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Postrel, Editor of Reason, Columnist for Forbes
Posted: April, 1999
Search for Tomorrow
Copyright © 1998 Virginia Postrel
Editor's Note: Trying to escape real work I picked up this book that had just arrived unannounced from a friend. Thought I'd kill time and scan the introduction. Wow! I didn't put the book down until it was finished. The Future and Its Enemies has useful insights about people who find change difficult to deal with, those who like change as long as they control it, and those who find change to be the joy in life. She puts the "technocrat" into a tight fitting box that may cause you to look around and re-evaluate who you work with and who you'll vote for. She gives us an insightful discussion on the nature of tacit knowledge that should boost your respect for collaborative networks and decrease your expectations from so-called on-line knowledge repositories. She didn't set out to do that but the conclusion is inescapable if you're wrestling with these concepts as I am. Her discussion of rules and the nature of rules that create generative, innovative, and adaptable environments is the most lucid and comprehensive I've heard yet - and very thought provoking. In the end, she believes that the USA might be on the "verge" of losing a very good thing, this melting pot and fertile field of creativity and innovation she so aptly describes as the freedom to experiment - and in the describing she brings the boarder of chaos and order to life. Though it is non-fiction, it isn't a duty-calls business book - it's a fast-paced and delightful read. You won't see all this in the introduction - get the book.
In May 1998, for the third time in its history, Disneyland opened a revamped Tomorrowland. It didn't just add an attraction or two. It reimagined the future. Gone is the impersonal chrome and steel of the old buildings, along with the Mission to Mars ride, the PeopleMover, and the Circle-Vision theater. In their place is a kinder, gentler tomorrow where the buildings are decorated in lush jewel tones and the gardens are filled with fruit trees and edible plants. Tomorrowland still has spaceships aplenty -- the new Rocket Rods ride is the fastest in the park -- but it hasn't shut out things that grow.
Nor has it jettisoned the past to make way for the future. Just as the food plants connect human beings with nature, the new attractions connect yesterday and tomorrow. The area's design draws on the long-ago visions of Jules Verne and Leonardo da Vinci, and Tomorrowland has restored some of its own history, Its new restaurant is decorated with posters of 1960s rides, and Disney has rebuilt the classic Buck Rogers-style Moonliner rocket it once dumped as out-of-date.
"What we're saying here is that the future has a place for you in it," says Tony Baxter, a senior vice president at Walt Disney Imagineering and the chief spokesman for the project. People can love technology, Disney is betting, and also want a human-centered world of rich texture, warm colors, and sweet-smelling plants. Rather than prescribing a single ideal, the "one best way" to progress, the park offers a "culture of futures" that celebrates many different visions, both historical and contemporary. The goal, says Baxter, "is to get your dream machine working in your mind, rather than turning you off by creating a clinically sterile future."
The old modernist ideal was indeed too sterile for most tastes. Real people don't want to live in generic high-rise apartments and walk their dogs on treadmills, à la The Jetsons. Real people want some connection to the past and to the natural world. And Disneyland is in the business of catering to real people. It can't force customers to embrace its favorite future. All the park can do is propose possible futures and test them against the public's own dreams. When those dreams change, or the present becomes too much like "the future," Tomorrowland has to change too. "It is always right when you do it," says Bruce Gordon, who headed construction of the new Tomorrowland. "The question is, How long will it last?"
To many observers, however, Tomorrowland's most recent adaptations represent not normal evolution but failure and broken promises. These social critics see the revisions as proof that the future is scary, progress a fantasy, and technology suspect. To them, a good future must be static: either the product of detailed, technocratic blueprints or the return to an idealized, stable past. The new Tomorrowland, says popular-culture scholar Norman Klein, is "no longer about planning in the long run, or about social imagineering." To reject planning, in this view, is to reject progress. Writes the cultural critic Tim Appelo:
Appelo quotes Judith Adams, the author of a book on the meaning and history of amusement parks, who claims that we have come to see technology as "a killing thing." It is, she says, something used "to destroy your peers, so you can be more successful yourself. You're never caught up with technology. You're never safe." The new Tomorrowland, in this assessment, proves technology is bad. After all, it's always changing.
The idea that to be good the future must be finite and "safe" is a common one. Disneyland itself once promised that sort of carefully controlled future. When the park was new in the late 1950s, many people saw it as a model of perfection not just for amusement parks but for the rest of life. City planning was in its heyday, and observers as varied as Vice President Richard Nixon and science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury praised Disney's meticulously designed world as the way all of society ought to be: a contrast to the spontaneous sprawl of southern California and the untidiness of eastern cities. Bradbury even suggested that Walt Disney run for mayor of Los Angeles, so he could impose his vision on that city.
