Toward the Year 2000: Work in Progress (Volume XI of the Daedalus Library)

edited by Daniel Bell
Houghton Mifflin, 400 pp., $6.50

Ours is not the first age to believe it could foretell the future. The Greeks consulted the oracles; the Middle Ages the clergy; the Enlightenment the philosophers and historians. The difference is that we ask the scientists. Of the forty-odd contributors to this first report of the Commission on the Year 2000, a group established by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to predict the next thirty-two years, three-quarters are social or natural scientists: economists, sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, physicists, and the like. Gone are the soothsayers, the clergymen, the philosophers, and all but two historians. No less revealing, we find on the Commission no artists or writers, no politicians or soldiers, no architects or engineers, no businessmen or students.

But of course. What would they know about the year 2000? We are carried toward the future on the momentum of impersonal social and natural forces whose nature it is the business of scientists to investigate. Other kinds of people may have a hand in making the future, but they are not the ones we turn to when we seek to predict it.

The United States is not alone in the belief in the possibility of scientifically exploring the future. In England there is a similarly constituted Committee on the Next Thirty Years; in France the project Futuribles; in Oslo last year assembled the First International Future Research Congress. The scientific study of the future, with its dashed lines and pictographs, is part of the worldwide culture of our time.

One reason for this widespread interest in futurology, as Daniel Bell, Chairman of the American Commission, points out in his introductory essay to this volume, is simply the millennial appeal of the Great Year that is already in sight. On the occasion of the last millennium crowds gathered on hilltops in Europe to await the end of the world; on this one they will gather to search for the first signs of the coming of a new world. The idea of progress, unknown in the year 1000, burns strong for the year 2000, and the Sunday supplements of that fabulous New Year’s celebration will certainly turn more toward what is yet to come than to what has been left behind.

But there is a deeper reason for the prevailing interest in the future. It is that we have come more and more to define the future by those social changes whose causes we can identify and whose course we can, with some degree of certainty, project forward. The rise of population, the steady advance and diffusion of technical knowledge, the ubiquitous national commitment to economic growth and, to some degree, of national planning all give rise to tremendous hydraulic pressures that push society into the future in more or less foreseeable ways.

THUS THE ACT OF PREDICTION, as we conceive it, is concerned less and less with the forenaming of specific events, and more and more with the delineation of those processes that mark the boundaries of the…

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