Philosophy

The Future: Caught in a Cross Fire

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That great arbiter of left and right, CNN's Crossfire, began 1995 with a show that quickly became less a debate than a meeting of the minds. The entire format broke down, as Pat Buchanan, the host on the right, and Jeremy Rifkin, the guest on the left, discovered they were political soul mates. The subject was the future–and neither Rifkin nor Buchanan had much positive to say about it. Both were deeply pessimistic, upset about changes in the world of work, and eager to find government policies to restore the good old days. Both spoke resentfully of the "knowledge sector" and groused about new technologies.

The show was a sign of things to come: Buchanan went on to run for president on a platform opposed to economic restructuring, often drawing at least grudging praise from left-leaning commentators. Both his campaign and the Crossfire episode suggested a lot about the evolving shape of American politics.

If you want to understand the contours of today's political-intellectual landscape, knowing your left from your right isn't as helpful as it used to be. The end of the Cold War has allowed the familiar plates to shift, creating new ideological continents and causing political upheavals. Now the defining question is not what to do about the Russians, but what to do about the future: Do we embrace dynamism–the open-ended, evolving, unpredictable future produced by experiment and feedback, choice and consequences, competitive trial and error? Or do we search for stasis–a limited, regulated future engineered according to a central blueprint? Do we value learning and progress, or stability and control?

So far, these questions are more intellectual and cultural than electoral, matters more of political philosophy and inclination than of parties and candidates. In last fall's election, Bob Dole offered to be a bridge to a better past, leading Bill Clinton to run a successful countercampaign promising a "bridge to the 21st century." But Clinton's promise was vague enough to appeal both to voters seeking a candidate comfortable with dynamism and to those looking for static specifications.

Before dynamist or stasist coalitions can form around candidates, they must first form around political issues or cultural attitudes. We have to know who our allies are–and they may not be the familiar compatriots of yore. On the static side, opposition to economic restructuring, international trade, immigration, and new technologies have all provided rallying points for left-right coalitions.

Dynamists, however, barely know they exist. They share important attitudes: beliefs in spontaneous order, in evolved solutions to complex problems, in the limits of centralized knowledge, in the possibility of progress. But they don't share an identity. They may see themselves as libertarian or progressive, liberal or conservative, playful postmodernists or hard-headed technologists. The Net, however, has begun to change that. It is a touchstone, a symbol of dynamic, spontaneous evolution. It drives stasists crazy: "Smash the Internet" declares the cover of the conservative Weekly Standard, a sentiment echoed by numerous technophobes on the old-fashioned left.

That reaction exists in part because the Net has created its own community and grabbed publicity in the process. Digerati have become the first self-conscious part of the as yet inchoate dynamic coalition. The Net gives them a dynamic model of how the world works, while offering a catalyst for practical political actionw when they defend it against regulatory attacks. Over the past couple years, the Net has changed the way people think about politics and policy.

Mike Godwin, staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, calls himself "a yellow dog Democrat from Texas," an old term for someone who would vote for a yellow dog over a Republican, "except for fact that I don't actually think about economic issues the way 'yellow dog Democrats from Texas' usually do. When I see a problem, I don't think in terms of 'let's start a program–let's have us vote in a program, let's appropriate some money.'…I think, 'How can we finesse this in way that doesn't create an institution for dealing with it?'" That attitude, he suggests, is something that grows naturally out of Net culture.

His computer-savvy allies, he says, have absorbed "the law of unintended consequences….Sometimes you find that every attempt to fix a bug creates new bugs. What it tells you is something about the limits of what designers can do, or to put it another way, the limits on what policy makers can do." These attitudes, Godwin suggests, grow naturally out of the Net.

To become viable, however, a dynamist worldview must be more than the special-interest pleading that often characterize Net culture…but more on that in my next column.

This article appeared in the February 24, 1997 issue of Forbes ASAP.

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