Sunday, August 23, 2009

1975: Futurequake in Washington

It isn’t the only problem. The sudden prominence, as well as the internal strengths and weaknesses of today’s futurism were on dramatic display at the 1975 international convention of the World Future Society at the Hilton hotel in Washington.

The WFS was begun in 1968, and this was just its second quadrennial convention. Though the society reserves its inner sanctums for professionals, its convention turned out to be the big tent of futurism. The turnout was impressive, in numbers and especially in variety.

The luminaries of established futurism were there, including Herman Kahn and super-sociologist Daniel Bell. Authors Alvin Toffler and Paul Goodman roamed the halls, both wearing sunglasses. Counterculturalists were well-represented, including Whole Earth cataloger Stewart Brand and Karl Hess. Frances Fitzgerald was covering the convention for Harper’s (and I was there representing New Times magazine.)

Participants included the director of Technological Forecasting of Tel-Aviv University, government planners from Japan and India, and the director of marketing for Hooker Chemicals and Plastics. City planners in Hush Puppies and corporate forecasters in khaki suits mingled with university students in cutoff jeans.

There were parapsychologists, members of communes dedicated to ecological self-sufficiency, and at least four Members of Congress. Sessions explored topics from long-range economic and environmental planning to new technologies and systems analysis, to science fiction and the future of religion. The exhibit hall was filled with future-oriented products, from flushless toilets to books on the anthropology of outer space.

There was heady talk, of challenges and trends. Daniel Bell said the era of “American Exceptionalism” is ending, and American must adjust in attitudes and lifestyle to the inevitable economic, political and cognitive changes. The Third World will become increasingly important, and the future will depend a great deal on whether the U.S. can recognize new realities. That perspective echoed that of several Third World speakers, who startled some of their listeners by asserting that they weren’t interested in American advice anymore.

Senator Ted Kennedy was a principal speaker, and proposed the creation of an Experimental Futures Agency to showcase new technologies. “We have to openly assess future trends and options,” he told the assembly, “not to lay out some precise master plan which would be imposed on our people, but to honestly present the full range of ‘alternative futures,’ with their relative costs and benefits…Only in this way can our citizens may informed choices on the vital issues before us.”

Accordingly he also proposed a Citizens Assessment Act, “to provide adequate financing for public participation in complex policy issues involving technology…These CAA’s would be voluntary associations of citizens joined together to address major policy issues like environmental quality, nuclear power plant siting, mass transit programs, the use of pesticides…” It sounded to some listeners like a program for federally funded Nader’s Raiders.

He also provided futurist inspiration with the Kennedy touch. “But what we need above all else is the courage and commitment to shape the future. In the words of [philosopher Alfred] Whitehead, ‘Modern science has imposed on humanity the necessity for wandering. Its progressive thought and technology make the transition through time from generation to generation, a true migration into uncharted seas of adventure. The very benefit of wandering is that it is dangerous and needs skills to avert evils. We must expect, therefore, that the future will disclose dangers. It is the business of the future to be dangerous;and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties.’”

“Let us take up the spirit of the American pioneers,” he said. “But this time, we must be pioneers in time, rather than space.” He finished with a line that both his revered brothers used. “I should like to say that my brother Robert was always a futurist at heart. His favorite quote from George Bernard Shaw, which he repeated through his last campaign in 1968, is, I believe the central charge of this assembly: ‘Some men see things as they are and say, ‘why.’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not’?”

But not everything went so well. In fact, the convention almost collapsed on the first day.

Because futures studies by its own premise is comprehensive, and has to include everything about the future, the logical policy for the WFS is to be inclusive and open. Since new interest in the future is coming from young veterans of 1960s upheavals and those engaged in subsequent political and social activisms, as well as those pursuing new consciousness and ideas, they were interested and included. But they didn’t come without a cost. They were just as they were determined to have their voices heard by the futurist establishment as they had been by political leaders.

The futurist establishment—principally the first postwar generation of Think Tank forecasters—was on full view for the convention’s opening press conference. Among the luminaries on the stage was Herman Kahn himself, the paradigmatic establishment futurist, trying to leave behind his identification with thermonuclear war and megadeaths, and reinvent himself as predictor of a sunny American future.

Kahn, looking more like Santa Claus than Dr. Strangelove, was speaking softly, gravely and authoritatively, when suddenly a woman invaded the stage. She was Wilma Scott Heide, a past president of NOW, and her presence made her point: standing uninvited among a group of middle-aged white men, she was protesting the exclusion of women in the convention's planning and from the list of main speakers.

At first organizers had tried to handle the situation by literally shoving her off the stage. But when she finished speaking to the applause of onlookers, conference representatives sheepishly mumbled something conciliatory.

Among other things, it was a moment of high irony: the principal organization dedicated to anticipating the future found itself having its feminist crisis five years after everybody else. Anticipating it wouldn't have required a systems analysis, just reading the newspaper.

But this turned out to be only a prelude. That night a women's caucus was formed, and the convention's leaders were persuaded to add a woman as a main speaker, the very next morning. She was Hazel Henderson, a highly independent and creative former economist, and she galvanized the convention. Her speech was what many of the new futurists had been waiting for.

She told the assembly that she wasn't interested in developing strategies and scenarios. "I have humbler goals. They are to open up processes and decision mechanisms, to expose underlying values and assumptions buried deeply in our so-called value-free methodologies. Citizens now understand that professionals with narrow, specialist training cannot adequately define our problems. Not that professionals aren't essential to the debate, but they must now see where the limits of their technical competence end, and where their values carry no more weight than those of any other citizen in a democracy."

Hazel Henderson was instantly the new star of the convention, and her message inspired a fierce energy and focus for the rest of the proceedings. Henderson was an economist and a consultant to the Office of Technology Assessment, and so she knew Senator Ted Kennedy. When they later walked into the hall together for his speech, it symbolized the character of the convention. No one from the World Future Society had predicted this.

Towards the end of the convention, an alternative session led to a list of recommendations which were shouted from the podium in a free-form manifesto for the emerging future-populists. In the last hours, several individuals, including Alvin Toffler, tried to set up some sort of continuing communications network. But while those efforts were incomplete, there was a sense that something had begun.