But Tomorrowland undercut this static ideal. Its revisions in the 1950s and mid-1960s, writes historian John Findlay, "dramatized Disneyland's lack of control over the future. The success of the theme park was predicated on complete mastery of its world, but the future refused to cooperate, and thus it compelled the theme park to make constant adjustments." Even the hypercontrolled world of the park was always changing, for two reasons. First, Disneyland was a competitive business. It could not afford to insist on a "tomorrow" that failed to attract customers, whether because of changing tastes, new inventions, or better rides elsewhere. When Tomorrowland added the Star Tours flight simulator in 1987, for instance, Disney wasn't revising the future. It was conceding the popularity of George Lucas's space opera; Star Wars wasn't even a Disney movie.
Second, the park's managers were always learning. Disneyland itself was a technology you could never catch up with. Not just Tomorrowland but all of the park continuously evolved. True, Disneyland started from scratch; the company bulldozed and reshaped every bit of the original landscape. Once established, however, Disneyland took on a life of its own, adapting through trial and error: The Autopia ride, which Walt Disney imagined as a great way for kids to learn the rules of the road, unexpectedly turned into a demolition derby, as wild-eyed children smashed all but six of the original thirty-six cars; the ride was remodeled to keep the miniature cars in their lanes. Another Walt favorite, the live circus, was eliminated after animals kept escaping; llamas stampeded through the streets and once, during a parade, a tiger and a panther smashed through the barrier separating them and began tearing each other apart.
Not every lesson was so dramatic or embarrassing. Over time, the park replaced individual-ride tickets with ticket books and later with all-day, one-fee passes. It added whole new "lands," such as Toontown and New Orleans Square, and updated old ones. Disneyland was dedicated to what Walt Disney called "plussing": continuous improvement through both new ideas and changes to existing attractions. Control freak that he was, Disney loved the revisions the theme park allowed. Its open-endedness appealed to his desire for perfection. "If there's something I don't like at Disneyland, I can correct it," he once said. "I can always change it [here], but not in the films." The great thing about the park was that it "will never be finished....It's alive."
Outside Disneyland's walls, too, the future is alive. Like the present, the future is not a single, uniform state but an ongoing process that reflects the plenitude of human life. There is in fact no single future; "the" future encompasses the many microfutures of individuals and their associations. It includes all the things we learn about ourselves and the world, all the incremental improvements we discover, all our new ideas, and all the new ways we express and recombine them. As a system, the future is natural, out of anyone's control, though it is driven by the artificial: by individual attempts (including Disneyland) to fashion realms of personal control. This open-ended future can't be contained in the vision of a single person or organization. And, as Judith Adams says of technology, it is something we can never be caught up with.
How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis -- a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism -- a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? Do we declare with Appelo that "we're scared of the future" and join Adams in decrying technology as "a killing thing"? Or do we see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting? Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise? These two poles, stasis and dynamism, increasingly define our political, intellectual, and cultural landscape. The central question of our time is what to do about the future. And that question creates a deep divide.
"I think there's a personality that goes with this kind of thing," says economist Brian Arthur about the emerging science of complexity, which studies dynamic systems. "It's people who like process and pattern, as opposed to people who are comfortable with stasis....I know that every time in my life that I've run across simple rules giving rise to emergent, complex messiness, I've just said, 'Ah, isn't that lovely!' And I think that sometimes, when other people run across it, they recoil."
The future we face at the dawn of the twenty-first century is, like all futures left to themselves, "emergent, complex messiness." Its "messiness" lies not in disorder, but in an order that is unpredictable, spontaneous, and ever shifting, a pattern created by millions of uncoordinated, independent decisions. That pattern contains not just a few high-tech gizmos, but all the variegated aspects of life. As people create and sell products or services, adopt new fashions of speech or dress, form families and choose home towns, make medical decisions and seek spiritual insights, investigate the universe and invent new forms of art, these actions shape a future no one can see, a future that is dynamic and inherently unstable.
That instability, or our awareness of it, is heightened by the fluidity of contemporary life: by the ease with which ideas and messages, goods and people, cross borders; by technologies that seek to surpass the quickness of the human mind and overcome the constraints of the human body; by the "universal solvents" of commerce and popular culture; by the dissolution or reformation of established institutions, particularly large corporations, and the rise of new ones; by the synthesis of East and West, of ancient and modern -- by the combination and recombination of seemingly every artifact of human culture. Ours is a magnificently creative era. But that creativity produces change, and that change attracts enemies, philosophical as well as self-interested.
With some exceptions, the enemies of the future aim their attacks not at creativity itself but at the dynamic processes through which it is carried. In our post-Cold War era, for instance, free markets are recognized as powerful forces for social, cultural, and technological change -- liberating in the eyes of some, threatening to others. The same is true for markets in ideas: for free speech and worldwide communication; for what John Stuart Mill called "experiments in living"; for scientific research, artistic expression, and technological innovation. All of these processes are shaping an unknown, and unknowable, future. Some people look at such diverse, decentralized, choice-driven systems and rejoice, even when they don't like particular choices. Others recoil. In pursuit of stability and control, they seek to eliminate or curb these unruly, too-creative forces.
