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 shape of things to come. Indeed, it is clear from papers in the commission’s report, that the “harder” or more specific the prediction, the less interesting or plausible it is. For example, Ithiel de Sola Pool writing (in 1965) on “The International System in the Next Half Century” foresaw as the most likely among many possibilities that “Major fighting in Viet-Nam will peter out about 1967; and most objective observers will regard it as a substantial American victory,” and Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener writing “A Framework for Speculation” about the next third of a century, predict 100 technical innovations that include such delightful fantasies as human hibernation and programmed dreams.
Such “hard” predictions are invariably titillating or sensational, but they are rarely interesting because we cannot see the logic behind the predicted event. No doubt Dr. de Sola Pool thought it consistent with his “predictive game” to prophesy the likelihood of an American “victory” against an Asian revolution, but lacking his chain of reasoning we are merely left with a bad joke; perhaps Kahn and Wiener may be right even in their most far-out technical prognostications, but without their underlying process of selection, their prediction has no more than amusement value. (This is not true, by the way, of their interesting projections for GNP and population, also contained in this essay and elaborated in their full-length book, The Year 2000.)
Happily, most of the papers steer clear of this sort of fortune-telling. Indeed, their titles speak for themselves. “Can Social Predictions Be Evaluated?,” “Forecasting and Technological Forecasting,” “The Life Cycle and its Variations,” “Notes on Meritocracy,” “The Need for a New Political Theory.” As can be seen, these papers predict problems rather than solutions, establish limits rather than targets, depict interactions rather than clearcut trajectories. Meanwhile, knitting the papers together are more or less verbatim reports of the Working Sessions themselves, whose titles describe even more clearly the conception of the task as it appeared to the participants: “Baselines for the Future,” “Alternative Futures,” “Centralization and Decentralization,” “The Need for Models.”
All this is the very paradigm of the scientific—as contrasted with an earlier, prescientific—mode of prevision. Indeed, never was an exercise in forethought undertaken with such wry awareness of the pitfalls of prediction. As Daniel Bell remarked toward the end of one of the working sessions:
Since we have been concerned with the nature and limitations of forecasting, I would like to conclude this session with a prediction I found in going through an old file. It pictures a future world, and the text reads: “From the train of moving seats in the darkest building, a visitor looks down upon a miniature landscape far away…and finally he beholds the city itself with its quarter-mile high towers, huge glass, and soaring among them four-level, seven lane directional highways on which you can surely choose your speed—100, 200 miles per hour. The city of 1960 has abundant functions: fresh air, fine green parkways, recreational centers, all results of plausible planning and design. No building’s shadow will touch another. Parks will occupy one third of the city area.” “Who can say,” whispers a voice, “what new horizons lie before us. We have both the initiative and the imagination to penetrate them.” The text and the voice are from Futurama, the elaborate scale-model of the ideal city of the future, which was presented at the General Motor’s exposition at the 1939 World’s Fair. There you have 1939 looking at 1960, and see where we are today.
WITH SO MUCH INTELLIGENCE focused on a problem of such importance one would expect Toward the Year 2000 to be a fascinating document. Yet, except as an exhibit in the history of ideas, it is not. There are, to be sure, many excellent papers, among which I particularly liked an essay on Violence by James Q. Wilson, parts of the aforementioned piece by Kahn and Wiener, and above all the introductory and concluding pieces by Bell himself, distinguished both in style of language and structure of thought. Yet, taken as a whole the collection seems curiously bland, inconclusive, unimpressive.
One reason for this lies in the symposium format itself. It is no doubt part of the scientific approach to believe that many expert minds can elucidate a complicated question better than one mind can, but the price of the gain in expertise is a telling loss of impact. Perhaps I exaggerate, but I cannot recall ever having read a collective intellectual effort that left a profound impression on me, and this one is no exception. The individual essays, each aimed in a different direction, scatter light rather than focus it; the transcripts of the working sessions, included to give a sense of the struggle for insight, read only like disjointed conversation. The whole enterprise would have been infinitely better had one person, preferably Bell, woven all the background papers into a single coherent view, but then of course it would not have been so scientific.
The second reason for my disappointment goes considerably deeper. It lies in a point of view, explicitly stated by Bell, but tacitly endorsed by all, that: “many of our problems do not derive from capitalism, but from the fact that we have a national society where changes of all sorts have immediate impact, economically and otherwise, on all other parts of our society.” Now I do not doubt that a tightening of our social bonds is a very important phenomenon of the present and future. Yet a concentration on this politically “neutral” attribute of our times leads one all too easily to overlook the far-from-neutral historical implications of the fact that the society whose bonds are being tightened is a capitalist society.
