From our studios in New York, Bill Moyers and David Brancaccio.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW, and happy New Year. Our month of January derives its name from Janus, the Roman god of doorways and beginnings. Janus could look forward and backward simultaneously, something we mortals can't do unless there are two of us.
So in this broadcast, my partner David Brancaccio very much a man of the future will look ahead, peering into the crystal ball for some ideas about the shape of things to come.
I turn 70 this year, a time for reflection on some of the big questions still unanswered after a long life's passion of asking people what's on their mind.
We begin with the future.
BRANCACCIO: Well, my impulse for us to talk to our first guest was prompted by a headline I saw recently. It read: "Back to the Moon: Prez to Launch New Mission." This wasn't on a yellowed edition from the archives; it was a headline displayed on fresh, hot-from-the-presses newsprint.
Now let me tell you, I used to be Mr. Space. I was nine when Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind, and I ate up every detail of the mission.
Did you know the five F-1 engines of the Saturn rocket that got him there developed seven and a half million pounds of thrust? Did you know the command module pilot, Michael Collins, was born in Italy? I could go on.
It wasn't just that I was a "science geek." It was the infinite possibilities of exploring outer space that I, and many other Americans, found inspiring.
It was the Vision, with a capital "V."
I stored it in my imagination alongside other positive visions of the future that coursed through the culture in my early years. The robots that would take over the household chores. The monorails that would glide us to work. The better-living-through-chemistry technology to heal the sick and feed the world, with its residents guided to peaceful ends by the United Nations.
Then there are the more recent utopias: the Internet prompting the death of distance and the promise of connectedness. Globalization of merchandise, labor, capital, and ideas, raising all boats.
Okay, so none of these have worked out exactly as planned. But that doesn't mean we don't need them.
So here we are going into 2004 an election year in the United States and what are we presented with as a common, inspirational vision of the future? The limp prospect of another trip to the moon, it seems. Even the Bush administration had backed off the moon talk by year's end, possibly under the weight of the growing federal budget deficit.
Looking for more of what the older George Bush once called "the vision-thing," I phoned the one futurist in my rolodex, Andrew Zolli, to ask if he had come across any visionary thinking lately. "What?" he responded, "A perpetual war on terrorism and lower taxes aren't enough for you?"
Andrew Zolli's edited a volume, out in 2002, called CATALOG OF TOMORROW. He advises companies about branding, as well as cultural and technological trends. At the magazine POPULAR SCIENCE, he has the strange and wonderful title of Contributing Futurist.
Fresh from an annual conference about the impact of technology on people that he organizes, Zolli proposed to me a national conversation about a new vision for the future. That's something I wanted to know more about.
Andrew, thank you very much for joining us on NOW.
ZOLLI: Great to be here, David, thank you.
BRANCACCIO: What are the specifics? What kind of national conversation about the future should we be having?
ZOLLI: Well, you know, our national image of the future, which really got going in the Second World War, and held sway over our collective imaginations for most of the second half of the 20th century, had an expiration date on it. When we were looking at the mid-century mark 50 years ago, we cast our eyes forward to the end of the millennium, to the beginning of the new century. And now that we've come to that place as a society, I think we're in a position where we don't have a dominant image of the future.
The time is absolutely ripe for a conversation about how we will embrace, resist, control, or be subject to important new technologies that are happening, and that are coming at a rate that will shock the average citizen.
BRANCACCIO: Well, you spend a lot of time thinking about those…
ZOLLI: That's right.
BRANCACCIO: …new technologies. What is an impending tradeoff we would have to make?
ZOLLI: Well you know, one of the things that's coming is that we're gonna see a biotech revolution. Biotechnology is going to be as important to the next 50 years as information technology has been to the last 50.
Unfortunately, when we start talking about working with life as if it were code, as if it were computer code, we run headlong into ancient and well-intended and well-reasoned ethical… as you'll… ethical principles in our society.
But the collision of our traditional ethical systems and our new science is not something that can be easily avoided. And it's going to define a major conversation about the future in our society.
Now the problem is that we can't avoid the implications of those technologies. Cloning will come back to our shores. And we will have to deal with it.
Another great example of the kinds of technology tradeoffs is the advent of something called pharming. Now that's pharming with a PH, not an F.
