Articles by Bret Swanson

Bret Swanson is president of Entropy Economics, a research firm focused on technology and the global economy, and of Entropy Capital, a venture firm that invests in early-stage technology companies. For eight years he advised technology investors as executive editor of the Gilder Technology Report and later was a senior fellow at The Progress & Freedom Foundation. Today Swanson presents his “exaflood” research across the globe, writes a column for Forbes, and contributes to the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal on topics ranging from communications bandwidth to monetary policy. He studies innovation, globalization, China, Internet traffic, information theory, the stock market, and entrepreneurial economics. He is guided by the Laws of Say, Metcalfe, and Moore, the Theorem of Shannon, and the Curve of Laffer. His most pioneering and speculative research, however, concerns forces even more powerful and enigmatic — his four children nine and under.


Very happy to see the discussion over The Wall Street Journal‘s Google/net neutrality story. Always good to see holes poked and the truth set free.

But let’s not allow the eruptions, backlashes, recriminations, and “debunkings” — This topic has been debunked. End of story. Over. Sit down! – obscure the still-fundamental issues. This is a terrific starting point for debate, not an end.

Content delivery networks (CDNs) and caching have always been a part of my analysis of the net neutrality debate. Here was testimony that George Gilder and I prepared for a Senate Commerce Committee hearing almost five years ago, in April 2004, where we predicted that a somewhat obscure new MCI “network layers” proposal, as it was then called, would be the next big communications policy issue. (At about the same time, my now-colleague Adam Thierer was also identifying this as an emerging issue/threat.)

Gilder and I tried to make the point that this “layers” — or network neutrality — proposal would, even if attractive in theory, be very difficult to define or implement. Networks are a dynamic realm of ever-shifting bottlenecks, where bandwidth, storage, caching, and peering, in the core, edge, and access, in the data center, on end-user devices, from the heavens and under the seas, constantly require new architectures, upgrades, and investments, thus triggering further cascades of hardware, software, and protocol changes elsewhere in this growing global web. It seemed to us at the time, ill-defined as it was, that this new policy proposal was probably a weapon for one group of Internet companies, with one type of business model, to bludgeon another set of Internet companies with a different business model. 

We wrote extensively about storage, caching, and content delivery networks in the pages of the Gilder Technology Report, first laying out the big conceptual issues in a 1999 article, “The Antediluvian Paradigm.” [Correction: "The Post-Diluvian Paradigm"] Gilder coined a word for this nexus of storage and bandwidth: Storewidth. Gilder and I even hosted a conference, also dubbed “Storewidth,” dedicated to these storage, memory, and content delivery network technologies. See, for instance, this press release for the 2001 conference with all the big players in the field, including Akamai, EMC, Network Appliance, Mirror Image, and one Eric Schmidt, chief executive officer of . . . Novell. In 2002, Google’s Larry Page spoke, as did Jay Adelson, founder of the big data-center-network-peering company Equinix, Yahoo!, and many of the big network and content companies. Continue reading →

Big news in these parts.

The celebrated openness of the Internet — network providers are not supposed to give preferential treatment to any traffic — is quietly losing powerful defenders.

Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers.

TLFers and commenters: Go.

See my comparison of the state of technology in 2008 versus 1992, during the last Democratic presidential transition.

In mid-2008, the four-gigabyte (or 4,096 megabytes) flash memory chip in an iPod Nano cost $25. Late in 2008, four-gigabyte flash cards and USB drives are selling for $14.99. But back in 1992, four gigabytes of flash memory would have cost $500,000. This means a hypothetical iPod Nano circa 1992 would have set back the teenage Nirvana or Boyz II Men fan around $3 million.

Apart from research scientists and a few early adopters of Compuserve and AOL, the Internet essentially didn’t exist in 1992. Monthly Internet traffic was four terabytes. All the data traversing the global net in 1992 totaled 48 terabytes. Today, YouTube alone streams 48 terabytes of data every 21 seconds. . . .

The dramatic centralization of money, power, information and influence now under way seriously threatens the entrepreneurial revelations and technological revolutions that drive long-term growth. If we quasi-nationalize the energy, finance, auto and health care markets, and possibly bar dynamic new business models on the Internet, as with possible network neutrality regulation, we will close off many of the most promising paths to needed efficiencies and, more important, new wealth.

See the whole article at Forbes.com: “How Techno-Creativity Will Save Us.”

Straw Men Can’t Swim

by on December 5, 2008 · 6 comments

The venerable Economist magazine has made a hash of my research on the growth of the Internet, which examines the rich media technologies now flooding onto the Web and projects Internet traffic over the coming decade. This “exaflood” of new applications and services represents a bounty of new entertainment, education, and business applications that can drive productivity and economic growth across all our industries and the world economy.

But somehow, The Economist was convinced that my research represents some “gloomy prophesy,” that I am “doom-mongering” about an Internet “overload” that could “crash” the Internet. Where does The Economist find any evidence for these silly charges?