Indeed it is astonishing to read so many essays dealing with the forces that propel us into the future and to find no mention of the specifically capitalist nature or form of some of those forces. For instance, in a consideration of America’s role in the international world nowhere do we find a discussion of whether American corporations will continue to pour their profits abroad, although there are few international forces more important today than the Americanization of European business and the interweaving of the prosperity of certain large American corporations and the preservation of the status quo in Latin America.
The same curious blindness affects the discussion of domestic issues. There is much talk of planning and the market system, but no real analysis of the degree to which they are compatible. Again, this is because the “market system” is considered wholly as a functional mechanism for pushing land, labor, and capital to their points of highest return—which is of course compatible with planning; but there is no consideration of the fact that the mechanism is also a social and institutional system closely linked with the existing distribution of income. From this point of view it is a good deal less easy to claim that the market system is indifferent to the imposition of public goals.
Again, a failure to place the specific problems of capitalism in the foreground leads to an all-too-undiscerning treatment of the central question of growth. Growth is assumed to be a self-evident benefit for society. Perhaps it is—yet there are disturbing consequences of growth for a capitalist economic system. For one effect of growth is virtually certain to be a weakening of the motivational base on which capitalism, or, for that matter, every other Western system, has always depended: the existence of a large body of propertyless workers who do the work that society offers them, not because they want to but because they have to. But if the projections of the Commission are to be taken seriously, that source of motivation will be severely eroded by the year 2000. Kahn and Wiener project a “post-industrial” world by that date with family incomes (for a family with two children) of between $16,000 and $64,000. At these levels of well-being, will the normal incentives of the market suffice to recruit the working force? Already the complaint is that young people do not want to enter many lower-middle-class occupations, despite the fact that they pay well. The rise of widespread affluence thus promises to strain the recruitment process of a market society to the point at which non-market methods of labor allocation may be necessary. But problems of this sort disappear in a view of the “post-industrial” future that ignores the particular problems associated with our capitalist jumping-off point.
YET, in a report which is by no means restricted to economic problems, it would be unfair to belabor the Commission for what I consider to be a kind of economic naïveté. And in fact my disappointment ultimately derives from another source altogether. It arises from a feeling that the Commission, for all its scientific air, has not really performed its task in a scientific way. For not one but two approaches can be discerned through many of the papers and most of the discussion in this volume. In one, the participants stand “above” the system, seeking to analyze and report its trends with all the aloofness of the astronomer plotting the movement of the planets. In the other, however, the participants stand “within” the system, working for social change—that is, not predicting the course of the planets but seeking to alter it.
Both of these are useful, even necessary tasks, but neither of them is a scientific task. When it comes to designing the future we need many more points of view than those of the scientist, and in particular of the rather Establishmentarian scientists on this Commission. As Fred Charles Iklé points out in his essay, there is a disconcerting similarity between the agenda of the Commission and the Great Society program of President Johnson. If the task of the Commission is to imagine a better world—even a “scientifically imaginable” better world—it will need the radical and bold outlook of those outside the establishment quite as much as the measured banalities of the professordom.
Is it the task of the Commission to imagine such a world? I do not think it should be. Although it may be only a delusion of our time, I believe that the scientific exploration of the future does in fact open startling and powerful new possibilities. By this I do not mean those of an imaginary better world, but those of the existing real world as it is likely to be if the trends of the present should continue into the future. In the systematic projection of technological, demographic, and economic probabilities, and in the absolutely disinterested—but not, let me emphasize again, ahistoric—examination of the consequences of these trends, the scientists and social scientists have a great deal to offer us. To be sure, we accept their predictions in the hope that we can, if need be, disprove them by acting on the information they have given us, but even this hope rests on the confidence we can place in the scientific validity of what we have been advised we shall have to struggle against. In turn, however, this validity, on which so much depends, can only be assured if those who have been entrusted to make the observations of the future have been relieved of any responsibility for whatever actions may take place, or may be inhibited, because of what they report. It is up to the scientists to make their forecasts with the utter objectivity of scientists, but this is exceedingly difficult to do once prediction and advocacy become mingled.
It is precisely this failure to adhere rigorously and courageously to their competence as scientists that I miss in Toward the Year 2000. Out of the very best of motives the Commission has fallen into an ambiguous position—as at once the predicter and the maker of the future. In the end, I fear, this mixture of aims is bound to weaken the potential achievement of the project. Forewarned against the possibility of constructing another Futurama, the Commission nonetheless risks the same outcome by repeating, albeit in much more sophisticated ways, the mistakes of the General Motors designers.
September 26, 1968