The Pot of Bandwidth Gold at the End of Maxwell’s Rainbow

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Economics has long been termed the science of scarcity — the “dismal science.” Around here, however dismal as it seems to get in this plague year of 2020, we keep our eyes on the prize of abundance.

Our friends Gale Pooley and Marian Tupy show that abundance around the globe has increased 518% since 1980 as measured by time-prices — the amount of work time you have to spend in order to earn the money to buy the 50 key commodities of life. While the population rose 72%, time-prices dropped 71%.

These are the real prices, hours and minutes of work per unit of goods and services.

Time-prices have been plummeting as a result of the worldwide abundance in digital technology, pervading every industry except the understanding of economists. When everything else grows abundant, what becomes scarce? My readers can answer this question too.

The ultimate scarcity is time. Money is ultimately time. Money is the way the scarcity of time in economics gets fungibly expressed in the transactions and tradeoffs of an economy.

The law of enterprise is “waste what is abundant in order to save what is scarce.”

Abundances, however, beget new scarcities, which in turn propel new abundances in a spiral of entrepreneurial creativity. From Microcosm and Telecosm, to Life After Television and Life After Google — I have been recounting the saga of abundance and scarcity in information technologies as the industry moved from a computer age to an internet era, from the Microcosm to the Telecosm. “The supreme abundance of the Telecosm is the electromagnetic spectrum, embracing all the universe of vibrating electrical and magnetic fields, from power line pulses through light beams to cosmic rays.” So, begins my book, Telecosm: The World After Bandwidth Abundance (2000).

From 1861 to 1865, in the greatest act of unification in the history of science, the Scotchman James Clerk Maxwell issued a series of papers demonstrating the profound and surprising insight that “there is a whole lot of shaking going on.”

All physical phenomena, from images and energies to chemicals and solid bodies, stem from oscillation. Another word for oscillation is temperature. Without the oscillation, the mostly empty matter of the universe would collapse on itself. In theory, you can make the shaking stop. But that only happens at the temperature zero Kelvin that signifies the heat death of the cosmos. Near zero, Kelvin can trigger all kinds of bizarre and sometimes useful effects, such as Bose-Einstein condensates and superconductivity. But most of us prefer to keep on shaking. For the purposes of technology, when things oscillate, they make the waves of Maxwell’s rainbow. It is waves that make possible the bandwidth abundance of the Telecosm.

In a stunning paradox, this abundance is made possible by a supreme scarcity, an absolute limit no human enterprise can ever cross. Whether light years across the universe, or nanoseconds within a single microchip, “the scarcity that unlocks this abundance is the supreme scarcity in physical science. That is the absolute minimum time it takes to form an electromagnetic wave of a particular length.”

Mu Zero

Called the permeability of free space, it registers the ability of a vacuum to transmit magnetism and thus, electromagnetism. Termed mu zero in the equations, it defines the ultimate constant in physics: the velocity of light.

Maxwell’s discovery of the speed of light — the definition of electromagnetism as a unified domain governed by time — was the paramount achievement of 19th century science.

As physicist Richard Feynman wrote, it reduced the US Civil War of the same year to a “parochial footnote.” As we explore opportunities today, we find ourselves returning again and again to the telecosmic quest down Maxwell’s rainbow, joining all wireless and wireline technologies in a vibratory phantasmagoria.

The spectrum imposes no limits on this science of shaking, of oscillations or frequencies constrained by lightspeed. Spectral frequencies translate not only into temperatures, but also into atomic signatures of chemical elements, energies of photons, and even Brownian motion of molecules.

We define the chemistry of distant stars or microscopic materials by the frequencies they emit. We identify and manipulate them using photonic energies set by Maxwell’s math. And as Einstein showed, all the shaking of molecules follows the rules of Brownian motion and is measured by the degrees of Lord Kelvin.

From the Microcosm of chips, to the Telecosm of fiber optics, the speed of light provides crucial stability. If lightspeed changed as the earth orbits the sun at 18 miles a second, electrons moving in a computer would have different speeds depending on the orientation of the device toward the sun.

Changing directions, they would change speeds — skewing all functions on chips. A shifting light speed would change the “colors” multiplexed down fiber optic lines and blur the crucial modulations in a message. All physics, chemistry, and information technology derives from the unification of Maxwell’s rainbow.

It is the low-entropy (predictable) carrier that in information theory enables the high-entropy (surprising or unexpected) messages that bear information.

The regularity of the speed of light explains why all information tends to migrate to the electromagnetic spectrum. Its predictability means that the message can always be separated from the carrier at the other end of the line.


George Gilder
Editor, Gilder’s Daily Prophecy

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George Gilder

George Gilder is the most knowledgeable man in America when it comes to the future of technology — and its impact on our lives.

He’s an established investor, writer, and economist with an uncanny ability to foresee how new breakthroughs will play out, years in advance.

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