2001: An Anti-Futurist Manifesto

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    In the first months of the new millennium, a large blimp will rise silently from a private airstrip in southern England, drift upward for several miles, then begin beaming high-speed Internet signals to a laboratory below. Big as it is, the blimp will only be the small, initial test model for the fleet of 250 vast, solar-powered Internet airships...seeking the Holy Grail of broadband.

    ?Charles C. Mann, "Broadband Pipe Dreams," Yahoo (December 1999)


    Just as Intel became the #1 supplier of components for the computer revolution, this fast-growing |unnamed| company is now positioned to become the #1 supplier for components for the bandwidth revolution. ?George Gilder, "Grow Rich on the Coming Technology Revolution," Gilder Technology Report (Winter 2000)  

    People will come to religion because of their desire for community? Our only reason for hope is the very powerful, innate human capacity for reconstituting social order. ?Francis Fukuyama, "The Great Disruption: Human Nature and The Re-Constitution of SocialOrder," The Atlantic (June 1999)  

    Conventional Economics is mistaken when it views the economy and society as a machine, whose behaviour is...predictable. ?Paul Ormerod, Butterfly Economics: A New General Theory of Social and Economic Behaviour (Pantheon, 240 pages, $24.99)

    Sick of predictionism? Frightened by the 21st-century visions forced upon you by a range of corporate and pseudo-Marxist prophets? Take heart. The future is wide, wide open, not a closed shop?and the millennium's still a year off (Christ wasn't born in the Year 0).

    One day after I saw Yahoo's fearsome vision of 250 broadband blimps blitzing us with split-second Internet access to infotainment programmed by Alexander Haig (one of the "real" investors), the headlines, primetime tv and the Net were suddenly glowing over the biggest corporate merger of all time. By folding into each other like expensive lovers in the hay?a $300 billion tryst, matching the GNP of one third of the world's nations?AOL and Time Warner, if it comes through, will make that blimp fleet look like democracy. The biggest ISP, the biggest publisher, the second-biggest CATV company are gearing up to broadband us all to death. Out in Las Vegas at the big hi-tech show, AOL-TV will soon be here, in the shape of a tiny black box sitting on top of your set, linking you immediately to AOL (surprise!), as well as Time, Life, Money, etc., etc., etc., etc.

    George Gilder, my favorite right-of-center forecaster, a man who calls the postindustrial shots about 75 percent of the time, also buys into the broadband revolution?the fat-wired move into your home by big cable and/or big telephone companies, handing you split-second access to...what? The Big Brothers of news and entertainment, the very people you're fleeing by reading this newspaper and using the Web each night to pursue your singular dreams, if not romances. Instead, you'd have AOL and Time in your face every time you turn on your computer or tv, answer your phone, open your fridge or flush your toilet.

    But hold on. Not even Gilder wants this to happen. (He once predicted The Death of Television because we've become addicted to multichannel choices.) And fortunately:

    Predictionism Is Always Wrong This is our first principle. For proof, you need only reflect on the endless series of false calls in the past, many of them repeated so often some of us believe them to this day... Remember that tv was going to turn us all into couch potatoes, close down movie houses and the legitimate theater, restaurants, travel, health clubs, sports stadia and book publishing. The truth is exactly the opposite.

    As is the anti-fate of the so-called "paperless office," a confident, constant prediction in the 70s.

    Another persistent bad call is the assumption that tv news and political commercials control voting habits. This untruth leads certain pundits constantly to overrate GOP chances, since the Republicans can normally afford overwhelmingly more paid tv time over their assorted opponents (though currently House Democrats seem to be reversing this norm?a contrarian move befitting my thesis). Until New Hampshire, the official certainty that George W. Bush will be elected because of his $60 million war chest was as firm as the forecasts for his father in 1992. McCain temporarily derailed this myth, but within a week it was back: if he doesn't match that war chest, if he doesn't drench us with tv spots, he hasn't got a chance.

    Remember all this in a few weeks.

