Learning to love the future

Our anxiety about what's to come is just the wish for things to stand still.


We used to think the 21st century would look like The Jetsons—flying cars, robot maids, high-rise apartment buildings, and 1950s-style corporations and sex roles.

The future had no grass or trees (even dog walking could take place on treadmills), no old-fashioned houses, no suburbs, no shopping malls. It certainly had no Goth teenagers, evangelical Christians, instant Internet billionaires, or brown-skinned immigrants. The 21st century was clean, neat, and orderly, and so were its inhabitants. Even dystopias such as 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 imagined a controlled, predictable world.

A mere six months away from the year 2000, the future looks nothing like we imagined. It is messy and unpredictable, with more variety than we can get our minds around. The future isn't developing according to plan.

Americans have responded to this dynamic future with a combination of enthusiasm and anxiety. On the one hand, the emergent future works. All those trials and errors, all those entrepreneurial experiments, and all that choice, competition and plenitude have given us a pretty nice world. We're enjoying peace and prosperity. The general public takes pride and pleasure in technological innovations and the benefits they bring.

"What would you say has been America's greatest achievement during the 20th century?" a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press recently asked. Half the respondents named science and technology, including space exploration, computers and medical advances. (By comparison, 5 percent cited civil rights, and 3 percent said winning World War II.)

Asked about life for members of their family today compared to the 1950s, 63 percent said life is better, while only 12 percent said it's worse.

A substantial majority of Americans not only believe in progress. They've seen it in their own families' lives.

But anxiety remains. Go into Barnes & Noble, and you'll see a sign of the times: a special section called "The Year of Living Dangerously," devoted to the year 2000. The display usually features some of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' post-Rapture apocalyptic novels and a slew of books on the Y2K computer bug. Those books are there because they sell very, very well.

Both the fundamentalist fiction and the survivalist how-to's appeal to readers' sense that something is dangerously wrong with the contemporary scene. Both express a desire for an easily comprehended world that holds still. These popular books are tracts for stasis.

Apocalyptic fiction, while ultimately about God's purposes, usually portrays an immediate, human world of competing conspiracies. Whatever happens is orchestrated, coordinated and planned in advance. Social order doesn't emerge through the unpredictable interactions of dispersed choices. It comes from malevolent plots and their divinely inspired counterparts.

Such books offer the sort of certainty once promised by modernist technocrats: the idea that the future can be designed in advance, according to a sure blueprint—an idea echoed in the Clinton-Gore slogan of a "bridge to the 21st century." The theology of divine providence thus merges with the politics of planning: We will escape the complicated present and the open-ended future—the world of diversity and trial-and-error learning—for a new and henceforth static world.

The Y2K mavens, meanwhile, want a world with fewer connections. They argue that networks of commerce and communications have made us vulnerable to the ripple effects of the computer bug. We would be better off unplugged.

The Y2K bug is a genuine technical concern, consuming the energies of many specialists. But the prophecies of doom represent a broader worldview using the bug as a news hook. In this vision, the good society is a stable society, undisrupted by innovation, ambition or outside influences. Modern trade and technology, its adherents counsel, make us too dependent on distant specialists. They prescribe instead the peasant life of traditional, self-sufficient villages growing and making all their own products.

Real peasant life, from the hurricane-wrecked roads of Honduras to the starving autarky of North Korea, tells another story. With isolation comes despair. A static future is not tranquil; it is merely devoid of hope.

The biggest threat to a better life is the desire to keep the future under control—to make the world predictable by reining in creativity and enterprise. Progress as a neat blueprint, with no deviations and no surprise, may work in children's cartoons or utopian novels. But it's just a fantasy.

Virginia Postrel (vpostrel@reason.com) is the editor of Reason magazine and the author of "The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress."