The Washington Post
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.
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
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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.