    On the right, the certainty that Clinton would be impeached over an oral sex affair betrayed the same error: underestimating voters' ability to vote their own self-interest. On the left, remember how John Kenneth Galbraith kept warning us in the mid-90s that the Silicon Valley boomlet was about to bust. Not long ago, the Union for Radical Political Economists whined that soaring stock prices based on management riding roughshod over labor were bound either to crash or provoke revolution. Yet last year more black males got jobs than at any time in long memory.

    Remember those who sold Apple stock in 1996, because the smart money said Mac was dead? And the certainty that Y2K was about to destroy us if we didn't pour billions of dollars into certain corporate coffers?

    The louder the prophetic voice, in brief, and the more it wears the trappings of last-decade success, the more we ought to disbelieve. Bill Gates is the world's richest man we are told, over and over. He's also facing the same antitrust mole who chewed up imperious IBM in the 70s and AT&T in the 80s. And remember how Bill the genius missed the meaning of the Web, as his infamous 1995 memo, redirecting his company's focus, acknowledged? The proliferation of focused, special-interest tabloids and small publishers was similarly missing from all Global Village forecasts dating back to McLuhan.

    Watch out for Big Sociology, too, and Muscular Religion. While we are told over and again that the organized churchly values are on the rise, the number of unmarried middle-class white parents raising kids keeps zooming ahead, most of all in wealthy Dutchess County, as cranky Sen. Moynihan reminds us often, ignored, on the Senate floor. While Al Gore and Bill Bradley clash over who is more holy, roughly three in four Democrats say they don't believe in God, at least not the white-haired Sunday School variety (while more than half of all Catholics say they're pro-choice in quiet poll after quiet poll).

    Despite all you've been told, despite the evangelical rhetoric launched at us each night by candidates playing to a minority of Republican voters, this is a decidedly pagan society, following many different gods. Which doesn't mean it isn't lusting after spirituality?that's what the obsessions with music, art, independent film, even quantum teleportation and deep-space telescoping is all about.

    As for science, supposedly moving us toward a utopian point where we can control nature, we now face not only the specter of defiant global warming but Chaos and Uncertainty, which argue that we don't know where any moving particle in space is going to land. Instead of rules, we now face counter-rules and counterintuitive phenomena like black holes. No wonder we still can't "predict" tomorrow's weather.

    All this is actually good news. Welcome it. Ignore any forecasts that disrespect this cranky contrarianism. Yes, some forecasters seem sincerely persuaded that history follows a logical, progressive track, bordering on the kind of determinism that drove purist Marxist governments to destroy themselves. (The workers always cleave to a system that exalts them.) But what they forget is:

    Chaos & Reversal Is the Proper Forecast at All Times Chaos and Reversal (or "C&R") is constant, because it is the human condition. Human intelligence is every bit as difficult to manage as atomic particles. Maybe more. That's why scientists and predictionists try to ignore it and won't fold its unmanageable power into their planning or forecasting. Example: The original makers of both the telephone and, decades later, the Internet expected their inventions to serve essentially as a kind of public broadcast medium. Edison thought politicians and symphony conductors would use his telephone to reach large groups of simultaneous listeners, while the Defense Dept. saw military documents zapping from computer to computer on the Net. We human users of these tools had a radically different idea in both cases.

    The difficulty with Yahoo's broadband forecast is a similar kind of assumption: that the widely toasted Steve Case and his colleagues at Time Warner, which has already dropped a bundle on "interactive tv" and its nascent ISP Road Runner, know precisely what we want. But already even America Online, Ma Kettle's ISP, owes half its commerce to chatlining, often of a highly intimate nature. Users aren't buying into Steve Case's esthetic when they gorge on AOL time, just as we aren't lusting after Time Warnerism when we fork out monthly fees to a quasi-monopoly cable service now threatened by direct-broadcast satellites.

    We're lusting after access?to all kinds of ideas, words, images, partners, over which AOL/TW has, thank heaven, no control. Already you can scent all the alternative means coming to help you zap onto the Net?satellites, pocket PCs, cellphones, cuddly little info-appliances lying by the bed, wireless cups, phones, mics.