In a series of reports, articles (here and here), and presentations around the globe — and in a long, detailed, nuanced, very pleasant interview with The Economist, in which I thought the reporter grasped the key points — I have consistently said the exaflood is an opportunity, an embarrassment of riches.

Continue reading →

About 10 days ago I gave a presentation to a D.C. business group on “Innovation: The End? Or a New Beginning?” We got into a discussion of high-end immigration and were in general agreement that we should grant easy green cards to all STEM PhDs educated in the U.S., among other enticements to smart immigrants. One commenter then suggested this was a kind of a zero-sum race between the U.S., China, and India for the world’s human capital.

I replied, however, that the technological, economic, and political advance of China and India is a good thing. Innovation anywhere in the world benefits us, too, if we are open to the global economy. For hundreds of years, North America attracted much or most of the world’s financial and human capital because (1) though imperfect, we were an attractive realm of freedom and (2) much of the rest of the world was so inhospitable to innovation, entrepreneurship, education, and was generally politically intolerant. This massive tilt in our direction is now over. Other parts of the world present more opportunities for entrepreneurship and education, and we’re not going to get all the smart people, no matter how open our immigration laws. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to get the smartest people. Just that there’s going to be lots of innovation and new enterprise in new non-U.S. places, and that overall that’s a good thing.

So I was intrigued when an Economist article on this very topic hit my radar yesterday. Turns out Amar Bhidé of Columbia Business School has written a whole book on the subject: The Venturesome Economy. Continue reading →

My friend Louisa Gilder’s brand new book The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn arrived in the mail from Amazon today.

Matt Ridley, author of Genome, says:

Louisa Gilder disentangles the story of entanglement with such narrative panache, such poetic verve, and such metaphysical precision that for a moment I almost thought I understood quantum mechanics.

The cover art alone is spectacular. Can’t wait to crack it open tonight.

See my take on the election and the prospects for capitalism in today’s Wall Street Journal:

If Barack Obama ran for president by calling for a heavier hand of government, he also won by running one of the most entrepreneurial campaigns in history.

Will he now grasp the lesson his campaign offers as he crafts policies aimed at reigniting the national economy? Amid a recession, two wars, and a global financial crisis, will he come to see that unleashing the entrepreneur is the best way to raise the revenue he needs for his lofty priorities?

Cloudy Forecast

by on October 30, 2008 · 5 comments

Coincident with the news of a few days ago that Microsoft is embracing the Web even for its longtime PC-centric OS and apps, The Economist has a big special report on “cloud computing,” including articles on:

- “The Evolution of Data Centres
- “Software as a Service
- “Connecting to the Cloud
- “The Economics of the Cloud
- The Effect on Business; and
- “Computers without Borders

After the Crash

by on October 24, 2008 · 9 comments

Forbes has produced a scintillating special report on the market crash and what comes next. Steve Forbes tells “How Capitalism Will Save Us.” In “Curbing Washington’s Growing Power” economist David Malpass explains the policy mistakes that led here and describes the key threats that could make it worse. Rich Karlgaard compares today’s market to the malaise of the 1970s, but offers hints of optimism bubbling up. And George Gilder, summoning Peter Drucker’s mantra — “Don’t solve problems; pursue opportunities” — previews the technologies that portend a “Coming Creativity Boom” and offers, characteristically, the deepest insights on the nature of capitalism:

Knowledge is about the past; entrepreneurship is about the future. In a crisis the world of expertise pulls the global economy ever deeper into the past, where accountant-economists ruminate on the labyrinthine statistics of leviathan trade gaps, tides of debt and deficits, political bailouts and rebates, regulatory clamps and controls, all propping up the past in the name of progress.

The crucial conflict in every economy, however, goes on. It is not between rich and poor, Main Street and Wall Street, or even government and the private sector. It is between the established system and the new forms of wealth rising up to displace it–all the entrenched knowledge of the past and the insurrections of futuristic enterprise and invention.

The real source of all growth is human creativity and entrepreneurship, which always comes as a surprise to us, especially in the worst of times, as Rich Karlgaard notes. No amount of knowledge about the present can predict the specific profile and provenance of innovation. From the pits of the crash of 2000, when the Internet and the dot.com siege were famously dismissed as a barren “bubble,” came Google (nasdaq: GOOG – news – people ) and MySpace to rise up and take all the chips and establish a new Internet economy. If creativity was not unexpected, governments could plan it and socialism would work. But creativity is intrinsically surprising and the source of all real profit and growth.

You’ll find lots more economic and investing advice, including a report on “What Ben Graham would do.”

Of Curves and Chaos

by on September 30, 2008 · 8 comments

Apologies for the non-technology post, but since the only topics of conversation these days are Wall Street, credit default swaps, and Putin’s flights over Alaska, I thought I’d post my review of Dave Smick’s new book The World is Curved: Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy…the Mortgage Crisis Was Only the Beginning.