The hallmark of the sophomoric mind is that it knows the sorts of things that adult minds do but has not yet figured out how to do them. Bright undergraduates who solemnly inform their professors that they plan to write term papers applying what they have read about the latest fads of pop psychology to the enduring problems of literature and history are fairly typical specimens of the breed. They know that mature scholars spend their lives trying to apply new ideas to old problems, but in their own immaturity they have not yet learned how to tell which new ideas might offer useful approaches to such problems, which ideas are worthwhile but irrelevant, and which ideas are merely foolish. Hence, the papers they eventually submit to their teachers are usually minor disasters of ingenious but misapplied erudition.

Sophomoric minds are common enough in colleges, but sometimes they never grow up. Sometimes they manage to gain Ph.D.’s and teach college, and occasionally they get themselves elected to Congress. But only once in a century or so does a perpetual sophomore become Speaker of the House of Representatives, with a majority of his own party behind him. Such an event is now upon us, and the consequences of a sophomoric mind unleashed and equipped with real political power may turn out to be a good deal more disastrous than those of silly term papers.

Most Americans and even most Republicans who knew of Newt Gingrich before last November’s Republican sweep of the House and Senate probably had no idea of what for years he has thought and believed, and when in January he began to unbosom his wisdom in nationally noticed speeches, those who listened to him must have been astonished. It is well known that Mr. Gingrich is a man of no small intelligence—the brightest in the House, some say—and is eager to absorb, combine, and spew out new ideas in much the same way as the computer with which he is so fascinated. In academics and even young lawmakers, such traits are assets, but in what is supposed to be the more sober figure of Speaker of the House, they may be flaws.

It is a fair and reasonable interpretation of last year’s elections that the citizens who voted for the Republicans did so because they generally wanted such mundane desiderata as lower taxes, safer neighborhoods, smaller government, more controls on immigration, and less meddling abroad. Probably not a single voter in the United States cast his ballot for a Republican (or a Democrat) because he thought it would accelerate a world-historical transformation comparable to the transition to agriculture in prehistoric times or the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. It is just such a transformation, however, to which Mr. Gingrich is personally dedicated and to which he now seems determined to deliver the country, if not the planet.

The transformation is what Mr. Gingrich and his personal gurus like to call the “Third Wave,” a term they take from the best-selling tract of pop futurism by Alvin Toffler, and no sooner had the 104th Congress convened than Mr. Gingrich himself showed up at a daylong conference with Mr. Toffler and the latter’s ubiquitous wife Heidi to proclaim the arrival of the New Age. The conference, on the topic of “Virtual America,” was sponsored by the Progress and Freedom Foundation, run by former Gingrich staff aide Jeff Eisenach, and in addition to the new Speaker it featured former Congressman Vin Weber and the lovely if largely brainless Arianna Huffington, who, while everyone else was palavering about the Third Wave, had some thoroughly unremarkable revelations to impart about what she calls the Fourth Instinct.

But never mind the Fourth Instinct for now. Keep your eye on the Third Wave, which, it turns out, is the epochal social, economic, and political change supposedly induced by the arrival of computers and similar postindustrial technologies. As Toffler himself described it in his 1980 book, “The Third Wave brings with it a genuinely new way of life based on diversified, renewable energy sources; on methods of production that make most factory assembly lines obsolete; on new, nonnuclear families; on a novel institution that might be called the ‘electronic cottage’; and on radically changed schools and corporations of the future.” Mr. Toffler always characterizes the coming age in the most breathless and dramatically Utopian (not to say apocalyptic) terms—”The emergent civilization writes a new code of behavior for us. . . . The new civilization . . . will topple bureaucracies, reduce the role of the nation-state . . . [and] could . . . turn out to be the first truly humane civilization on earth.”

The First Wave, you see, was the agricultural revolution of Neolithic times, and it took thousands of years for its implications to unfold. The Second Wave was the Industrial Revolution, and it took only a couple of centuries to waft us to the crest of the third one. Now, armed with laptops and lasers, we can surf into the final high-tech happyland under the mellow guidance of Mr. Gingrich himself. Mr. Gingrich, it turns out, believes almost all of this, just as a college sophomore believes everything he reads in the New York Times, and he has believed it for years. In his book Window of Opportunity, which bears a somewhat qualified endorsement from Toffler (they disagree on abortion and school prayer) and somewhat less guarded ones from Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, Mr. Gingrich expatiated on just a few of the wonders of the coming era. The first one he mentioned was “a home videocomputer system which would film your golf swing” and tell you how to improve it. Then there was the “personalized health chair,” which would record what and how much you should eat and “allow a lot more people to stay out of nursing homes” (he said nothing in this book about orphanages). There will be “an interactive computerized income tax package,” a “retirement rules and regulations package,” a computer directory for federal parks and monuments, new techniques for helping the handicapped, and (perhaps Mr. Gingrich’s favorite, at least next to spiffing up his golf swing), new techniques for learning and “information accessing.” “We continue to behave as though we lived in the age of books or even in the age of orally imparted knowledge,” Mr. Gingrich complained.

