Art McGee on Fri, 29 Oct 1999 21:39:10 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> George Gilder: Techno-Tyrant

Seattle Weekly

October 14-20, 1999


Led by renowned "visionary" George Gilder, Seattle's Discovery Institute
is hard at work making sure the future stays in the hands of good ol'
white boys.

In case you haven't heard, Seattle is home to a tremendously important
"think tank." This think tank is called the Discovery Institute, and it's
a place where a bunch of white guys sit around and think very hard, at
very shiny conference tables. What these guys are thinking about is The
Future. One of their mottoes is "The Discovery Institute: making a
positive vision of the future practical."

Every few weeks, the Institute sponsors luncheons at the Washington
Athletic Club with guest speakers: Newt Gingrich, Jennifer Dunn, a
congressman with a disheveled comb-over who knows everything there is to
know about Y2K. During the speeches the guys listen attentively and take
notes. The food is terrible--dried-out fish that was caught a long, long
time ago, cheesecake with a distinct moldy undercurrent. But the guys
don't complain. They are warriors, not whiners. A shitty lunch is one of
the burdens they must bear in their noble journey toward the Positive

To become a member of this future, you can write a check. If you pay
enough, your name will go on the donor list alongside many other important
names. Members receive Discovery mailings: notices of luncheons, lectures,
and a discount on books written by Discovery Institute Fellows. The
Discovery Views newsletter follows the progress of their latest crusades: 
the Cascadia Project, which hopes to "connect the gateways and trade
corridors" from Oregon to BC; the Science and Culture project, which is
working to refute Darwinian "materialism" in favor of "intelligent design
theory" (an argument that was recently used in Kansas to ban the teaching
of evolution in public schools); the Technology and Public Policy project,
which involves an "examination of new technologies to determine their
implications for the economy, politics and culture." Many of the Discovery
Institute fellows went to Yale or Harvard; consequently, they believe they
might be geniuses. Many of them have lots of money; consequently, they
dream of themselves as conquerors, or kings. 

The Discovery Institute is essentially a boys' club. But it's not an
old-style New England boys' club, where guys seem stranded in the past,
their brains fogged by Early Times, reminiscing about the days before
women were allowed inside. At the Discovery Institute, the guys put on a
progressive front--there are token women and blacks on the board, they
talk about the technological "revolution," they lead healthy lives of 5am
jogs and few hangovers. These guys aren't doddering, out-of-touch right
wingers--in fact, if you were to ask them, they would probably shy away
from any political affiliation at all. They're simply good, God-fearing
men who want to help us all "by promoting ideas in the common sense
tradition of representative government, the free market and individual

One of the crown princes of the Discovery Institute is a guy named George
Gilder. Gilder is a Senior Fellow and Founder, and he is a revered
technological brainiac. He has been on the cover of Wired Magazine; Bill
Gates acknowledges him as one of the guys who really makes him think. 
Among the cyberworld elite, Gilder is spoken of in respectful, hushed
tones. He was one of a select group Wired asked to talk about "The State
of the Planet" in 1998. The Discovery Institute's literature features him
prominently; on its Web site you can click into the Gilder archives--all
George, all the time.

George is regularly asked to explain the mysteries of cyberspace to the
members of the Institute. Because he seems to understand the intricacies
of the technological "revolution," the guys worship him like a prophet. In
the dizzying flood of change, George is a trusted guide, called on for
explanations, predictions, reassurances. Businessmen pay $300 a head to
hear him speak at conferences. Right now he's organizing something called
the Telecosm conference, which will take place in Tahoe at a resort called
the Inn at Squaw Peak. About 400 tech business types are slated to come,
and when George talks about it, he gets positively giddy.

In a phone interview from his home in Tyrningham, Massachusetts, Gilder
explains the ideas behind this conference: "Telecosm is about the future
of technology. In the era of microcosm it was transistors, bits, that were
plummeting in price, and next year transistors will cost a millionth of a
cent. And the next era will be determined by the plummeting price of
bandwidth." Presumably, if you pay to go to the conference, this will make
sense to you. Because according to people who claim to know what he is
talking about, George knows what he is talking about. The Seattle Times
regularly cites him as "futurist Gilder," as if the future is his job, his

But George Gilder has not always been a futurist. In fact, he worked for a
long time to keep the world from moving forward at all. In the '70s he
published a series of books attacking the feminist and civil rights
movements. In a book called Sexual Suicide, Gilder argued that women's
liberation would lead to the end of the human race. If women achieved
economic equality, a "social breakdown" would result. "Women control not
the economy of the marketplace but the economy of Eros," Gilder wrote. "A
marginal bias in favor of men in the labor force will best promote
economic and social order."

