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Newton’s System of the World in the Google Era

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Alphabet, Google’s holding company, is now the second-largest company in the world. Measured by market capitalization, Apple is first. Joined by Amazon, and Microsoft, followed avidly by Facebook in seventh, the four form an increasingly feared global oligopoly. This increasing global dominance of U.S. information companies is unexpected. Just a decade ago leading the list of the companies with the largest market caps were Exxon, Walmart, China National Petroleum, and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. No Internet company made the top five. Today four of the top five are American vessels of information technology.

Why then is this book not called Upending the Apple Cart? Or Facebook and the Four Horsemen? Because Google, alone among the five, is the protagonist of a new and apparently successful “system of the world.” Represented in all the most prestigious U.S. universities and media centers, it is rapidly spreading through the world’s intelligentsia, from Mountain View to Tel Aviv to Beijing. That phrase, “system of the world,” which I borrow from Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle novel about Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, denotes a set of ideas that pervade a society’s technology and institutions and inform its civilization.

In his eighteenth-century system of the world, Newton brought together two themes. Embodied in his calculus and physics, one Newtonian revelation rendered the physical world predictable and measurable. Another, less celebrated, was his key role in establishing a trustworthy gold standard, which made economic valuations as calculable and reliable as the physical dimensions of items in trade.

Since Claude Shannon in 1948 and Peter Drucker in the 1950s, we have all spoken of the information economy as if it were a new idea. But both Newton’s physics and his gold standard were information systems. More specifically, the Newtonian system is what we call today an information theory. Newton’s biographers typically underestimate his achievement in establishing the information theory of money on a firm foundation.

As one writes, Watching over the minting of a nation’s coin, catching a few counterfeiters, increasing an already respectably sized personal fortune, being a political figure, even dictating to one’s fellow scientists [as president of the Royal Society]; it should all seem a crass and empty ambition once you have written a Principia.But build a better money ratchet and the world will beat a path to your door. You can traverse the globe trading for what you want and transmitting the values for which you trade. The little island of Britain governed an empire larger and incomparably richer than Rome’s.

Many have derided Newton’s preoccupation with alchemy, the attempt to reverse-engineer gold so that it could be made from base metals such as lead and mercury. “Everyone knows Newton as the great scientist. Few remember that he spent half his life muddling with alchemy, looking for the Philosopher’s Stone. That was the pebble he really wanted to find.”

Newton’s modern critics fail to appreciate how his alchemical endeavors yielded crucial knowledge for his defense of the gold-based pound. All wealth is the product of knowledge. Matter is conserved; progress consists of learning how to use it.4 Newton’s knowledge, embodied in his system of the world, was what most critically differentiated the long millennia of economic doldrums that preceded him from the three hundred years of miraculous growth since his death. The failure of his alchemy gave him—and the world—precious knowledge that no rival state or private bank, wielding whatever philosopher’s stone, would succeed in making a better money. For two hundred years, beginning with Newton’s appointment to the Royal Mint in 1696, the pound, based on the chemical irreversibility of gold, was a stable and reliable monetary

With the pound note riveted to gold at a fixed price, traders gained assurance that the currency they received for their goods and services would always be worth its designated value. They could undertake long-term commitments— bonds, loans, investments, mortgages, insurance policies, contracts, ocean voyages, infrastructural projects, new technologies—without fearing that inflation fueled by counterfeit or fiat money would erode the value of future payments. For centuries, all countries on a gold standard could issue bonds bearing interest near 3 percent.

Newton’s regime rendered money essentially as irreversible as gold, as irreversible as time itself. Under Newton’s gold standard, the horizons of economic activity expanded. Scores of thousands of miles of railway lines spread across Britain and the empire, and the sun never set on the expanding circles of trust that underlay British finance and commerce. Perhaps the most important result of free commerce was the end of slavery. Reliable money and free and efficient labor markets made ownership of human laborers unprofitable. Commerce eclipsed physical power.

In the Google era, Newton’s system of the world—one universe, one money, one God—is now in eclipse. His unitary foundation of irreversible physics and his irrefragable golden money have given way to infinite parallel universes and multiple paper moneys manipulated by fiat. Money, like the cosmos, has become relativistic and reversible at will. The three hundred years of Newtonian prosperity having come to an end, the new multiverse seems unable to repeat the miracle of a golden age of capitalism. It is now widely held that citizens are essentially owned by the state on which they depend.

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