|"THE FUTURE AND ITS ENEMIES"|
February 1, 1999
David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Virginia Postrel, author of "The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress."
DAVID GERGEN: Virginia, in your new book, you write: "The central question of our time is what to do about the future." And you say that's not a contest between the traditional left and right, it's a very different contest.
VIRGINIA POSTREL, Author, "The Future and Its Enemies:" Yes. I argue that the open-ended future, the future that evolves without anybody being in charge of it through trial and error, experimentation and feedback, competition and choice, is the defining question and that there are people who support that process whom I call dynamists, they support dynamism, and there are people who oppose it, support stasis. I call them stasists; and that you can find both of these groups among people who traditionally we would have said were on the left or on the right, because we have defined those categories very much in a Cold War context and they're changing.
DAVID GERGEN: Carry us a little deeper into the argument. What do you mean by this open-ended process?
VIRGINIA POSTREL: This is a very different view of progress. This is progress is real, human beings do learn; civilizations do learn over time, but they learn incrementally, they learn by trying things not always succeeding, having competing ideas and that could be technology, that can be culture, it can be the arts, new forms of expression developing. And you see this a lot, for example, in business culture. I mean, we used to have the ideal of the business was that it had strategic plans and everything was mapped out in advance and everybody worked on an assembly line and we had the one best way that would stay the same forever. There's been a complete sea change there. Now the idea is there's knowledge in the organization, it's way down often at the factory floor, the goal of managers is to get that knowledge to bubble up from the bottom to promote innovation in a highly competitive environment, and that is the sort of business side of this dynamist coalition that I'm talking about.
DAVID GERGEN: You said in your book that among the new dynamists the young are often much more entrepreneurial and they're interested in creative, new, innovative ways of doing things.
VIRGINIA POSTREL: Yes, there is particularly among people in their 20's, there is this tremendous emphasis on sort of forming your life. Your career is not going to be a matter of stepping on a mapped out corporate ladder but a matter of acquiring skills and doing different things and having your security come from your resilience, which is a theme that dynamists have in general; that security is not a matter of planning everything in advance and eliminating risks, it's a matter of being adaptable. And you see that among this younger generation of people. I mean, my husband teaches business school and he's seen it just in the 12 years he's been doing that, a shift -- more and more entrepreneurial young people.
DAVID GERGEN: A friend of mine made the argument to me the new metaphor for this generation is not one of climbing the ladder but of surfing.
VIRGINIA POSTREL: Surfing is a big metaphor through all this. I mean, it's a very dynamist metaphor -- whether it's surfing information or surfing life in general. It's a matter of incremental adaptation and sort of -- it's not that you eliminate dangers, it's that you deal with them.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, now who are the enemies of this future?
VIRGINIA POSTREL: Well, the enemies are people who want to either plan -- who see their future as something that must be controlled, or they value stability overall. And they sort of fall into two camps; one is your traditional what I call technocrat camp which says, "we're for the future but it must look like this 17-point plan." You get a lot of that in Washington, you know. Well, the future's great but, you know, don't let it get out of control. We don't trust you guys out there in the world." And the other is what I call reactionaries, for lack of a better term. It's people whose idea is that the future is too dangerous and that we need to go back to some sort of imagined past.
DAVID GERGEN: Arnold Toynby, the historian, wrote once that in a period of enormous technological change there's often been a decay of moral values. Do you worry about that?
VIRGINIA POSTREL: Well, I think all of these are part of a competitive learning something and part of that is social criticism. I mean, part of the feedback -- I talk about criticism by example, that's competition. But there's also criticism by expression; that's saying we don't approve of that. It does disturb me, however, that there's an emphasis on the negative and on immediately leaping toward we need to somehow control things in a central way as though there's one best way of doing things as opposed to, for example, with the Internet. There's been a tremendous proliferation of various filtering technologies that allow different families that have different preferences to pick ways of screening out things for their children. And so some of them may be strictly just hard core sex and violence or something like that, other ones are more specific, it may be religious content, it may be perfectly straightforward factual information about homosexuality that is more from a pro-gay rights point of view. They may not like that. So that kind of diversity of filtering I have no problem with. I mean, I may disagree with given filters as an individual, but as part of the process, that's part of the dynamic process.
DAVID GERGEN: What principles do we have, then, about -- as change comes -- about where we draw lines? For example, cloning of individuals, of human beings -- you say basically the dynamists would allow cloning to go forward, and we should not be bothered by the ethical implications, whereas, you argue the stasists, the enemies of the future, are the ones who say, "wait a minute, there's a real ethical question here about cloning of people."
VIRGINIA POSTREL: Well, I have a chapter on the natural and the artificial, which I think is a big dividing line not just on these biotech issues but also on how we think about the environment. And I think there are some legitimate concerns about various forms of genetic engineering. I am not persuaded by the arguments against cloning. I think you have to look at what it is really about. You're talking about a baby, first of all, you're not talking about like an army of little Hitlers, you're talking about a baby - a baby who's going to be brought into the world in the context of the society we have; that is, it's going to be, if we have clones, there will probably be a few infertile couples, possibly some gay couples, that's one thing that upsets people, but it's not going to be all of a sudden we wake up and we're living in "Brave New World." "Brave New World," the actual "brave new world" in the book is a static vision. It's a world where everything has been decided centrally about what society should look like and who human beings should be. I'm much more willing to trust those decisions to people sort of in a decentralized way, to say that parents are more likely to make good decisions for their children's future, including deciding to bring those children into the world, than someone saying, "well, you don't have a good reason for wanting to have a child this way."
DAVID GERGEN: Your bottom line then, though, is we'll have a much richer future, a much more diverse future if we, in effect, encourage change and lean always in the favor of innovation?
VIRGINIA POSTREL: No. If we encourage experimentation and feedback -- if we allow people to try things but also allow them to bear the consequences of the things they try. I mean, one of the ways we get in trouble is by picking winners in advance, too. So I don't believe change is always good. I do think that you need to lean a little bit against the impulse that says change is always bad. And so sometimes I -- people misinterpret what I'm saying. But I'm saying allow innovation and allow people to try things in a decentralized way, where they get the feedback right away.
DAVID GERGEN: Virginia Postrel, thank you very much.
VIRGINIA POSTREL: Thank you.