Even more extreme was a 1978 title called Visible Man (the opposite of
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man). Here Gilder argued that racism does not
exist; we live in a "post-racist" society where the black man's only
obstacle is himself, his broken family, his undisciplined "ghetto
reflexes." Gilder was an early enemy of welfare and argued in Visible Man
that federal money only perpetuated a society in which black people were
"all rocking away their lives as they await the green tide of government
checks." To top it off, Gilder's main focus is a black man accused of
raping a white lesbian, so George gets in some good hate speech on all
fronts. At the lesbian bars the brave journalist Gilder looks at the
monster women, "breasts untouchable, braless, an insult or incitement to
all the neighborhood blacks." Later in the book Gilder talks about a guy
called "Sambo," who "sells watermelons from the back of a truck."

Why is a guy whose thinking is to the right of most militia wackos
weighing in on the State of the Planet in Wired Magazine? How did someone
with such a wildly backward world view become one of our revered "forward
thinkers"? The answer is, he adapted. He did not evolve or change his
views--he changed his persona to fit the times. If you press him on it,
George supports his '70s work. Asked about Visible Man, he told me,
"Really, blacks earn just as much as whites do. And American culture is
very enthusiastic about black achievement when it can find it. Like Oprah,
or Michael Jordan." His views on women haven't changed, either. "You know
there is actual difference between male and female brains," he told me
from his study, his wife downstairs clattering dishes. Asked why there are
so few women in the tech world, George said, "Well, there are women. They
are just mostly in personnel and marketing. They do better there."

George seemed surprised that I had tracked down a copy of Sexual Suicide: 
"Wow, you really went into the catacombs, didn't you?" It's not often that
he is asked to account for these early writings. Susan Faludi devoted a
section to him in Backlash, but other than that he has moved effortlessly
across the technological frontier, one of the guys in a world that is
essentially free of women and blacks. Book publicists and Discovery
Institute media liaisons avoid mentioning Sexual Suicide or Visible
Man--they're like dirty secrets, subjects you don't bring up in front of

After the '70s passed and books like Sexual Suicide went out of fashion,
George reinvented himself as an economist. He wrote a book called Wealth
and Poverty, which went to the top of the bestseller list, and he worked
behind the scenes in the Reagan administration. If he talked about blacks
and women at all, it was "race" and "gender"--words which seem more
detached, more open to interpretation. These days, he doesn't refer much
to people at all--instead it's telecosms, limitless bandwidth, the
essentially infinite electromagnetic spectrum. By turning from journalist
to economist to techno-futurist, George retained his cultural viability. 
He's like a chameleon, changing selves depending on context, hiding behind
a wall of words, safe within the self-perpetuated myth of his own genius.

Now in his 60s, George is arguably more powerful than he has ever been,
precisely because so few people understand what he is talking about. The
fact that he is passing himself off as a futurist says a lot about the
widening gap between the technological world and the real world; between
the virtual frontier and a world that has run out of actual frontiers. 
Gilder's transformation also says a lot about the transformations of
language since the civil-rights era, the way certain kinds of speech about
women and blacks had to go underground, become camouflaged. As affirmative
action is rolled back and a handful of white men amass more economic power
than America has ever seen, it is not an exaggeration to say that the
world feminists and civil rights activists worked for is about as real as
the Telecosm. It shimmers in the distance, but it never comes to pass. 

Nevertheless, we are told this is a world and a city where great strides
are being made. The Internet carries the mystique of freedom, the promise
that everything is about change for the better. An insatiable enthusiasm
greets each new breed of software. Mainstream, straightforward writing
about the tech world is all boosterism, credulousness, and product
endorsement. Particularly in Seattle, hype about the fabulous, exciting
technological revolution is so pervasive it drowns out any doubts about
whether this is actually progress, whether this is actually a step forward
at all. 

The fact that something was deeply wrong with this new world is something
I started to realize about a year and a half ago. I had watched Seattle
become the city of techno millionaires; in restaurants and bars I had
overheard countless conversations among white male twentysomethings who
had more money than they knew what to do with. Their girlfriends sat next
to them, quiet, in really great clothes, ordering multiple chardonnays. I
waited for the trickle-down, but it didn't come. I heard about a realtor
who sold a house to a couple of 25-year-olds for over a million
dollars--the thing was, it was the place where two 85-year-olds had lived
for 40 years. The kids were like, "Could they please move out, like, this
week? Do they understand this is a cash offer?"

The realtor said, "They are 85 years old, they have lived there for 40

"But do they understand this is a cash offer?" 

Those young cash buyers had money, but they had no history. Because the
world that had made them rich was essentially a nonexistent world, they
could not fathom some old couple and all their stuff. When I heard this
story I chalked it up as one more piece of evidence that people were being
left behind, the past was getting lost. The idea of writing itself was
being corrupted; Microsoft was searching for "content providers" but they
could not find any content, because the guys who were searching for it
didn't know what it was. Cyberspace had made the world so limitless that
it started to seem like a series of empty hallways, empty rooms. Wherever
you clicked, asking for entrance, you could never quite get past secret
words, the mishmash of jargon, the bright-eyed men with their private

George Gilder in many ways embodies this cultural contradiction. Look
closely at his life and work and you will come to see the cracks in the
future promised by the technological revolution. Because this future looks
an awful lot like America's deep past. In the name of progress, we are
unwittingly rebuilding and fortifying the power structures of pre-civil
rights America. The boys' club is alive and well. As my friend Riz Rollins
says of women and nonwhites, "It still don't belong to us, honey. You
gotta remember that. Nothing is yours. It can all be snatched." Maybe
Rollins is the real futurist in this story.

At a Discovery Institute lunch in the Crystal Ballroom of the Washington
Athletic Club, I arrive early and sit in the corner, trying not to be
noticed. An elegant old waiter is going around filling water glasses. He
asks me, "What is the Discovery Institute?" I say, it's a think tank. "A
think tank?" he says, bemused. "What the heck is a think tank, anyway?" 
Well, I tell him, it must be a place where a lot of thinking goes on. We
both laugh too hard, like kids cracking up in church.

As a glum, rotting salad is being served, I find myself sitting next to a
hardcore Gilder fanatic. If most of Gilder's followers try to ignore the
extremism of his past work, this guy embraces it. "I am working to get all
his old titles in print," he tells me, leaning in close, his eyes shining
with mission, fervor, maybe a slight chemical imbalance. 

The guy explains to me that George isn't at this luncheon; he's busy
planning the big Telecosm conference. The subject today is "Y2K, Are We
Ready? The State of the States," and the talk is to be given by
Representative Steve Horn, R-California. The room is about two-thirds
full: a guy in an ROTC polo shirt, a token black guy whom everyone swats
particularly hard on the back, most everyone in suits and ties. Jennifer
Dunn is here to do the introductions, her harsh smile that of a bitter
hostess determined to put on a good front. Jack Kemp's son Jeff, who heads
up something called the Washington Family Council, tells us to bow our
heads for grace--the prayer is something about how we are thankful to God
for everything we have, material and spiritual. Amen. 

Sitting next to me is an old couple, WAC club members, who are here to
find out what they should be doing about Y2K: whether they should be
storing food and water, whether at the turn of the millennium they will be
forced to open those ancient canned goods in the back of the cupboard. 
They don't know what the Discovery Institute is, but they've heard that a
lot of good men are on the board, men who are also WAC members. The woman
says, "But I did hear they were doing something like trying to get Darwin
out of the schools. That doesn't seem right, now does it?" Her husband
nods vaguely, and adjusts his hearing aid.

It soon becomes clear that the lunch lecture is far too technical for Y2K
novices like this old couple. Horn has been infected by tech speak, and it
is virtually impossible to understand what the hell he is talking about. 
If the audience was hoping for a clear picture of the millennium, what
they get is more gibberish, the language of geeks or insiders. Within 10
minutes, both the man and his wife have fallen deeply asleep. I watch the
woman nervously, wondering if she is going to fall out of her chair. 
Occasionally she snaps awake and looks around the room, momentarily
disoriented, wondering where am I, wait a minute, what is going on here,
who is this man speaking who I can't understand? Then she falls asleep
again, this time even deeper than before.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Weekly. All rights reserved. 

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