The 'virtual' world according to Gingrich

January 11, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Behold the world -- the "virtual" world, that is -- according to Newt Gingrich.

At a conference here on "Democracy in Virtual America," the technologically hip House speaker and members of his brain trust talked of "byte cities" and "teleputers" and outlined the Information Age vision that has shaped Mr. Gingrich's 21st-century sensibility.

As several audience members took notes on laptop computers, Mr. Gingrich's gurus-in-chief, futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler, described their "wave" theory of history. The nation, they believe, progressed from the "first wave" agrarian society to a "rusty smokestack, assembly line" society. The nation is now being transformed, they say, from that "second wave" industrial age to a "third wave," information-based society.

At the daylong conference, sponsored by the Progress & Freedom Foundation -- the conservative outfit that funds the college course that Mr. Gingrich teaches and is run by longtime Gingrich advisers -- it was often hard to tell the "virtual" from the "reality," and some listeners found themselves lost in space.

Ms. Toffler cautioned about the danger of asteroids or "something from another galaxy" that could wipe out the planet. Arianna Huffington, the author, spiritual thinker and political spouse, cited AT&T commercials as a source of New Age inspiration and, in a testy exchange, accused Ms. Toffler of "second wave" thinking in her views on women in politics.

Michael Vlahos, former director of security studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, described the year 2020, when the nation would be ruled by "brain lords" such as Microsoft chief Bill Gates, and citizens would have "virtual" candidates campaigning in their back yards through visual computers or "teleputers."

And Mr. Gingrich talked of his vision of an on-line America where even the poorest child has access to a computer and, thus, information.

"The old order is gone," Mr. Gingrich said in a speech he called "From Virtuality to Reality."

"The question is how long it takes to get rid of it. . . . In 1994, we crossed the threshold. I don't think we're going back."

Mr. Gingrich, who last week suggested that poor Americans should receive a tax break to buy laptop computers, retreated TC from the notion yesterday, saying it was a "dumb idea" born of his zeal in moving the Information Age along.

But he said he remained committed to making the information superhighway available to all Americans. "I don't know how we do it . . . but there has to be a missionary spirit that says to the poorest child in America, 'The Internet's for you.' "

Mr. Gingrich said universal access to the Internet would "decentralize and disperse" power, because citizens could tap into, and respond to, information usually reserved for "insiders."

"If you really want to weaken the Washington lobbyist," the Georgia Republican said, "there is no single device that weakens them better than to simply disseminate the information in real time. . . . There's no longer any great advantage to being an insider because everybody's an insider."

Mr. Gingrich capped a day of speeches by fellow "third wave" thinkers, some of whom, such as his longtime friends the Tofflers, have shaped his message and politics.

The new speaker "is more than influenced by our work," boasted Ms. Toffler. "He's living his political life based on it."

Mr. Toffler, author of the widely read book "Future Shock," noted that Mr. Gingrich recently told the House Ways and Means Committee that every legislative decision should hinge on whether a bill accelerates the transition to the "third wave" society.

"I don't believe the people he was talking to have a clue what he was talking about," Mr. Toffler said.

Deciphering the Toffler/Gingrich lingo can be tricky. For example, in describing the "third wave," Mr. Toffler said: "What you have, really, is an interrelated demassification process going on, creating a far more diverse structure in the society."

Translated to more prosaic "second wave" language, the futurist suggested that the mass production, mass distribution and assembly line of the Industrial Age were being replaced by more individualism and variety in a computer-based Information Age.

Mr. Toffler, who along with his wife is meeting with Democratic leaders today, believes that each transition period from one "wave" to the next causes great anxiety, insecurity and "civilization upheaval."

The great conflict in politics today, he suggested, is not between Democrats and Republicans, but between "the defenders of the crisis-ridden, unworkable, burdensome, centralist, bigger-is-better, homogenous second-wave past and those in both parties who are building a diverse third-wave civilization."

Asked what the hallmarks of progressive "third wave" politicians and thinkers were, Ms. Toffler responded: "They've read our books."

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