“All mental revolutions are attended by catastrophe.”
—W. Winwood Reade
George Gilder’s strength as a writer is his ability to create vivid mythic archetypes saturated with his own romantic feelings. He is not comfortable with ideas unless they are strong, simple ideas that lend themselves to vivid evocation of feeling rather than complex rumination: the lure and mystery of women, the bonds of family, the love of God. His best books are the three he wrote during the 1970’s: Sexual Suicide (reissued in 1986 as Men and Marriage), Naked Nomads, and Visible Man. All three books were essentially about the same subject: the laser-fast speed with which men disintegrate, bringing down the social order with them, when they do not marry or stay married. Gilder’s specific target was the surge in the divorce rate that accompanied the simultaneous sexual and feminist revolutions. During the 1970’s, the divorce-to-marriage ratio rose to one-to-two, where it remains to this day, bringing with it such phenomena as the feminization of poverty and the CEO’s Second Wife, that glitzy creature who replaces in the life of a powerful man the woman who bore his children.
Visible Man focused on one particular aspect of this familial decay, the breakdown of the black family and the surge in antisocial behavior by black males that has accompanied it. All three books theorized that the best way to channel male aggression—ever ready to display itself in the form of crime, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, and pointless tableaux of virility instead of regular work—is to give men a positive role, that of patriarch of a traditional family. If he can be The Boss, a man will gladly cherish his wife and support his children. As the only parent with the physical strength and presence to discipline growing boys, he will ensure that they, too, grow up to be productive members of society and good fathers. Naturally, feminists loathed these ideas, partly because Gilder forecast that, when women achieve critical numbers in men’s professions, or, worse, become men’s bosses, the men, deprived of patriarchal rewards, will simply drop out. The profession will lose status—a prophecy that has already come true in such fields as teaching, social work, and in some branches of law and medicine.
In 1981, Gilder published Wealth and Poverty, an encomium to the free enterprise system. Like his earlier books, it bucked conventional liberal wisdom, this time the accumulated wisdom of the Carter years. Gilder touted Adam Smith, with his theory that wealth springs from creative enterprise; Say’s Law, that supply creates demand; and Joseph Schumpeter’s definition of capitalism as creative destruction.
Wealth and Poverty invested free enterprise with all the romantic feeling that Gilder had earlier conferred on the patriarchal family. It tended to idealize the money-making impulse, which Smith had more realistically viewed as a form of self-love that happened to yield social benefits. Gilder, as ever, preferred the simple archetype to Smith’s more subtle, more interesting assessment of businessmen and what makes them tick. Entrepreneurs display “heroic creativity,” Gilder wrote, characterizing their efforts as “forms of devotion.” Wealth and Poverty, an encapsulation of the supplyside policies that fueled the first Reagan administration, was a huge bestseller.
Gilder’s next book, The Spirit of Enterprise, published in 1984, was a rewrite of Wealth and Poverty, with more about Adam Smith and Joseph Schumpeter. By this time. Gilder’s editor, Midge Decter at Basic Books, who observers say took a strong hand in helping Gilder shape both Visible Man and Wealth and Poverty out of longer, more ecstatic manuscripts, had left. The Gilder flair for the extravagant overstatement, which had seemed a mere tic in Wealth and Poverty, burgeoned floridly. He equated capitalism with the teachings of Christ. “‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ and ‘Give and you shall be given unto’ are the central rules of the life of enterprise,” he wrote. The book largely consisted of flattering two-dimensional portraits of entrepreneurs he admired, interspersed with tendentious flailings at the tax system and the industrial-policy liberals who haunted the early 1980’s. Gilder’s literary style acquired a dense, amphetaminized quality, pushing avalanches of detail at readers in every paragraph.
The book jacket for The Spirit of Enterprise notified readers that Gilder had taken a job as semiconductors editor for RElease 1.0 magazine, a computer journal, and that a Gilder history of the semiconductor industry would be forthcoming the next year. Indeed, a full third of The Spirit of Enterprise—the most feverish and least readable third—is devoted to computer entrepreneurs and microchips. Microcosm is Gilder’s promised microchip history, although four years have elapsed since its promised due date. It is a kind of continuation of The Spirit of Enterprise, that is to say, it is in some ways yet another rewrite of Wealth and Poverty. Smith, Say’s Law, and Schumpeter’s creative destruction all duly make their appearances in Microcosm. So do all of Gilder’s worst stylistic traits in this, the longest, most ambitious, and most maniacal of his books.