Stasists and dynamists are thus divided not just by simple, short-term policy issues but by fundamental disagreements about the way the world works. They clash over the nature of progress and over its desirability: Does it require a plan to reach a specified goal? Or is it an unbounded process of exploration and discovery? Does the quest for improvement express destructive, nihilistic discontent, or the highest human qualities? Does progress depend on puritanical repression or a playful spirit?
Stasists and dynamists disagree about the limits and use of knowledge. Stasists demand that knowledge be articulated and easily shared. Dynamists, by contrast, appreciate dispersed, often tacit knowledge. They recognize the limits of human minds even as they celebrate learning.
Those conflicts lead to very different beliefs about good institutions and rules: Stasists seek specifics to govern each new situation and keep things under control. Dynamists want to limit universal rule making to broadly applicable and rarely changed principles, within which people can create and test countless combinations. Stasists want their detailed rules to apply to everyone; dynamists prefer competing, nested rule sets. (Disneyland's rules may be good for the park, but that doesn't make them the right rules for everyone else.) Such disagreements have political ramifications that go much deeper than the short-term business of campaigns and legislation. They affect our governing assumptions about how political, economic, social, intellectual, and cultural systems work; what those systems should value; and what they mean.
These are not the comfortable old Cold War divisions of hawks and doves, egalitarians and individualists, left and right. Nor are they the one-dimensional labels of technophile and technophobe, optimist and pessimist, or libertarian and statist that pundits sometimes grab to replace the old categories. They contain elements of those simpler classifications, but they are much richer, encompassing more aspects of life -- more aspects of the emergent, complex future.
This book examines the clash between stasis and dynamism and explores those contrasting views. It starts by recognizing that the distinction between dynamism and stasis is a real and important one that explains much that otherwise appears puzzling in our intellectual and political life. Beyond that recognition, it explores what dynamism is and how it works: What are the processes through which human creativity produces progress, prosperity, happiness, and freedom? What are the characteristics of a dynamic civilization, and how do they differ from the ways in which we usually hear our world described?
An unabashedly dynamist work, The Future and Its Enemies devotes most of its pages to limning the dynamic vision, which has rarely been articulated in full. It does not pretend to invent that vision from scratch or claim to discover new truths for a new age. In true dynamist fashion, it builds on the knowledge and experience of the past to better understand how dynamic systems work in general -- and how, therefore, they work in our own particular time, place, and circumstances. It unites the work of scholars from many different fields and relates them to the textures of life in an evolving world, past, present, and future.
As a result, the book's rhetorical choices break the conventions of serious nonfiction: Why talk about political philosophy and hairstyling, economics and computer games, environmental policy and contact lenses, legal theory and doughnut shops, bioethics and Post-it notes in the same work? Why mix the high and the low, the masculine and the feminine, the exalted and the mundane, the abstract and the concrete? Why not stick to a single, static genre? It would make the book so much easier to sell.
The question, of course, answers itself. Static visions depend on hiding the connections between disparate aspects of life. My purpose is to expose them. Stasists gain credibility by treating dynamism as a shallow fad. My aim is to reveal its rich heritage. Stasists thrive by issuing prescriptions that ignore the details of life, believing that details are unimportant, the stuff of anonymous specialists, and can safely be ignored. My goal is to encourage respect for those details, even when they can only be evoked in passing. Piling up widely divergent examples, reflecting a tiny sample of the plenitude of life, is one way to do that.
Stasist social criticism -- which is to say essentially all current social criticism -- brings up the specifics of life only to sneer at or bash them. Critics assume that readers will share their attitudes and will see contemporary life as a problem demanding immediate action by the powerful and wise. This relentlessly hostile view of how we live, and how we may come to live, is distorted and dangerous. It overvalues the tastes of an articulate elite, compares the real world of trade-offs to fantasies of utopia, omits important details and connections, and confuses temporary growing pains with permanent catastrophes. It demoralizes and devalues the creative minds on whom our future depends. And it encourages the coercive use of political power to wipe out choice, forbid experimentation, shortcircuit feedback, and trammel progress.
Along the way, therefore, The Future and Its Enemies tries to capture some of the wonders we take for granted. It celebrates the complexities and surprises of the contemporary world, and of the world to come. I hope that instinctive dynamists will see themselves in that world, and will work to protect the systems that make it possible. The evolving future is for humans, just as Tony Baxter says. But sometimes we need a reminder that it's not confined to Disneyland.
A word about terminology: Stasis and dynamism are ordinary words, and I use them in a fairly ordinary way, to represent stable or evolving states. The only variation from the conventional meaning is that I use dynamism more precisely, meaning not just change but evolution through variation, feedback, and adaptation. Stasis and dynamism may be actual or envisioned states; their qualities, in either case, are described as static or dynamic. The coined words stasist and dynamist -- which, like feminist or socialist, may be either nouns or adjectives -- refer to intellectual positions and the people who hold them. A dynamist is one who supports dynamism.
For readers who would like more information about the ideas in this book, I have established a Web site at www.dynamist.com.
Virginia Postrel, Editor, Reason
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