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THE NEW GEOGRAPHY How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape By Joel Kotkin; Random House: 176 pp., $22.95

TELECOSM How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionize Our World By George Gilder; The Free Press: 354 pp., $26

November 12, 2000|ZACHARY KARABELL | Zachary Karabell is the author of "A Visionary Nation: Four Centuries of American Dreams and What Lies Ahead," forthcoming from HarperCollins

Technopoly. Technesis. Techgnosis. Telecosm. If nothing else, the Internet age has ushered in a host of neologisms. A Greek root here, a Greek root there and, presto, the English language expands to describe things that didn't exist a decade ago.

The trouble with neologisms is that they suggest that more has changed than actually has. Recent years have witnessed an efflorescence not just of new words but of extraordinary claims that we are on the verge of revolutionary shifts, that the world as we know it is ending and that what lies ahead can barely be imagined. We are barraged with messages that the technologies of today are altering not just our material lives but our psyches and are transforming not just the tools we use to communicate and interact but the very nature of communication and interaction. This future, it is said, is only now coming into focus, and we are urged to prepare for it lest we be left behind.

This isn't the first time that we have swooned over technology. The late 19th century rang with bold predictions that the onward march of science would end hunger, disease and poverty, and in the 1950s, household appliances were presented as the cutting edge of the coming utopia. Today, business magazines, TV ads and entrepreneurs have a tendency to invest technology with a totemic power over human affairs. The new technologies, we are told, will fundamentally alter our lives. Their promise extends beyond our material needs. The communications revolution and its cousin, the information revolution, are touted for their potential to improve our social relations, reinvigorate our communities and families, strengthen our identities and, in short, make us happy.

We've heard this before, this chant that the wonders of science will banish want, end human strife and bring universal harmony. They never have. They probably never will. On the one hand, this optimism is infectious and fun. You need a dose of utopianism to take a plunge into the future, to invest your time and money speculating on the technologies of tomorrow. On the other hand, you want to say, hey, wait a minute, we're talking about silicon chips and fiber optics, not Eden and Utopia.

A columnist, author and senior fellow at Pepperdine's Institute for Public Policy, Joel Kotkin sees a world "reshaped" by technology "in a manner not seen since the onset of the industrial revolution." Because the Information Revolution frees people from the traditional workplace, he argues, they have greater latitude in choosing where to live, and because of the wealth generated by the New Economy, they have the means to live anywhere. The result is a demographic revolution.

Kotkin contends in "The New Geography" that the United States is changing from a suburban nation to a country whose living patterns are dictated by the Internet. Supplanting the older suburbs are "nerdistans," urban concentrations of knowledge workers and like-minded souls who coalesce in places like Santa Monica, San Francisco's Soma district, Boston's South Station area, Silicon Alley in lower Manhattan and smaller cities such as Austin, Texas. There are also "Valhallas" such as Park City, Utah, which are beautiful remote places that can now be centers of work (albeit only for a wealthy few) because of the liberating effects of the New Economy. There are only a few Valhallas, but there are numerous nerdistans. "Successful nerdistans," Kotkin writes, "seek to eliminate . . . [the] distractions--crime, traffic, commercial blight--that have commonly been endemic in cities." They want the pulse and the creativity of the city, without the grime, without the crime, and without the poor.

Kotkin's "new geography" is still an elite phenomenon, but at least he notes the disruptive effects on society as a whole. Yet where Kotkin worries, George Gilder unabashedly cheers. Twenty years ago, Gilder was a Reagan ideologue who made a name for himself with lacerating critiques of feminism and cheerleading speeches in favor of the free market. He then shifted gears and penned a book called "Microcosm" in 1989 in which he announced that the world was being revolutionized by the microchip. In the 1990s, as a columnist for Forbes ASAP, as the eponymous publisher of the Gilder Technology Report and as a prolific and highly paid corporate speaker, he moved beyond "Microcosm" and toward what he believes is the next new thing: the "telecosm," which is both the title of his new book and an umbrella term for fiber optics, cellular telephony, lasers, photons and infinite bandwidth.


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