ZOLLI: Now pharming, what we can do is let's say, God forbid, you were to get cancer. We can take a small portion of your DNA that's responsible for producing an anti-tumorous protein, producing a chemical in your body that naturally fights the tumor.
BRANCACCIO: Someday, not now.
ZOLLI: Some, well actually, today we can do…
ZOLLI: …the prototypes of this today. We can take that, we can cross-breed some of your genetic information with cornstalks. Plant an acre of corn that produces a chemical which will heal your tumor David Brancaccio's tumor, and your tumor alone.
Now that's an incredible promise. If for one acre of land can produce a year's worth of this drug.
BRANCACCIO: For me it's an incredible premise.
ZOLLI: For you. But of course the danger is, when you put genes into the wild, they have unpredictable results. The road to the future is paved with unintended consequences.
And so, it's unclear whether or not that's a tradeoff that we should be willing to make. It's unclear whether or not the cure for cancer should come at the cost of a potential danger for our food supply.
And our ethical systems were never designed to address these kinds of problems. And we're going to have to deal with them. And the only way we're gonna deal with them is at the societal level.
BRANCACCIO: We can't leave this to the scientists or the politicians?
ZOLLI: Well, I think the danger is you do leave them to the scientists and the politicians. And people will get precisely what you would expect out of that. They'll get people doing things sometimes because they can.
I'm not here… there's no critique of science involved in this. Scientists in general, tend to be incredibly aware of the ethical implications of their work. And they want a participating, and involved, and invigorated conversation around their work. It's just that they can't get one today because in most cases, the science is too remote from people's lives.
BRANCACCIO: Are you in favor of a brave new future involving human cloning?
ZOLLI: I'm in favor of… I think you have to make a distinction here. There's two kinds of cloning. There's therapeutic cloning, and there's reproductive cloning. Now it's clear that both kinds of cloning have benefit to humanity.
And here's what I mean by that. If you were in an industrial accident and lost your hand, it would be incredibly valuable to be able to genetically engineer some cells at your wrist to your wrist essentially grow a new hand. There are plenty of animals in the animal kingdom that know how to reproduce.
ZOLLI: Right? That's an incredibly valuable thing. And all… today, already, a good example of this is at Harvard University, at a Harvard-affiliated research center up in Cambridge, there are people working on the future of dentistry which will involve you simply growing new teeth when your existing ones get cavities, or break, or you otherwise need a root canal.
Now that's a future I think everyone could say, "That's terrific. We'd love to have that capability." I think therap… reproductive cloning, which is simply, "I'd like a delayed twin, I'd like Mini Me, basically walking around" is something that causes so much uneasiness that I don't think there's any reason to go near it.
But that's okay, because there's huge amounts of value in the therapeutic cloning area, rather than the reproductive area. I do think, though that eventually we're going to see all kinds of technological changes. We're gonna be confronted with changes.
And perhaps the best one about the future, the one that I'm really the most intrigued by, is with the dramatic enhancement of the human lifespan.
There's a researcher at Cambridge University, a guy named Aubrey de Grey, who has articulated what he thinks are the seven or eight primary causes of aging at the cellular level. And he thinks that by mid-century, we could quintuple, right, by the end of the century, perhaps even increase by tenfold the human lifespan.
BRANCACCIO: I'm already terrified by that notion.
BRANCACCIO: I mean what are we gonna do with… what role for children, if…
BRANCACCIO: …in fact, everybody's 190 years old?
ZOLLI: That's right. And in fact, the really interesting questions, questions you can't even imagine coming out of this particular conversation. For example, you live to be 190 years old, but your kids live to be 500 years old. Which means they're in adolescence for almost all of your lifespan.
Now I can imagine there are plenty of parents who are worried about that. And it's a future without children. It's a future largely driven, where the control of reproduction has to be very carefully measured. It's a system we use very much like China's, where you have one, basically, one shot at reproduction.
BRANCACCIO: But imagine the choices that this kind of future presents to us. How does the political process fit into this? You're not gonna have any politician talking about that. It's gotta be completely radioactive, as an issue.
ZOLLI: No question about it. But one of the reasons for this is that our political system, almost by design, has a kind of now-opia. It has a focus on the moment. It's really not surprising. Because we live in a society in which innovation and consumption are so tightly tied together in our consumer economy, that politics becomes another thing that we consume. And so politicians are constantly looking not at a long-term future, but they're looking at relatively short-term futures.
