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There's no going back

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue November, November 1- November 30, 2000 | BY Virginia Postrel 

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Virginia Postrel, author of The Future and Its Enemies, is editor-at-large of Reason and a columnist for Forbes and The New York Times. Postrel writes frequently for the high-technology magazine Forbes ASAP, for which she was a columnist for five years. Her work also appears in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. She is widely recognized as, in Camille Paglia's words, "one of the smartest women in America. For years, she has demonstrated her daunting gift for cutting-edge social and economic analysis as well as her admirable command of lean, lucid prose." She is writing a new book for HarperCollins, to be published in 2002. Titled Look and Feel, it explores the economic, cultural, social, personal, and political implications of the rising importance of aesthetics in business and society.



UBIQUITY: Let's start on a political note, since you've written so much about political as well as social and technological issues. We're having this discussion in late October 2000, and here happens to be a presidential election going on right now. Do you care?

VIRGINIA POSTREL: Well, like many people I'm a little tired of politics, which is unusual for me since I've been interested in politics pretty much all my life. But I do care, because I think that Vice President Gore very clearly represents a blending of what I call the two versions of stasis as an approach to the future. On the one hand he has, in some of his environmental writings, embraced a backward-looking idea of a very static, traditionalist society, which seems a little odd from him, given that he is sort of a technophile. But he has allied himself with people like Jeremy Rifkin -- someone who has been very opposed to new technology. The stronger element in Gore's thinking, however, is what I call the technocratic view, which is the notion that the future will turn out well only if it's planned out and directed in a centralized way. And we've actually seen this come up recently in his interview in The Red Herring, and before that in The New Yorker, where he's used the idea of massive parallelism in computing as a model for society. That's very interesting, because at first it sounds like a nice decentralized approach -- almost what I call the dynamist view, where knowledge is dispersed.

UBIQUITY: But it isn't?

POSTREL: No. He's conceiving of society as having a centrally defined task, divvied-up from the center, which sets the goal. People work on this task and bring back the information to the center as a model for society. Now that is a very different sort of vision from the dynamist vision that I'm propounding in The Future and Its Enemies, where individuals -- whether as individuals or working in consort with other people -- set their own goals and pursue many different sorts of goals, and do so according to very particularized local knowledge. Through that decentralized competitive process, an open-ended future evolves. I don't hear that vision coming from Al Gore, and, in fact, to the contrary, I hear just the opposite vision. And that is how I would distinguish, by the way, between somebody who just likes technology -- which clearly Gore does -- and somebody who embraces an open-ended, dynamic future where the technology, as well as other aspects of society, bubbles up from the bottom.

UBIQUITY: And you think Bush is better?

POSTREL: I am not totally enamored of George W. Bush, and I have some of the same concerns about him that other people have. But I will say he has repeatedly embraced the idea that he wants people to control their own lives -- that he trusts individuals to make their own decisions based on their own circumstances. Particularly in defending his tax plan, he has put that sort of dynamist theme at the center of his campaign. Of course, at other times he says things that are much more traditional, and there's a tension, for example, in some of his education rhetoric, where he wants to have more choice and competition in the system while also wanting to have more direction and control.

UBIQUITY: And the bottom line?

POSTREL: The bottom line is that I do care about the presidential election. It's more of a concern about the mindset Al Gore brings than a belief that George Bush is some kind of tribune of dynamism. I wouldn't go so far as to say that.

UBIQUITY: The title of your book is The Future And Its Enemies. "Enemies" is a fairly a strong word, and contrasts, say, to a word like "fear." People are often said to be "afraid" of change, as though they're cowering at the prospect of the future, whereas the word "enemies" suggests that they're not cowering at all, they're really marshaling their forces.

POSTREL: Right. First of all, the title of the book, The Future And Its Enemies, is an allusion to Karl Popper's 1945 book, The Open Society And Its Enemies. And while that's a very different sort of book -- for one thing, because he is much more of a philosopher than I'll ever be -- my book The Future And Its Enemies is very much a defense of an open society in a very similar way to the way that Popper understood that idea. So when I talk about the future I'm really emphasizing the idea of openness, as contrasted with of idea of progress as something we get by marching toward a utopia that we all know in advance and by simply following somebody's plan. My book is very much opposed to that kind of thinking.

UBIQUITY: Then the "enemies" referred to in your book title are not necessarily people who aggressively obstructing progress?

POSTREL: I do believe that there are people who, because of their ideological beliefs about the world, about the good life, and about how the world works, take the view that the future must not only be put under control but that the evolution of society even be reversed in some sense. These are people who emphasize stability or control against what I call the dynamist vision of a society that develops through a process of experimentation, feedback, and learning -- with learning being the central value. I call these enemies "stasists," because they are looking for stasis of various sorts. And so, yes, they are in a sense actually marshaling their forces -- we've seen it, for instance, in the movements against international trade, against immigration, and against various forms of technology, especially biotechnology. Stasists are not merely afraid of the future. They have a theory of how the world should work and how it does work. And they play on natural fears that everyone has -- of uncertainty, of change, of the unknown. So that when I say enemies I'm speaking about people who will tell you, "Have I got a solution to your fears! All we need to do is halt, change, put me in charge, follow my plan, return to an idealized past" -- whatever their particular static vision may be.

