economic promises of Wye. His Secretary of Energy passed this request down, ultimately leading to a connection with Greenstar.

If you were drinking the techno-mysticism Kool-aid, you would expect the Internet to lead to peace, freedom, and economic develoment in the Middle East. But my guess is that right now the village of Al-Kaabneh is more caught up in some nagging cultural issues that don't seem to want to go away.

Speaking of people who are not impressed by modernity, free choice, and market economics, did you see what happened to the voucher initiatives in California and Michigan? I believe it was Abba Eban who said that the advocates of failed public schools "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." I suspect that the defeat for educational choice ensures that many children will remain frozen in a culture of failure, with no hope of crossing the chasm.

Even assuming that the Telecosm achieves widespread adoption, the cultural consquences may be mixed. At best, we may be in for another "great disruption," to use Fukuyama's phrase. Human evolution does not take place at the rate of Moore's Law.

The thesis of techno-mysticism is that high bandwidth will bring the people of the world closer to one another. My worry is that it will accentuate differences. In particular, people who are culturally well-suited for taking advantage of the technology may lose connection with those who are not.