Speaking at the “Virtual America” conference on January 10, he made clear that his views have not changed much since the above passages were published (in 1984—no comment), except perhaps that he now sees his own role in leading the nation and perhaps the world into the Third Wave as rather larger than he did then. Taking from Toffler the idea that the world situation today is comparable to that of the 1770’s and 1780’s, a period Mr. Gingrich described as “the transition from the end of the medieval agrarian society to the rise of the commercial and ultimately manufacturing society,” he noted the role of Adam Smith as the prophet of the industrial age, with British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, “surrounded by the disciples of Smith,” actually implementing the political changes appropriate to the Second Wave.

The analogy is pretty clear. Just as Smith was the ideological prophet of the Second Wave and Pitt its political spearhead, so today Toffler is the prophet of the Third Wave and Mr. Gingrich is its Pitt. Mr. Gingrich, himself a Ph.D. in history from Tulane, is reported to read omnivorously the lives and careers of such titanic leaders of the past as the Duke of Wellington, Bismarck, and Franklin Roosevelt, and his speeches are larded with allusions to such figures, especially Roosevelt, whom he seems to see as a model for contemporary statecraft.

Indeed, what is transparent about the whole Third Wave paradigm, for those familiar with the thought of the late Eric Voegelin, who was perhaps the very antithesis of a sophomoric mind, is that Toffler’s view of the contemporary world and Mr. Gingrich’s own elaboration of that view are almost literal manifestations of what Voegelin called “gnosticism,” the ancient religious and philosophical movement that for a time was a significant rival to Christianity and which Voegelin saw as the intellectual and spiritual ancestor of modern totalitarianism. Voegelin identified four main “symbols” as characterizing gnostic movements, whether the religious ones of antiquity or their messianic political descendants of modern times.

The first symbol, he wrote, is “the conception of history as a sequence of three ages, of which the third age is intelligibly the final Third Realm,” the last stage of history in which the perfection of the world, society, and man is achieved through “gnosis,” knowledge that usually is imparted through a kind of mystical illumination rather than rational communication. Voegelin identified the Marxist “third age” of proletarian communism and the national socialist Third Reich as the symbols of those specific gnostic movements. “The second symbol,” Voegelin wrote, “is that of the leader,” while the third symbol is that of the prophet, the one carrying out the heavy lifting for practical utopianism while the other works out and proclaims the theory. The fourth symbol is that of the “brotherhood of autonomous persons,” which in modern gnostic movements consists of the party, the race, the proletariat, or other collectivities that are supposed to be the historic agents of secular salvation.

The Toffler-Gingrich Third Wave paradigm incorporates most of the symbols of gnosticism. The Third Wave itself is the Third Realm, while Toffler is the Prophet and Mr. Gingrich the Leader of the Realm. The “brotherhood of autonomous persons” is less apparent, but no doubt it will emerge in time as those who adhere to the paradigm and to Mr. Gingrich’s unquestioned leadership of it crystallize. But, as the prophet and the leader explain the Third Wave, the new realm they aim to construct appears to be the antithesis of totalitarianism. Thus, Mr. Gingrich insisted at the “Virtual America” conference that “everywhere on the planet, we are saying that the information age means more decentralization, more market orientation, more freedom for individuals, more opportunity for choice, more capacity to be productive without controls by the state.”

Of course, he is not the only one to believe so, and it is now a commonplace to think that the new technologies of computers and high-tech communication will lead to decentralization. Jude Wanniski, George Gilder, Vin Weber, and Jack Kemp, among others, are those on the “right” who are most vociferous in proclaiming this new gospel—even as transnational trade pacts and organizations gobble and centralize old nations and regions and even as new communications conglomerates absorb smaller competitors. The truth is that what Mr. Gingrich and his fellow Third Wavers think is decentralization is in fact the very opposite. The “personalized health chair” that he predicted in his book is a fairly clear example. By connecting your body and its signals to a centralized hospital or health center, you are hardly governing your own diet, health, and physical regimen. You are merely turning them over to (a) the centralized bureaucracy from which comes the information on what your weight, blood pressure, diet, temperature, exercise regimen, etc., “should” be and (b) the computer itself. What you do when you sit down in Mr. Gingrich’s health chair is surrender your own body to its computerized therapies and standards and at the same time surrender your own mind to the decisions it tells you to make.

Much the same is true of all the rest of the new technology. Its whole point is to “hook you in” to networks, information bases, services, etc., that you neither control nor construct and that remain far more centralized than the books for which Mr. Gingrich seems to show so much contempt. All these gadgets and services no doubt have their value, from curing the handicapped to improving your golf game, but have no illusion that they will make you free. Computers and the rest of the new postindustrial technology offer opportunities for human enslavement undreamt of by the gnostic prophets and leaders of the past.

In claiming—quite seriously, as far as anyone can tell—that technology rather than human ideas, moral values, and social institutions will make us free, Mr. Gingrich is recapitulating an idea profoundly characteristic of gnosticism. Technology itself is the “gnosis” of this particular movement, and once we are illuminated (and thus liberated) by its glow, not only will we no longer need such Second Wave contraptions as books, but we will also be done with the whole musty structure of traditional civilization that Mr. Toffler so happily chirps into oblivion. The dehumanized vision of the future that he and Leader Gingrich share may yield a certain amount of decentralization and “opportunity” in the short run, but as the machines of the Third Wave replace social institutions and moral disciplines, make no mistake about how much freedom from the first and second waves will remain on the beach.