UBIQUITY: Do you have sympathy for people who are nostalgic for some life they either had or wish they'd had? A world without cell phones, without Wal-Marts, without Starbucks, and so on?

POSTREL: Well, I have sympathy for two things. First of all, we all tend to be a little bit nostalgic for our childhood, because back then, most of the worries and stresses were usually on our parents rather than ourselves. And a lot of the nostalgia you hear today, particularly nostalgia for the 1950s and early 60s is, I think, very much that sort of nostalgia for childhood. When we are in our middle years and in the stressed period of lives, we tend to attribute that stress to things that are external to ourselves, like technology or economic developments or what-have-you, when often that stress is simply a product of being at the point in life where you have a lot of demands on you. When your parents were in that point in life, they were very stressed. And when your children get to that point in life, they'll be very stressed too. And the technological and economic and social circumstances are likely to be quite, radically different. And then, yes, I have I have sympathy for people who have a sense of loss for something that was better in their own lives, and exists no longer. Change may be necessary, and it may be good on the whole, but we do lose some things in order to gain others.

UBIQUITY: Where does your sympathy end?

POSTREL: I don't have a lot of sympathy for their desire to make other people worse off in order to recover the past. And I also don't have much sympathy for the idea that technology is in control, rather than people. You hear that both from technophiles and technophobes, and it's simply not true. Technologies catch on only if they do things people want. Often we can structure our lives to control the things we really don't like. If you don't like cell phones, then don't have one. I have one, but I only use it when I travel. I use e-mail and voice mail as much to structure and control the demands on my time as I do to be accessible. So, it's a matter of learning how to deal with new technologies, which is in itself part of this dynamic learning process.

I can certainly understand an aesthetic reaction to change when there's something that's really beloved that might be lost. When I was a little kid I used to play in a couple of undeveloped lots in our neighborhood. We always knew that somebody owned them and that eventually there would be houses on them, but it was a wonderful part of my childhood. But one thing I understood was that the lots weren't mine, and it would never have even occurred to me or my parents or the people around us to have denied other people the right to have a house because we liked to play on their land.

UBIQUITY: So a core issue is fairness?

POSTREL: That's right. A lot of the impetus to stop various sorts of change comes from a desire to impose what you like and deny other people what they like. I like to talk about how dynamic processes, particularly in the marketplace, match creativity with desire. A lot of what we see in these processes is somebody thinking, "I have a better idea, a better way of doing such-and-such," and then somebody else responding to that, liking it. And I don't like to see that process stopped.

UBIQUITY: Give another example.

POSTREL: Sure. People today ­ amazingly, to me -- are nostalgic for the good old days of the Organization Man. They're nostalgic for rigid career paths, large corporate organizations, people kind of knowing their places, and so forth, in spite of the fact that there was a very powerful social criticism about the problems of those organizations when they existed. And yet today we find people who are the equivalents of the social critics of the 50s and 60s saying, "The solution would be if we could go back." It's pretty clear that the life of the Organization Man changed not because of some impersonal force in the economy or technology, but because people didn't like it, and they looked for new and better ways of organizing their own personal work lives and also the workplace.

UBIQUITY: An argument that these people with so much nostalgia sometimes make is that there is practically no real way to separate their own lives from the general culture. So that whether it's people using cell phones or smoking in restaurants or whether it's protecting kids from what they consider a crude popular culture, they feel that it's not a question of whether they use cell phones correctly, don't smoke, and don't let their own kids run wild -- but whether other people and the culture at large infringe on their rights by invading their "personal space."

POSTREL: I think there are a couple of different things going on there. First of all, vis-à-vis cell phones. It is very clear to me that we are in a period of transition where norms are being developed. They haven't gotten there yet, but it's clear that a developing norm is that there are certain circumstances in which you are expected to turn off your cell phone. I would think within ten years, with of exception for fast food restaurants, you're not going to find people using cell phones in restaurants. Or there will be restaurants where people use cell phones, because of the nature of their clientele, but there will be certainly many where if your cell phone rings you may be asked to leave. Certainly that's the case in various concert venues today, and I expect that to continue.

UBIQUITY: Then it just takes a little time for these issues to work themselves out?

