The Future of Futurism

Down with the techno-utopians! Up with the techno-realists!

It’s easy to make futurists look silly. For every prediction that comes true (or that sort of comes true—Nostradamus predicted that someone named “Hister” would do something terrible one day), about 20,000 more do not. Just take a look at some of these forecasts from the 1970s: an economically vibrant Soviet Union will put America to shame, a new Ice Age will cause mass starvation, and a single eight-track cassette will hold all human knowledge.

Even so, it’s not fair to say that all futurism is misguided. Just most of it. In his 1976 Time essay “Is There Any Future in Futurism?” Stefan Kanfer wrote that you could divide futurists into neo-Malthusians and Cornucopians. Neo-Malthusians are convinced that the world is going to hell. Some, like The Population Bomb’s Paul Ehrlich, blamed population growth; others, like the Club of Rome, blamed economic growth. Either way, the prescription remained the same: You’ve got to change your evil ways, Earthlings.

The Cornucopians, in contrast, promise vast riches. Growth is the solution, not the problem. According to the 1976 Hudson Institute report The Next 200 Years, the coming decades would see declining population growth (true), a rising standard of living (also true), superintelligent robots in every home (do you own an Xbox?), and vast undersea cities (glub glub). Over the last few decades, it’s safe to say that the Cornucopians generally got things right and that the neo-Malthusians generally got things wrong.

Which leads us to today’s futurism. Having tasted sweet success, some Cornucopians have gone overboard. Glenn Reynolds, better known as InstaPundit, just published an entertaining InstaBook, An Army of Davids, in which he heralds a “comfy chair revolution” that will turn every consumer into a producer. Reynolds starts his thrill-ride into the future by talking about how technology allows him to subvert Budweiser by home-brewing his beer. People-powered technologies, he says, are transforming not just the lager we drink but the way we learn, play, and create new stuff. Over time, superintelligent robots (remember them?) and nanotechnology will give individuals (human, posthuman, and robot) limitless control over the natural environment, whether on Earth, Mars, or some even more distant planet. It is an appealing vision, not least because it’s about empowering little guys to make their wildest dreams—including my dream to be tall enough to reach high shelves—a reality. But it’s also an unrealistic, blue-sky vision that discredits futurism at a time when we need clear-eyed futurists more than ever.

As Christine Rosen points out in the New Republic, there’s a lot that’s wrong with Reynolds’ vision. Undermining the hierarchies that keep the little guys in check often means undermining standards. As hundreds of snooty elitists have pointed out, most blogs are, well, pretty insipid. Romanticizing “the dilettante” and “the hack” could mean crowding out the good with the bad.

Rosen’s critique is successful because Reynolds’ “Singularity” talk is remarkably easy to poke fun at—how long do I have to wait for my cybernetic arm? But Reynolds’ weakness isn’t that he’s a “techno-triumphalist” who sees robotic solutions everywhere. It’s that he sees only the robots’ upside.

Glenn Reynolds was a staunch proponent of the Iraq War, which was premised on the belief that the United States government could successfully invade, occupy, and rebuild an Arab country. Sure, nation-building is tough—but now we had the technology and the know-how to do it right. But if the Information Revolution really empowers little guys, it also empowers the fanatics, crooks, and bitter-enders who want to fight us every step of the way. So, why was Reynolds sure we’d come out on top?

Not all would-be futurists are quite so pie-in-the-sky. For my money, John Robb, a former Air Force officer and tech guru, is the futurists’ futurist. Robb, like Reynolds, is convinced that technology will empower the little guy. The difference is that Robb thinks the little guy is just as likely to wear a mask and carry a Kalashnikov as he is to make home-brewed beer.

Robb is no visionary. His basic take on the future is that the same historical forces that have been at work for thousands of years will still be at work, and that America won’t be immune to them. The fact that street gangs in São Paulo can firebomb police stations, that Maoist guerrillas are threatening India’s high-tech prosperity, and that a handful of rebels are stealing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of oil in Nigeria and Iraq all affect us directly. Living in New York or Los Angeles, it seems hard to imagine that the constant kidnappings that terrorize the rich in Mexico City will ever happen here. Then again, we never thought terrorism would happen here, either.

Several other thinkers share Robb’s thoughts on techno-realism. Philip Longman, author of The Empty Cradle, is convinced that “the comfy chair revolution” will strengthen the hand of fundamentalists worldwide. In Longman’s future, the forces of reaction won’t win by force of arms; they’ll win by outbreeding the secular world. Then there’s Barry Lynn, a former editor at the magazine Global Business and author of End of the Line. Lynn has become an unlikely anti-globalization guru by arguing that the global supply chains we count on are too fragile to survive a major shock. We’re at risk whenever there’s an earthquake in Taiwan, a terrorist strike in Saudi Arabia, or a power failure in Portland.

Robb and his fellow techno-realists fuse the best ideas of futurism’s utopian and dystopian schools. Along with the Cornucopians, they believe that technology can make us richer and healthier. But taking a page from the neo-Malthusians, they acknowledge that there’s a serpent in the garden, whether it’s the threat of global crime networks or infectious disease.

The best futurists take present-day trends in technology and extrapolate from them based on a few fundamentals: that large-scale institutions will keep being slow-witted, that small groups of people are good at learning and adapting to new circumstances, and that death and taxes will always be with us. Reynolds partisans can sit back and wait for “the comfy chair revolution” to come. Meanwhile, I’ll be stockpiling enough ammunition, Cipro, and NewsRadio DVDs to last me through the coming robot wars.