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The Future and Its Enemies

The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress. By Virginia Postrel

Virginia Postrel: The Future and Its Enemies. The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress, Free Press, New York 1998, ISBN 0-684-82760-3.

12.05.1999 · Reviewed by Douglas Merrill

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I read much of this book with pen and note pad close at hand, the better to jot down reminders and rebuttals. In The Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel has written a vigorous and engaging polemic, one that both articulates and illuminates many of the conflicts on the contemporary landscape. She defines the future's enemies as stasists, those who seek a single best solution to all manner of problems and then try to impose it (if the solution is new) or retain it (if the solution is old). Dynamists, by contrast, relish variety, experiment vigorously, embrace change, and create unexpectedly. Postrel poses key questions at the outset: "Do we search for stasis - a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism - a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? ... Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise?"

In the current confusion of left and right, when former anti-war stand behind armed intervention, when enthusiastic hunters join with 'left-wing' groups to foster conservation, when environmentalists and evangelicals both worry about advances in biotechnology, Postrel shows a dividing line that makes these conflicts more coherent, the division between dynamists who embrace uncertainty and stasists who seek to make everything certain. The book "examines the clash between stasis and dynamism and explores those contrasting views." As befits a good polemic, Postrel delights in skewering her opponents, and she serves up unexpected, illuminating examples.

Stasists, change's opponents, come in two basic types: technocrats and reactionaries. Technocrats value control above all else and promise to manage change according to a predictable plan. Reactionaries value stability and want to restore a real or imagined past and keep it in place. Both have a vision of the one best way, and both are trying mightily to impose it on a reality that refuses to be pinned down. In Postrel's view, while stasists are doomed to lose out - change is essential to life - their dominance in public life could easily deny the fruits of progress to a wide range of people.

Reactionary views have always been a tough sell in America; knowing your place is not a virtue that ranks high in the national consciousness. Technocracy has done considerably better by celebrating technology, impartiality, and reassurance. Technocrats come in for special scorn from Postrel, who acknowledges their administrative power but says they have run out of intellectual steam, "enthusiasm for technocratic schemes died in a gas line sometime during the Carter administration." Here is more of what is wrong with technocracy: "It is centralized and inflexible. It asks people with new ideas to justify them to boards and commissions. It establishes rules that assume that neither technologies nor tastes will change. It allocates tax breaks, subsidies, and licenses to established lobbies. It rewards the articulate and the politically savvy, punishing those who lack smoothness, connections, or the time, patience, and legal counsel to endure endless meetings." Though she writes about the US, this is as cogent a one-paragraph indictment of German public life as appears anywhere in print.

In six chapters of examples, Postrel builds the dynamist case, best forumlated in the words of some of its opponents, "it never proposes a specific goal; it initiates the infinite series." Ideas, people, technologies, and inspirations should all go forth, be fruitful and multiply. The case is strong, as it builds from respect for the individual, the importance of local knowlege, freedom to choose, the need for feedback, and the ability to learn up to a structure of progress put together one layer at a time. Progress is no longer a goal toward which resources are channeled, but the byproduct of human beings acting as comes naturally, i.e., dynamically. This dynamism exists everywhere and makes conformity difficult to enforce, as any secret police director or corporate public relations person can attest. Rather than treat human contrariness as perversity, Postrel argues, societies should embrace the multiplicity that it engenders.

Dynamism does have a method, expressed most coherently in the evaluation of rules. Dynamic rules:

"1. Allow individuals (including groups of individuals) to act on their own knowledge.
2. Apply to simple generic units and allow them to combine in many different ways.
3. Permit credible, understandable, enduring and enforceable commitments.
4. Protect criticism, competition, and feedback.
5. Establish a framework within which people can create nested, competing frameworks of more specific rules."
Postrel walks these meta-rules through a series of test cases in politics, business, and general life. The overall thrust of experimentation, feedback and improvement applies in examples from hairdressing to constitutional status. Competition promotes innovation, and people are free to change and improve their surroundings, their businesses, themselves. As the Internet Engineering Task Force declares, "We reject kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code."

Postrel's polemical approach leads to certain problems. In her zeal to skewer the technocratic approach, she overlooks some of its real triumphs, particularly ones such as anti-trust law and the GATT which provide a legal framework for dynamism. She omits an attack on the stifling tendencies of businesses and corporations, only occasionally mentioning their effects as entrenched lobbies. Some of the more narrowly partisan examples tend to undermine her broader points. For example, the Clinton health care plan is held up as a model of technocratic overreach; she neglects to mention, however, that it would have required employers to offer several different plans to their employees, rather than the single plan offered by most employers in current practice. Postrel does not explore the irony of technocratic policy mandating increased flexibility. Finally, she gives short shrift to the reasons why people have stasist views. Perhaps such an exploration is out of place in an essentially argumentative book, but without a deeper understanding of why people do not embrace dynamic change, she is likely to preach only to the converted.

On the whole, The Future and Its Enemies provides vigorous reading and a coherent outlook on many current disputes. Postrel's is a hopeful vision, one that sees the virtues of play (a long list of leaders in fields form biology and mathematics to business and politics describe their work first and foremost as fun), and the importance of each individual. "It is in curiosity, problem solving, and play that we discover who we are. These are the very qualities and activities that make the future unknown, and unknowable. On the verge between centuries, the dynamist promise is not of a particular, carefully outlined future. The future will be as grand, and as particular, as we are."
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