POSTEL: Yes. These are not entirely new problems. I think people who are nostalgic are making one correct point -- that we live in a state of society as it is at a given moment and that, although you can insulate yourself to some degree, you can't insulate yourself completely. But that's no less true of the past than it is today. When I was growing up in South Carolina, my parents had to work very hard -- and they did -- to give their children a set of racial attitudes that was not the prevailing norm. I grew up as a young child in the 60s in a world where, if my parents had been as passive about race as today's parents want to be about TV, I would have grown up with Jim Crow attitudes. Because that was the dominant culture. Parents just have to take a certain amount of responsibility for raising their children. And they can't expect or demand that the world is going to operate as if everyone is a child. They can't put a television in their child's bedroom and subscribe to every cable channel, and then expect that somehow someone on the other side of the country or the world is going to make sure that their child never watches anything that's inappropriate.

UBIQUITY: The solution?

POSTREL: Don't put a TV in the child's bedroom! That seems to be the logical place to start. Put it somewhere where you can observe it. Of course, you'll never be able to completely control your children and make them sort of little you's -- exactly the way you are and insulated completely from anything you wouldn't approve of. Otherwise, they would never be able to grow up. But there are a lot of things that people can do, and I don't think it is impossible to teach your children that your standards are not necessarily those of the prevailing society.

UBIQUITY: So it's no harder to raise children now than in earlier days?

POSTREL: At every age and at any historical point there are good things and there are bad things from the point of view of any given person. There are personality traits that the workplace rewards and personality traits that the workplace doesn't reward (or may even punish). There are cultural norms about religion, or there are cultural norms about education, or whatever thing you want to pick, and you may or may not agree with those things. One of the ways society changes and one of the things behind this sort of dynamic discovery process that I write about in The Future and Its Enemies is people pushing -- not on a society-wide level but at a more dispersed level -- to create pressures of various sorts. So, if your phone rings in a restaurant people give you dirty looks, or the restaurant posts a sign that says don't have a phone, that creates pressure for a new social norm. There was a set of attributes that were predominantly rewarded in the workplace, let's say, 40 years ago, and they had to do with loyalty and reliability, ability to fit into a certain structure, not too much independence, and getting along with people. Nowadays it is still important to get along with people, but what that means is different -- it means contributing to a team but in a more individualistic way. There is much more reward on creativity, on mobility, on lifetime learning, those sort of things.

UBIQUITY: Is one reward system better than the other?

POSTREL: There were winners and losers in the old situation, and there are winners and losers in the new situation. I certainly am hopeful that, in a diverse society and diverse economy, people are able to find niches that match their own needs -- but the fact that things were different in the past does not mean that things were better in the past. It only means that they were different. And I think you could make a good argument that they were actually worse -- not for each individual person, but for more people than not -- because otherwise things would not have changed. Things change because of this pursuit of improvement. But now, to argue against myself a little bit, that pursuit of improvement includes mistakes and the correction of mistakes, and what you want to do is try to make mistakes at as low a level possible so that you don't put the entire society or a whole industry or whatever through some sort of unnecessarily wrenching change that you then have to reverse.

UBIQUITY: Do you have an example?

POSTREL: I talk in The Future and Its Enemies about, for example, the evolution of savings and loans and lending, and the ways in which regulations that assumed a static marketplace and static economic conditions led to a brittle institutional arrangement that then ultimately led to the kinds of catastrophic bail-outs that we had in the 80s in that industry. That high-level approach foreclosed the option of small-scale evolution and decreed a single model for the entire industry -- and then subsidized it in a way that insulated people against taking very large risks. Then, as you know, it all blew up.

UBIQUITY: Your book continues to sell very well. Does that mean your ideas are clearly understood? Or do you find people missing the point?

POSTREL: There's a mixture. Interestingly, I think that many of the people who most understand and best receive my ideas are people who are not professional intellectuals, because they're less dedicated to thinking in received categories. They're more open-minded. They're more willing just to read the book and see what's in the book as opposed to looking for what their prejudices say must be in the book. I've had a tremendous response and a very interesting one, from all kinds of people. This has got to be the only book that's been endorsed enthusiastically by both Jeb Bush and Johnny Rotten, who as far as I can tell, do both understand it and yet could not be more different from each other in terms of the usual cultural categories.

UBIQUITY: What are the most common misunderstandings?

POSTREL: Probably the two most common misunderstandings are, one, is that it's simply a book about technology and a "pro-technology" book. I think that that's because we're in this moment where technology is very front-and-center in people's minds. Yes, The Future and Its Enemies is partly about technology, but it's really about how civilizations learn. And it draws examples from pretty much every aspect of human endeavor. Then the other misunderstanding is to think that I'm just for change of whatever sort. That's just not the case. I am for a dynamic process of learning through trial and error, experimentation and feedback. Not every change is a good one, but we don't know in advance which ones are good and which are not, and that's why it's important to allow people to innovate and experiment, which, to repeat my earlier point, you want to do on a small scale, in part because you want to be able to correct errors as they come up, and not as they become socially catastrophic.

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