BRANCACCIO: You have a really nifty business card that says, "Futurist." But you also consult with organizations, companies of all sorts, about how people understand these organizations. How people take on to their own, what, identities? Companies?
ZOLLI: That's right. I got my training actually looking at how modern corporations build their public identities. And build their internal identities. The important point about the shift that's happening today and the… is that the relationship between companies and culture has become a defining one, in our society.
Today, the politics of Nike, Disney, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, in some sense, matter more to people than they do… than the Democrats and Republicans, and the Independents and the Greens.
I was actually out in Muncie, Indiana. Where there was a guy being buried in a Harley-Davidson branded casket. He'd actually decided to spend eternity living in a brand. Right? He decided to get buried next to his motorcycle, which his wife told me during the service, or actually just afterwards, that she was delighted that he'd done that, so at least she'd be, you know, rid of the damn bike.
But the funny thing is that people are making decisions about brands, in which they are cherished cradle-to-grave companions.
BRANCACCIO: This is horrible. I mean, people I talk to tend to hate brands. With the possible exception of the PBS brand. But in general…
BRANCACCIO: Starbucks. McDonald's. Often subject of criticism.
ZOLLI: Absolutely. It's certainly true that there are people in our society that look at the impact of brands and consumerism, and say, "This is a terrible thing. This is awful. People are deciding to marry and build their personality identities out of logos. Instead of out of these other more meaningful kinds of decisions."
They're building their identities out of consumptions, the things they buy, not things the believe. However, if you go to rural contexts in this country, the coming of a Krispy Kreme Donut, and a Starbucks, is a big deal. And sometimes it's a very positive deal. It represents economic validation of a community.
Now, it's also true that the coming of Wal-Mart strikes fear and terror into the economic base. But if you take the Wal-Mart effect out, the fact is that there are people in our society who want to throw bricks through Starbucks windows, and say, "I want my brain back." And there are people who are getting married by putting their hands on the iMac owner's manual. Right? And somewhere in between is where everybody else finds themselves.
BRANCACCIO: Sometimes it's the same person, who sits in a Starbucks…
ZOLLI: That's right. That's exactly right.
BRANCACCIO: …complaining about Starbucks.
ZOLLI: That's right. In fact, for a book that I've been working on that'll be coming out next year, there's… we went out, and we interviewed 400 people about their attitudes about these kinds of companies. So, we asked 100 urbanites, 100 suburbanites, 100 semi-rural people, and 100 rural people, sort of at random. Just man on the street: "What do you think of this company?" And one of the fascinating things is, if you go to Berkeley. If you go to Cambridge, if you go to Brooklyn, and you go to those haunts of bohemia, and go into the Starbucks and ask people what they think of Starbucks, they'll tell you they can't stand it. It's destroying the neighborhood. And this is while they're wiping the Frappuccino foam from their upper lip.
BRANCACCIO: But how does the branding of us affect our own identities?
ZOLLI: If we create meaning out of the market, for the people who hold passionate beliefs about their Powerbook, and they hold more passionate beliefs about their Apple Powerbook than about their democratic representatives in Congress.
I think increasingly, companies can also be seen as shepherds of human meaning. That you have to think about companies. If you're Nike or Starbucks or Disney or McDonald's or Coca-Cola, you're not in the culture. You are the culture.
And companies today really aren't structured around being cultural institutions, about being responsive, and shared. You know, a great example of this is when AOL-Time Warner bought the rights to make a Harry Potter movie. The very first one they made, a few years ago.
One of the first things they did allegedly, was to go out and send threatening letters to parents of nine-year-old kids who had built Harry Potter Web sites. Because they didn't want to dilute the value of the brand that they'd just purchased.
BRANCACCIO: And you as the brand expert think that's not a great strategy.
ZOLLI: That's not a great idea. But, one of the reasons that it's not a great idea, is because the Harry Potter brand is cultural property. It's not merely intellectual property to be protected.
It's a vital part of our cultural conversation. It's an important thing. And so, I think that there's something really important, when a major corporation like that can't make a distinction between real piracy people taking a DVD of the movie, and burning 6000 copies, and selling it on the streets of lower Manhattan and nine-year-old kids participating in a lifestyle.
And I think that increasingly, these kinds of issues are gonna come to the fore.
BRANCACCIO: And you'd advise a company in that situation to do what instead?
