2001: An Anti-Futurist Manifesto

Written by Douglas Davis on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.






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 (www.research.ibm.com/quantuminfo/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.


..