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Future Tense

Why Washington can't stand Newt's futurism

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I first met Newt Gingrich in 1983 at the World Science Fiction Convention in Baltimore. He was the only member of Congress who thought the WorldCon worth addressing. I was the only representative of the national media, specifically of The Wall Street Journal, who thought his speech worth covering.

The political establishment—left, right, and center—hates self-described "conservative futurist" Gingrich's fascination with big ideas. Journalists use words like "techno-freak," "dreamy," "grandiose," and "quirky" to describe his departures from approved Washington scripts into speculations about where America and the world are headed. They delight in poking fun at the neologisms of his advisers, from Alvin and Heidi Toffler's "demassification," to Michael Vlahos's "Brain Lords," to the whole notion of the "virtual."

"Predicted with Virtual Certainty: Gingrich & the Technoids Look Into Their Crystal Balls," was the headline on a snide Washington Post Style article poking fun at a conference in which the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a Newt-affiliated think tank, attempted to expand Washington's mind.

An anonymous "leading conservative ideologue," quoted in a New Yorker article called "Lost in Space," best expresses the official line: "For my taste, Gingrich is too futuristic, too psychobabble, too technobabble—he's a weird mishmash of all kinds of things. There is an ongoing attempt to try to keep Newt from going off the deep end. There is a certain grandiosity to his self-understanding which comes from Toffler, an end-of-an-era, the whole-world-is-changing feeling he projects. The Republican Presidential candidates are really more conventional than Newt."

And we all know that's what Republicans are supposed to be—conventional. Like George Bush.

Gingrich's futurism has its problems, certainly, some obvious, some deep. On the obvious level, it lacks discipline, racing to embrace cool-sounding ideas before analyzing them. It overgeneralizes, selecting from history, business, and technology the data that fit its preconceptions. And it massacres the English language.

But these traits are not unique to Gingrich—as anyone who has ventured into Al Gore's intellectually incoherent and nearly unreadable Earth in the Balance can testify. The culture meisters of Washington and New York are positively gaga over futurism when it takes a properly apocalyptic form—one that makes work for government, or at least emphasizes its importance.

Paul Kennedy's declinism, Robert Kaplan's Third World threats, Lester Brown's environmental hysteria, and National Review's immigration panics all get respectful hearings. Charles Murray may be politically incorrect, but people don't think his "custodial democracy" dystopia is goofy (though it recently appeared in a two-part Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode). Robert Reich and Michael Vlahos tell the same tale of income stratification by brain power, but Reich knows enough to decry the rise of "symbolic analysts." Attitude is everything.

Gingrich's futurism threatens Washington not because it is full of buzzwords or half-baked notions about tax credits for laptop computers. It threatens the controllers of convention because it says they, and even Gingrich, aren't especially important. It declares that the most significant people, events, ideas, and innovations are outside Washington, outside government, outside convention. It dares to suggest that society changes first and government (and media) must adapt. And in the cold war between the Two Cultures, it sides with science.

Gingrich talked about the two cultures in his speech to the Progress & Freedom Foundation conference. In a 1959 essay, he explained, British novelist and physicist C.P. Snow posited that the humanities and sciences were moving away from each other and that humanists would soon be utterly ignorant of the science that shapes our world. Snow's prophecy has come true, said Gingrich, and as a result, "those who know are inarticulate and those who articulate don't know."

Gingrich's idea that scientists and engineers are the people "who know" and that politicians, reporters, and policy wonks are merely articulate is a tad reductionist. But it contains enough truth to expose a deeply entrenched anti-intellectualism among Washington and New York's cognitive elites—an anti-intellectualism as common among conventional conservatives as among Clintonites.

Neoconservative humanities specialists, the conservative movement's arbiters of intellectualism, are particularly distrustful of the sciences and tend to wrap their ignorance in contempt. At a meeting of the National Association of Scholars, for instance, an organization official introduced an eminent physicist by saying, "He works on quarks, whatever those are"—a statement equivalent to saying, "He works on T.S. Eliot, whoever that is." It's no wonder "leading conservative ideologues" have trouble with Newt's technophilia. It threatens not only their power but their intellectual status.

Conservatives, however, have produced no reaction as hysterical as the attack on Wired magazine run by The New Republic. Like Gingrich, Wired sometimes lacks rigor. And it has its excesses, among them a notoriously busy design. But with a circulation of 110,000, it can't really be more "esoteric" than The New Republic, which has a circulation of 101,000. Wired just has a very different attitude toward Washington.

What bugs author Gary Chapman, the former executive director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, is Wired's "smug disengagement from the thorny problems facing postindustrial societies and, most annoyingly,…its over-the-top narcissism." Wired writers and, by implication, Wired readers are proud of their knowledge, excited about technology, and hostile to government bossiness. They want to be left alone. That makes them contemptible, if not downright dangerous, in Chapman's world view. And, he says, "the Newtoids on Capitol Hill…are clearly Wired material."

The real difference between Chapman and Wired, or the Post and Gingrich, is how they define social responsibility and "the thorny problems facing postindustrial societies"—and what they see as the solutions. Is technology the problem and government the answer, or vice versa? Are individuals important as free actors, or as members of a collective?

When Gingrich pushes social responsibility, he describes individuals helping individuals, not government seizing and redistributing work and property. To fight unemployment in the knowledge economy, he promotes two hours of homework a night, private programs to pay poor kids to read, and, yes, incentives to get computers to the poor—individual by individual. (Not, as Al Gore proposes, by wiring public institutions to a nationalized superhighway.)

The tax-credits-for-laptops plan reveals what's actually wrong with Gingrich's futurism. He himself can't really let go of central control. He loves technology and wants to make sure everyone else does, too. That's why in the early '80s, he was advocating huge public works in space and a Minitel-style national information infrastructure. Gingrich is always in danger of falling into the technocratic traps that built the regulatory state—the notion that government planners, like engineers designing widgets, can build a good society from the top down. His futurism is out of date.

Engineering-as-metaphor is out. Biology and complexity are in. The world is messy, organic, out of control. It evolves by trial and error. If we want progress, nobody can be in charge. Progress is the unintended result of dynamic processes, not a predetermined outcome of someone's official static plan.

So, a new reading list for Newt: Start with a great book dedicated to "the unknown civilization that is growing in America," The Constitution of Liberty by F.A. Hayek. It has much to say about progress and freedom, and its postscript "Why I Am Not a Conservative" explains a lot about the people attacking your love of the future. Read Hayek's essay, "The Uses of Knowledge in Society," which is essential to understanding the knowledge economy, and Thomas Sowell's masterful elaboration, Knowledge and Decisions. To understand how the growth and diffusion of technology depend on local circumstances, not simple extrapolation, delve into economic historian Nathan Rosenberg's work.

There are lots of pop books out on complexity and evolution. Possible starting places include Out of Control by Kevin Kelly; Bionomics by Michael Rothschild; and Complexity by Michael Waldrop. (Take them all with a grain of salt, however, especially when they generalize about economics.)

To expand your mind in more poetical directions, read Frederick Turner's Tempest, Flute, & Oz and the forthcoming Culture of Hope. Add Richard Rodriguez's Days of Obligation, an organic consideration of cultural paradoxes.

Above all, don't be embarrassed to say you care enough about the future to speculate on it. And don't be hubristic enough to think you can determine, or even predict, it.

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