    This is an antireality reality that can't be soundbitten. It's not as easily simplified or as glamorous as the image of Steve Case and Gerald Levin making love on a bed of billions of paper stock bucks. But the reality awaiting us isn't simple. The complexity, fluidity and freedom of rampant communications will be yours to tangle with?often losing?in 2001. That's what happens when the future collapses, when it tumbles down into your hands like a crumbling but still delicious cookie. It's so immediate, so real, you can't turn it into a soundbite or an abstraction like the "Global Village" (which really turned out to be a Global Archipelago).

    Consider the word "free," which neoconservatives at Fortune and National Review and elsewhere love to attach to the word "market"?where often it really means "unfree," especially when it comes to huge mergers seeking to constrict a market. Fortune itself astonishingly admitted this a few months ago: "Free markets," Thomas A. Stewart wrote in an article called "Grab the Knowledge and Squeeze" last November, "through the law of diminishing returns, destroy profits; the business person's job is to elude the law by setting up in a marketplace that (1) is valuable and (2) can be made less than free" (emphasis added).

    For the rest of us, "free market" only means free when there are lots of competing players?for instance, Web video and Web audio, where free products are abounding and Microsoft is competing with Real.com to give away video/audio players. And Europe, where Social Democrats hand out near-free human services, winning election after election. In the U.S., in the midst of the wildest prosperity any nation has known, you can't bleed in front of a doctor unless you hand him cash, check, money order or various authenticating plastic cards. In the European Community, in the midst of what our media calls a stagnating economy, plagued by unemployment, you're cured first, asked about a modest payment second.

    The EC model, which also extends to issues like gays in the military, women's rights and arts funding (and, well, yes, neofascism in Austria), may haunt the world's oldest democracy for decades to come (if not the 2000 election, where Bradley forced the others to compete with him on health care, another event nobody expected six months ago). Health, given the aging of the population?and its cynicism about HMOs and drug companies?is likely to rise to the status of the old Cold War as a do-or-die issue in politics. And the Euro model is not about to vanish. Neither is that backward continent's low-cost elite education, early retirements or secure jobs.

    A few other contrarian events no one would have predicted just a few years ago:

    Women taking over the culture and dominating many freshman classes, as well as law and med school enrollments. As they take over, gender relations are loosening, not tightening, to the dismay of right-wing feminists and Old Testament Christians (cf. the numbers on divorce, illegitimacy, extramarital sex).

    One year after we were told we wouldn't buy products off the Web, we begin buying in droves. Lately Sotheby's has alleged that the sale of a copy of the Declaration of Independence on the Web in the spring may net $6 million.

    And now we find that Maureen Dowd's monthly savaging of Bill Clinton in her widely read New York Times column (where she pretends to be inside Bill's mind, talking to himself) has moved into the perilous future in 2001, where she envisions the ex-Prez shipped off to Chappaqua, bored and lonely on weekends. Didn't expect her to turn so nasty, did we? But wait a minute. Already you can smell it, can't you? A total reversal, an improbable liaison dangereuse on the way? A year from now, she could make it from W. 43rd St. to Chappaqua in 90 minutes, easy, given limo service...

    What Are They Predicting For Us Now? Broadly speaking, the same two themes we have been hearing the past five years are being recast on every talk show and editorial page, by the left as well as the right: (1) The radical free market, primed by the monopoly takeover of the Web, will sweep the world. Bigness, in brief, is Destiny. At the same time,

    (2) get ready for a Good Old Values sweep. The virtues exalted by William Bennett are coming back in a "re-norming," as Francis Fukuyama puts it.

    It goes unnoticed that these two themes, which mix like sweet and sour on the tongue, actually cancel each other out. They're a staple of the pundits, not to mention presidential debates. Yet Theme 1 envisions a society so mobile, so wealthy, so in touch with other cultures and realities, primed by an Internet nobody in the GOP wants to tax or control, that it ironically dictates the final collapse of Theme 2's serene nuclear family, hymned on all sides in every political debate.