Parts of Microcosm are far from dull. Its best chapters are the first two, in which Gilder clearly and elegantly explains the basic principles of quantum physics that lie at the heart of the idea of miniaturizing electronic circuitry. The “quantum revolution” that is the subject of Gilder’s book has made possible the personal computer via the microprocessor—essentially a computer on a single chip—the hand-held calculator, the digital watch, and the chips now embedded in telephone systems, automobiles, household appliances, office equipment, fax machines, and so forth. The developments in chip design that lie behind all this sophisticated new information technology emanated mostly from the fertile brain of Carver Mead, a computer science professor at the California Institute of Technology who did the basic physics research on electron tunneling, launched several generations of students, and was the guiding light behind several pioneering Silicon Valley companies.
Gilder believes that, as chip design becomes more sophisticated and it becomes possible to pack ever more circuits onto a single sliver of silicon, microprocessors will one day completely replace the powerful high-speed supercomputers produced by industry giants such as Cray Research and IBM. For Gilder, the costly Cray machines, which rely on fast-moving metal switches and wires rather than slowmoving silicon circuits—a macrocosmic rather than a Microcosmic approach to computing, as he would say—are objects of contempt. He describes the innards of the Cray as “a madman’s pasta of tangled wires.”
That description, sad to say, also fits Gilder’s prose as the book plunges “deeper into the Microcosm,” as he puts it. After those first elegant explanations of quantum theory and how it applies to microcircuitry. Microcosm quickly deteriorates into a feverish, confusing, technical-jargon-laden mess. In chapters packed as densely with information as a 64K memory chip, Gilder overloads readers with company names, details of chip design processes, and nano-tidbits of biographical data, all in no apparent chronological order. Nor is there any other order. Gilder never hesitates to refer to an arcane scientific process dozens or even hundreds of pages before describing it.
For example, Microcosm contains five references to the exploits of a mysterious company called Xicor (spelled “Xicon” in Gilder’s index). Although we learn that Xicor (or Xicon) was founded by an Israeli emigre named Raphael Klein, Gilder never tells us when Klein got started, where the company is located, how many employees it has, or what it does.
To Gilder’s computer-buff readers at RElease 1.0, the saga of Xicor with all its technical baggage may make perfect sense, but to this lay reader it seems disorganized, disorienting, and not very interesting. Xicor is but one of scores of microchip companies whose fortunes Gilder relays in the same tangled fashion. Microcosm is thus completely useless as business history. It is also useless as entrepreneur hagiography, the genre Gilder developed in The Spirit of Enterprise. Except for a few figures like Carver Mead, the characters in Microcosm are not even two-dimensional; they are mere names, like Raphael Klein.
Occasionally, Gilder strives for flamboyant Tom Wolfe-like descriptions, such as that of Jerry Sanders, head of Advanced Micro Designs, who shows up at a company sales conference at Waikiki Beach tricked out like King Kamehameha, flanked by his Barbiedoll girlfriend, and showering his audience with gold watches that the men dare not pick up. “What is this? Approaching the podium, white-haired and with a gilded crown. He is draped in frangipani leis, royal in a radiant velveteen robe, open to show a grizzled chest and a French bathing thong above tapering sun-rouged legs.” But Gilder lacks Wolfe’s imagination and, more important, Wolfe’s interest in the people he writes about, except insofar as they serve to make a point. Sanders, like Klein, simply fades away, as does Advanced Micro Designs.
A reader who would like a coherent thumbnail history of the microchip industry along with its leading figures and companies and chief technological advances would do far better to read Gilder’s five-page article about the industry in the October 23, 1989, issue of Forbes rather than this 383-page book. The article is written in plain English and includes photographs of many of the men whose names crop up in Microcosm. Gilder has an egalitarian’s hatred of the beautiful, so he enjoys describing computer types as “unappealingly small, fat, or callow, all the nerds and wonks disdained at the senior prom or the Ivy League cotillion.” It is a relief to see that his silicon pioneers are in fact pleasant-looking, highly intelligent-looking men.
It is clear that Gilder’s chief interest is not really the computer industry at all, but his own platform. As the book moves on to its final chapters, the silicon chip becomes a mere metaphor, a taking-ofF point for Gilder’s discussion of what he calls “the law of Microcosm,” which, naturally, happens to be coterminous with his particular libertarian view of the free enterprise system. As Gilder argues with some cogency, increasingly sophisticated microchips will lead to increasingly sophisticated personal computers, inexorably consigning centralized dataprocessing systems, including the Grays, to technical obsolescence and oblivion. It is a neo-Jeffersonian vision of equality, in which every man will be not a self-sufficient yeoman farmer, but a self-sufficient entrepreneur. “Rather than pushing decisions upward through the hierarchy, the power of microelectronics pulls them remorselessly down to the individual,” Gilder writes.