ZOLLI: Back way off. Understand that ownership of the brand is co-ownership of the brand. There's no way you can avoid that. There's no way in the end, that you can ignore the people who are your customers. And you have to treat them like more than customers. You have to treat them like constituents. And I think that's where we're headed.
BRANCACCIO: I'm still trying to get over a couple things here. You made this point that people know more about their Apple computer or the brand of the car they drive than perhaps their elected official in your view?
ZOLLI: Oh, absolutely. In fact, most people can name… you know they'll name the President. They might name one of their two senators. And then it's mushy right down to the person they met on the street corner.
BRANCACCIO: So politics needs some branding consultations here. What would you advise?
ZOLLI: That's a great question. I'm not sure that the current system is something that I'd wanna put much of a brand on.
BRANCACCIO: For example, I can imagine someone wearing a "Greens " t-shirt.
BRANCACCIO: Maybe a GOP baseball cap. But a Democrat t-shirt? Seems unlikely.
ZOLLI: That's true. But you're… you can find just such t-shirts. But they're not called Democrat t-shirts. For example, the Dean campaign is being funneled by people meeting in the on-line context, and then going to a Web site called "meetup.com." And meetup.com lets those on-line communities meet at their local bar and have what amounts to a local organizing meeting.
Now if you walk around the streets of lower Manhattan, you'll see meetup t-shirts all over the place. And that's a signal, more than anything else, of where in the political spectrum that person stands.
BRANCACCIO: Here's what I don't understand, though. Politics has long used the lessons of corporations and Madison Avenue in marketing their candidates. Around election time TV and radio are full of advertisements. Yet still not enough of us are engaged to the point that we actually would vote.
ZOLLI: Increasingly that's because politics is a spectator sport. It's something we watch. I mean on this show recently, I saw you had Jon Stewart, who is a manifestation of the political consumer, the person…
BRANCACCIO: Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's…
ZOLLI: Of Comedy Central…
BRANCACCIO: …Daily Show…
ZOLLI: Daily Show… who's fantastic…
BRANCACCIO: …does a satirical newscast and other kind of commentary. But why is it a manifestation of this?
ZOLLI: Well, because I think increasingly there's a large mushy middle of people for whom politics is increasingly remote. It's driven increasingly by incumbents' conversations with their own fringes on the left and the right. But, and not talking to people, ordinary citizens, about issues that to matter them. And so as a result, their machinations become the punch line for jokes. Because the only way to participate is sit in the corner and ask "Who are these people?" Right? "What is going on here? This has no bearing on my reality whatsoever." And so you know you see comedians like Jon Stewart doing phenomenally well, representing what you might call the kind of silent majority of the 21st Century, which are people who are just thoroughly disengaged, and look at it merely as sort of talking heads on television.
BRANCACCIO: But this is the classic problem that a corporation would pose to you, which is people view politics like a spectator. Or… and a corporation might say to you, "People just look at our commercials as if they were spectators. It's not part of their… we're not part of their meaning."
ZOLLI: There's no coherent philosophy on either side anymore. I mean it… I will give the Republican party the significant edge here. They clearly know how to repeat on message all the time.
BRANCACCIO: These people are great at branding, actually.
ZOLLI: Oh, phenomenal.
BRANCACCIO: I mean the party of lower taxes, of smaller government, of tough national security.
ZOLLI: And you can't say the three bullet points that stand for the Democratic platform like you just did for the Republicans, 'cause no one knows what it is today.
It comes right back to what we discussed at the beginning of this conversation, which is a coherent vision for the future, a vision for the future of the country, a vision for the future of our societies, and a role for the global government.
BRANCACCIO: But it's that very vision that we started with, your call for this national conversation.
ZOLLI: That's right.
BRANCACCIO: About what, our own identity? What is that conversation again?
ZOLLI: Well, you know I think we can start with a couple of things. We can start with what is the vision for the American society internally and externally for the next 50 years? I wish I could give you the answer. I wish I could tell you, "Here's the vision."
But the fact is, it's only a by-product of a national conversation, which we really all need to have across the institutional boundaries, across the political divides.
BRANCACCIO: And 2004 is a great place to start with an election year.
ZOLLI: It is. In fact, it's a profoundly important place to start.
BRANCACCIO: Well Andrew, proof that the future is now. Thank you very much for joining us on NOW.
ZOLLI: Thanks very much, David.