    This very disparity was eloquently summed up by Daniel Bell in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), a polemic masterpiece that ought to be pressed on every presidential candidate. Bell contended that freewheeling materialism would lead to free-wheeling living, mass sophistication and a decline in mom-and-pop suburban virtues. That's precisely what has happened. That's precisely why the normally quick-witted Fukuyama, Bell's acolyte on the Highbrow Right, self-destructs in his grand new thesis predicting the "re-norming of society." How can Fukuyama count on a re-normed society, with Mom and Pop chanting the Ten Commandments to their brood, when Mom ain't home anymore?

    The wholesale flight of young and middle-age women into offices, professions and jobs during the past decade has been devastating to this vision. So has the rise in women no longer dependent upon Dad, church and split-level to survive. The nuclear family is shifting, and child care, like health insurance, is already a political necessity?the Contra war, in effect, of this decade.

    Our grand solons don't want to face these facts because they reflect immediate and evolving trends, with no obvious solutions. That's why we continue to be pelted with nonsense and half-truths, spiced with a few fantasies. Here's a quick sampling:

    "The Third Millennium's economy has to be a mutually beneficial construction of expanding productivity and shared prosperity, built around the engine of trade" ("The Shape of An Age to Come," The New York Times, Jan. 1, 2000).

    "Mortality will be a thing of the past by the middle of the next century, as we migrate to machine consciousness" (Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Jan. 2000).

    "A few major conglomerates will dominate the mass news business, each with tv, print and Web outposts" (Brill's Content, July-August, 1999).

    "The use of standardized testing in education will increase even more, and there will be an explosion in the sales of 'educational' software designed to improve children's scores on the new tests. These will be promoted for use both in schools and at home" (Patricia Mendel, "Predictions for the Top Tech Issues in Schools," Education Horizons, January 2000).

    "How upbeat are the two leading forecasters of advertising spending about the prospects for the marketing and media industries in 2000? At a conference Monday, they almost warbled a medley of 'Blue Skies' and 'Cockeyed Optimist'... One reason is...'the extraordinary growth of dot-com advertising'" (Thomas Jones, Advertising Age, December 1999).

    "2004?First (publicly admitted) human clone... 2005?First sample launched back to Earth by Mars. 2011?On his 100th birthday, Arthur C. Clarke is toasted on the Hilton Spacecraft Hotel... 2016?All existing currencies are abolished. The mega-watt-hour becomes the unit of exchange... 2021?The first humans land on Mars, and have some unpleasant surprises. 2025?Neurological research finally leads to an understanding of all the senses, and direct inputs become possible, by-passing eyes, ears, skin etc." (Arthur C. Clarke, Google.com, January 2000).

    "Will we come up with a Viagra for the brain?" (Dr. Joseph R. Race, Ely Lilly and Company, January 2000).

    "Television doesn't handle the variety of needs. In a few years the InterNet will be more dynamic, even wireless. You'll be able to personalize any website you visit, in five minutes" (Gordon Tucker, CEO, Egreetings Network, in The New York Times, Jan. 6, 2000).

    "FORE-SITE 2009: www.celebritysperm.com/-tcruise" ("What's Next: 2000 and Beyond," Yahoo, December 1999).

    Yes, I saved the best for last. Because Yahoo is semiserious, it's probably closer to the future than either Brill's Content or the Times, given the nature of us irrational beasts who'll be driving the next world. Dependence on rationality and precedent is an addiction, not a judgment.

    Arthur C. Clarke ranks with Kissinger for continuing bad calls. He put a man on Mars in 1994, at least the equivalent of Henry's Vietnam "peace is at hand" in 1972; Clarke also gave us the evil HAL, whose example didn't stop us from cohabiting happily with Mac or even Windows, whom most of us now regard as household pets. But he is gleefully primed by whimsy as well as the conviction he'll live almost forever. And Dr. Race's desire for "brain Viagra" responds to the primal needs of the race itself, which will surely be satisfied.