There is some question about whether everyone actually wants to be an enterpreneur. The American market for home computers has flattened over the past few years even as the machines themselves have become more elaborate and desirable, partly because most people can’t figure out what to do with them besides play games. But this is only the beginning. Next will follow what Gilder calls the “global quantum economy” in which national boundaries, bugaboo of “the bureaucrats,” will wither away like the state in Marx’s Communist Manifesto. “Across increasingly meaningless lines on the map, entrepreneurs rush huge and turbulent streams of capital, manufacturing components, product subassemblies, in-process inventories, research and development projects, royalties, advertising treatments, software programs, pattern generator tapes, technology licenses, circuit board schematics, and managerial ideas,” he writes breathlessly.
Again, Gilder’s microchip entrepreneurs have not exactly been enthusiastic about the roles he has assigned them as quantum internationalists (nor would the politics of most of them go over well at the Gato Institute; most are typical academic-style liberal Democrats). Although microchip technology is primarily an American development, during the mid-I980’s Japan became the world’s leading mass producer of microchips, capitalizing on its corporatist economic system and highly disciplined work force—all ideal for the building of the large factories necessary to turn out the small chips. Defying the “remorseless” law of the Microcosm, virtually all of Silicon Valley lobbied for the 1986 semiconductor agreement in which Japan agreed to stop “dumping” chips in the States. The protectionist action may have been unwise, for Gilder makes a persuasive argument that the American semiconductor industry can hold its own in the design and manufacture of customized chips. He also cannot resist heaping scorn on the “silicon patriarchs,” as he calls them, who, true to human nature instead of the law of the Microcosm, used their political leverage to maintain their markets.
Both Wealth and Poverty and The Spirit of Enterprise had their enemies lists—Carter-era regulocrats in the former, industrial-policy boosters in the latter. The enemies in Microcosm seem to be an array of protectionists, free-trade opponents, and other meddling bureaucrats. In fact, the list is much longer than that. Not subtitled “The Quantum Revolution” for nothing. Gilder’s book is a true revolutionary document, summoning both inexorable historical forces (the law of the Microcosm) as Marx did, and brute human will (the “liberation” that will flow as people emancipate themselves from nation-states) as Lenin did. “The era of the Microcosm is the epoch of free men and women scaling the hierarchies of faith and truth seeking the sources of light,” he writes. The enemy is thus all traditional loyalties that have bound men and women to their native lands, their ethnic roots, their religions.
The enemy is the entire material, palpable world that displays itself to the senses in the macrocosm rather than to the mind of the Microcosm—in short, the world in which we actually live and die. “Matter” may be illusory, with emptiness and moving electrons at its very heart, but it certainly feels real enough when we sit down to a meal, feel tired at the end of a day’s work, shiver in the cold, embrace our children, or mourn the dead.
Gilder is contemptuous of the past. His view of millenia of human civilization is straight out of Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments: “human masses pushing and pulling on massive objects at the behest of armed rulers.” He is indifferent to the beauties of nature, dismissive of what he refers to as a “preindustrial vision of an ecological Eden.” He is deaf to music and blind to art. In one passage he glowingly describes an electronic synthesizer that he says will send the piano “the way of the harpsichord” (Rosalind Tureck, call your office). In another passage, he compares the map of a microchip to Notre Dame Cathedral.
Anyone who disagrees with Gilder on any of these points is a victim of “materialist superstition,” a “doomsayer,” a “Cassandra” (a mythological reference he constantly misuses, forgetting that Cassandra’s curse was to prophesy the truth). For in the end. Gilder writes, the law of the Microcosm will give mankind limitless power and freedom, engineering the “overthrow of matter through the primal powers of mind and spirit.” We will presumably someday live in an entirely microcosmic world—Honey, I shrunk us, so to speak—and perhaps, he hints, even attain immortality as “the mind transcends every entropic trap.” This is Shirley MacLaine stuff, but Gilder seems serious.
Although the religious beliefs he expresses in Microcosm read like pure New Age gnosticism, positing matter as an illusion and mind as the only reality. Gilder has claimed to be an evangelical Christian and his publisher describes him as an associate of a church in Tyringham, Massachusetts. Part of Microcosm seems to be an effort to offer a definitive scientific proof of the existence of God, a variant of the classic argument from design. “In this unifying search is the secret of reconciliation of science and religion,” he writes. Perhaps, but this claim to find God in a computer chip may be the ultimate materialism, insisting that He cannot exist unless He somehow manifests Himself in creation. Meanwhile, I think it’s going to be a long while before we escape the curse and the blessing of the Microcosm, where our bodies decay and die, but where we can learn humility.
[Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology, by George Gilder (New York: Simon and Schuster; 383 pp., $19.95]