The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise and Progress

The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise and Progress

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by Virginia I. Postrel
     
 
Today we have greater wealth, health, opportunity, and choice than at any time in history -- the fruits of human ingenuity, curiosity, and perseverance. Yet a chorus of intellectuals and politicians loudly laments our condition. Technology, they say, enslaves us. Economic change makes us insecure. Popular culture coarsens and brutalizes us. Consumerism despoils the

Overview

Today we have greater wealth, health, opportunity, and choice than at any time in history -- the fruits of human ingenuity, curiosity, and perseverance. Yet a chorus of intellectuals and politicians loudly laments our condition. Technology, they say, enslaves us. Economic change makes us insecure. Popular culture coarsens and brutalizes us. Consumerism despoils the environment. The future, they say, is dangerously out of control, and unless we rein in these forces of change and guide them closely, we risk disaster. In The Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel explodes these myths, embarking on a bold exploration of how progress really occurs. In areas of endeavor ranging from fashion to fisheries, from movies to medicine, from contact lenses to computers, she shows how and why unplanned, open-ended trial and error -- not conformity to one central vision -- is the key to human betterment. Thus, the true enemies of humanity's future are those who insist on prescribing outcomes in advance, circumventing the process of competition and experiment in favor of their own preconceptions and prejudices.


Postrel argues that these conflicting views of progress, rather than the traditional left and right, increasingly define our political and cultural debate. On one side, she identifies a collection of strange bedfellows: Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader standing shoulder to shoulder against international trade: "right-wing" nativists and "left-wing" environmentalists opposing immigration; traditionalists and technocrats denouncing Wal-Mart, biotechnology, the Internet, and suburban sprawl. Some prefer a pre-industrial past, while others envision a bureaucratically engineered future, but all share a devotion to what she calls "stasis," a controlled, uniform society that changes only with permission from some central authority.


On the other side is an emerging coalition in support of what Postrel calls "dynamism": an open-ended society where creativity and enterprise, operating under predictable rules, generate progress in unpredictable ways. Dynamists are united not by a single political agenda out by an appreciation for such complex evolutionary processes as scientific inquiry, market competition, artistic development, and technological invention. Entrepreneurs and artists, scientists and legal theorists, cultural analysts and computer programmers, dynamists are, says Postrel "the party of life."


The Future and Its Enemies is a vigorous manifesto for the dynamist worldview, as well as a penetrating analysis of how our beliefs about personal knowledge, nature, virtue, and even the relation between work and play shape the way we run our businesses, make public policy, and search for truth and beauty. Controversial and provocative, Virginia Postrel's thesis heralds a fundamental shift in the way we view politics, culture, and society as we face an unknown -- and thus invigorating -- future.

Editorial Reviews

Daniel Casse
...[A]n ambitious work of pllitical and cultural commentary....Postrel aims to do nothing less than redefine how we see American politics... —Commentary
Daniel Casse
...[A]n ambitious work of pllitical and cultural commentary....Postrel aims to do nothing less than redefine how we see American politics...
Commentary
John Derbyshire
...The Future and Its Enemies is an ideas book, not an issues book....[The book], though very worthy in itself, left me feeling glum. We are not short of books advocating liberty, wealth creation, and open-mindedness. What we are short of is public sentiment in favor of those things.
National Review
James K. Glassman
Read this wonderful book!
The Washington Post
Kirkus Reviews
A provocative and pretentious defense of the free society, the free market, and even the free person. The old political appellations of "left" ' and "right" no longer carry much meaning; it's now more accurate, argues Reason editor Postrel, to see society as divided between those who champion dynamism and others who defend stasis. The old modernist ideal of a single, controllable future has given way to visions far more open, mobile, and unpredictable. Individuals and their associations, unfettered by government or convention, are creating a world of innovation and competition, a world of "evolved solutions to complex problems." A global market is emerging where ideas and goods flow freely across borders. This may be messy at times but is nonetheless exhilarating; it's the world the "dynamists" celebrate. Opposed to them are the "stasists." Whether they lean to the "right," with an abhorrence of change and protectionist economic leanings, or to the "left," with the urge to regulate both the market and technological development, what all stasists fear is change. And what they desire above all is to control and limit change. As such, they are enemies to freedom and progress-and should, arguably, be resisted. Postrel is onto something here, though she owes much to the work of anti-stasist philosopher Friedrich Hayek. Her the-future's-so-bright-I-gotta-wear-shades optimism provides relief from the morbid obsessions of so much postmodernist thought. Yet she also betrays the very openness she evangelizes. Can a complex world be so neatly divided between dynamists and stasists? Are no thoughtful critiques of the future possible? Apparently not, for to Postrel, "all current social criticism" isstasist! Like the undergraduate who discovers a new idea and so concludes that all other ideas must be wrong, she merely states over and over again how right she is without doing the hard intellectual work of engaging those who would challenge her.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780684827605
Publisher:
Free Press
Publication date:
12/02/1998
Pages:
288
Product dimensions:
6.41(w) x 9.57(h) x 0.99(d)