    Yahoo, Clarke and Race relieve the tedium of Predictionism. For this we must be grateful. But still, we find here a deadly serious reprise of not only Themes 1 and 2, but at least four more: (3) technology is driving us on its own toward unprecedented wealth; (4) increasingly, power will be consolidated into fewer and fewer hands, confirming Marx's determinism?free-market capitalism yields to monopoly power; (5) increasingly, we will ignore human variation, diversity and potential by standardizing methods of judgment; and (6) indeed, mere humanity is about to be replaced, even while medical advances seem certain to double if not triple the life span.

    That's it, fans?if you honor logic and precedent.

    But What If The Logic Is Wrong, Again? Let's turn the tables. Let's assume the very reverse of predictionist future occurs in 2001, for a reason I'll shortly elucidate. As we do so, let's call to our side two perhaps surprising establishment examples: Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Fed, and Peter Drucker, guru of all the corporate consultants. Behind their bluenosed reputations, they turn out to be as counterterrorist, as unexpected, as red-nosed as the rest of us. First, Greenspan: By often reversing rigid logic (which dictates that he raise interest rates every time the economy booms, to kill off inflation), by bobbing and weaving, keeping our investors guessing?he just nudged the rate up, slightly?he has flooded the economy with so much cash that even black male teenagers and a few white male artists are beginning to get jobs. His theories are manic (in Senate testimony recently he castigated the European fondness for job security as a "non-economic cultural value"), but his actions in the past five years have nearly always betrayed his ponderous words.

    As for Drucker, now 90, the man who in the 50s first outlined the probable evolution of the global corporation is now arguing the reverse?that the megacorporation is moving toward a slow death in the 21st century, primarily because knowledge workers will demand independence, to stay at home and pour their passions into nonprofit goals. Why? The anticorporate corporate guru speaks:

    "The 20th century was the century of business. The next century is going to be the century of the social sector."

    There is yet another reason to take heart. Let's dare to consider that the biological brain counts for more than the digital brain, "the spiritual machine" allegedly primed to enslave us all. The most profound news delivered to us by medical science in the past year is the discovery that our brains probably never stop churning out new cells, even in old age. This means that the streams of free-access information and sensation now flowing into our brains will extend, rather than blunt, our powers. Compared to what we are now able to imagine and invent, the dramatic new Intel and IBM gigaherz chips, prepared to cycle a billion times a second, are minor stuff. Imagine instead our jam-packed gray cells multiplying all over the world, as citizens of all continents live longer, learn more, create finer and wilder applications for these chips. My God, the world is becoming (as Robert Wright imagines in NonZero, his aptly titled new book) a giant mind!

    For this reason alone, all calls based on the assumption that we're either naive or dumb, just playthings for high-minded robots, unable to keep up with the captains of postmodern industry, look wrong...again.

    Armed with this conviction, our contrarianism certified by the Greenspan and Drucker establishment examples, let's overturn predictionism and see what we might find on the other side, in 2001:

    ?What if the free market remains free? Simply because neither AOL-Time Warner (not a done deal anyway) nor the broadband blimps can dilute our raging taste for multiplicities in news, the arts and entertainment. It's way, way too late to stop us from producing our own shadow-plays on Web video, MP3 audio and the DVD discs eagerly placed in our hands by competing free-marketeers. Drucker believes the megacorporation will be replaced in the 21st century by myriad minicorporations, mostly generated by small groups or lone individuals able to promote, sell and sustain themselves via direct digital contact with their markets.

    ?As for the wholesale flight back to the mom-and-pop homestead predicted by politicians, what if in fact we'll soon see many Moms, many Pops, many illegitimate, some temporary? Your average child will listen to sounds from Mars and walk as a VR avatar across the steppes in Asia before he/she has finished elementary school. His/her peers will be global. The parent-child relationship will become more equalized, less like a master-apprentice relationship, if only because the kids will often contact new knowledge and new technologies ahead of the parents. My 17-year-old daughter ought to write my articles. Maybe she's writing this one.

