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 Future.
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 liberty.”
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 specialty.
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 company.
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 years.”
“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 language.
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.