Read an Excerpt

uld be -- or what the transformed and henceforth unchanging society should look like. Buchanan and Perot want to restore the world of blue-collar industrial workers and bureaucratic middle managers; Sale condemns cities and industrialism; Gore shares Sale's disapproval of heavy industry but not his antipathy for trade or "new economy" technologies. Schlesinger longs for a "world polity" to control the world economy; the nationalist followers of Buchanan and Perot despise all international bodies. Rifkin attacks the computer and calls for special taxes on information technology; Buchanan is a cable television host, and Gore wants an information superhighway.

Perot's middle American followers seem unlikely recruits for the "stop Wal-Mart" crusade. It's hard to imagine them cheering Rifkin's condemnation of theme parks or adopting Lasch's contempt for shopping malls and air-conditioning. Like Buchanan, they are not opposed to economic growth -- indeed, they would like more of it -- but to restructuring and change, to an unpredictable future.

Stasis supporters are numerous, but their visions of the ideal future are varied and incompatible, making their alliances fragile and temporary. They disapprove of "emergent, complex messiness," dread the "reckless ride into the unknown," fear the "infinite series." But their unity is misleading. They cannot agree on which one static, finite world -- which one best way -- should replace the openended future. Ultimately, they are undone by the totalitarian quality of their position. They cannot truly triumph unless everyone's future is the same.

The dynamist camp has the opposite problem, and the opposite strength. Although fewer in number, dynamists permit many visions and accept competing dreams. To work together, they do not have to agree on what the future should look like. Their "central organizing principle" is not a specific outcome but an open-ended process. A dynamic future tolerates diversity, evolves through trial and error, and contains a rich ecology of human choices. Dynamists are the party of life.

Copyright © 1998 by Virginia Postrel

What People are saying about this

Esther Dyson
She makes you look again at what you thought you already knew.
— Author of Release 2.0
Joel Garreau
Virginia Postrel has a radically old-fashioned view of the future. She believes in progress. She thinks the world we are building, you and I, is a decidedly messy place, that nonetheless is turning our pretty well. Go ahead. Imagine that. -- Author of Edge City and The Nine Nations of North America
Tom Peters
The best damn nonfiction I've read in years!
— Co-author, In Search of Excellence
David Post
Showing both an acute eye for the thick textures of social life and a deep understanding of competing strands of social theory, Virginia Postrel accomplishes here one of the social theorist's hardest tasks: devising new ways to make sense of large amounts of otherwise unconnected, or inexplicable, information about the social and political world....It is a large achievement (David Post is Co-founder, Cyberspace Law Institute and is a professor at Temple Law School).
Richard Epstein
Virginia Postrel skewers the pessimists of both the left and right who see technology as the enemy and nostalgia as their friend. Bubbling with enthusiasm, and fortiified with examples that run from computers to shampoo, she exposes those whose futile efforts to dictate the future pose the greatest threat to progress and security alike ( Richard Epstein is author of Simple Rules for a Complex World and is a professor at University of Chicago Law School).

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5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is about a number of things, all of them important. For me, the one thing that really comes into focus is what I might call the paradox of expanding horizons, a description I can¿t take credit for but certainly fits. The expanding horizon in this case is the resolution of old issues, either by fortuitous action or their receding into irrelevance, to be replaced by new issues that were really always there in one form or another, but not in the immediate line of sight. The paradox: The tools, organizations, skills, resources and efforts it took to expand the horizon are not applicable to the new verge that is now newly visible but not fully understood. This very readable and thought-provoking book explores not only why this is so, but some of the consequences as well, many of them surprising and counter intuitive. It has immediate relevance today as our society moves deeper into the information age.