    ?Conventional dot-com advertising is likely to decline, exactly as the lavish political-com ads will (unless McCain misunderstands his success and joins the pack, as Bradley, alas, has). For sure print admaking is now primarily a legitimizer, not a seller. You buy full-page ads to prove you're serious, you're in the game. But the step that sells is direct mail, direct calls, a big dinner party, a website that pulls in millions of users.

    ?The richest, roundest anti-prediction: In a booming economy, wealth, widely shared, becomes non-wealth. The focus in a society where most basic needs are satisfied will be on nonmaterial issues. Already we see that the main debate in the 2000 election is focusing on nonmilitary "luxuries" like education, the Ten Commandments, global warming and prescription drug benefits. Yes, Clinton's military budget is huge and wasteful?as is George W.'s proposed one?but they don't want to talk about it, do they? For all his prescience, Daniel Bell didn't allow that materialism's destruction of tradition might be replaced by whole new codes, better attuned to minds no longer stunted by provincialism, not reluctant to exercise selfless choices where public or environmental needs are concerned.

    ?What if the evolving radicality of our lifestyles forces us to change the old definitions of "left" and "right"? The final refutation of 2000 logic may be that both conservatism and liberalism will learn from this campaign that the old songs don't sing anymore, that they must readjust to the extended, multidimensional lives we actually live now, which don't resemble the lives lived by our grandparents or even our parents. While my father died at 34, and never left this country, I expect to be with Arthur C. Clarke on that Hilton in space in 2011, where we'll recall a day we spent together at the Chelsea Hotel swatting an enormous roach in 1975, while a museum curator hid in the closet, afraid to face Mr. 2001.

    ?What if Mr. President in Chappaqua turns columnist? Invades the mind of Maureen Dowd? Invites her up for a drink, offering to pay for that limo...?

    To repeat: these are anti-predictions, simply here to defy the idea of a remote, abstract Future. That distant utopia (or dystopia) no longer exists, period. Our lives, tools and capacities are escalating so rapidly that Futurist modeling?a neat little vision of a coherent destiny that is 10, 20 or 50 years down the road?is impossible. Each of the destabilizing contradictions I just listed is as reasonable as the Official Destiny.

    Why Be So Contrarian?

    Science is...essentially anarchistic... The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes. ?Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, 1975

    Because we love to defy the odds. Because we are at our best when we are experiential, not ideological, primed by attitude, not determinism. Spontaneous reversals bring out the best in us. Yes, this may be a uniquely American sickness, fostered by the infinitude of cultures, desires and passions that keep us constantly off balance, on edge, where we love to be. But it is the key to the economic and cultural success that has characterized the past decade.

    Remember "the Asian Century" that was supposed to overwhelm us in the 1990s, due to the top-down planning embodied by Japan's Ministry of Trade and Industry? What in fact has happened since then argues against big plans, and for giving complexity, reversal and chance proper respect. (This position is summed up brilliantly in economist Paul Ormerod's new book, which links itself metaphorically to the infamous butterfly trope that defines complexity theory.)

    Let's cultivate, not resist, the butterfly?that is, C&R. The great anarchist historian Paul Feyerabend, a most rare guide to the past, argues against the false clarity of "order"?of making history seem logical. Feyerabend bids us to see the virtues of disorder and confusion. The great moments of achievement have always been moments when competing ideas are let loose, he tells us, with no supreme authority in control: classical Athens, the early Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the coming of the "Modern" early in the last century and the flowering of postmodernity, with its insistence on the juxtaposition of opposites and the cross-reference of cultures.

    In the 21st century, "anything goes" will seem more attractive than ever. Let's focus on 2001, not 2000, alert to every shocking, unexpected, unsettling event, rather than past patterns. Anything can happen now, even a Bradley-McCain ticket. Until 1/1/2001, place no conservative bets, book no normal reservations, invest only in wild stocks. The improbable is yet to come.