Sunday, August 23, 2009

1976: Futurequake Follow-Up and Futurism in Washington

A year later, futurists in Washington were still talking about what happened at the Hilton. A few weeks after the convention, Toffler’s Anticipatory Democracy Network sent follow-up letters noting, “Clearly the Washington meeting was an intense experience for many people.” A gathering of Washington futurists after the convention resulted in an ongoing group, the Planning Committee for a Model Futurist Organization, which produced a simulated annual report dated 1980, four years in the future. It anticipates and promotes a more participatory and rigorous futurism.

But not much else survived the burst of enthusiasm. Toffler’s network died on the vine, and other groups, in the words of Washington futurist Bill Moore, “just melted away…Futurists don’t like to organize,” he explained.

Sally Cornish of the WFS international office had another explanation. “You know how it is at a convention,” she said. “People have an interesting time, but there’s not a lot of follow-through.”

Meanwhile, there was still Herman Kahn. His new book, The Next Two Hundred Years, forecasting a sunny future for government and corporations as long as they keep doing what they are doing, received respectful coverage in the news columns of major newspapers. Kahn is probably still the only futurist who can command that kind of attention, and some younger futurists were getting really sick of it.

“What’s the mechanism by which he gets so much attention?” asked Dick Maynard, president of the Washington chapter of the World Future Society. “Does it mean what he says is true? It doesn’t say he’s right—it just says he’s good at P.R. But when it’s time for a futurist to testify at a congressional hearing, they call Herman because they know his name.”

“These guys are really playing a safe game,” Maynard continued. “They get famous for saying things that can’t be validated. The people who predicted the energy crisis didn’t get big press, but Herman did, and he missed it.”

But Maynard also expressed a frustration reflecting the perspective Hazel Henderson articulated. “How many people really get a chance to talk with Herman? It’s always a select group. People like Herman are so closed off and culture bound. That’s why we need wider participation and chances for feedback.”

“All our problems are interacting on a daily basis. I think it would be fantastic if they all worked out as he says they will. But we have a capability to monitor these things—we don’t have to play a high risk game. We don’t have to depend that Herman is right. We can’t afford to take the chance that Herman is wrong.”

Where futurism in Washington is right now may be best symbolized by the Committee for the Future, gearing up to host an international symposium with phone hook-ups to other cities as part of the Bicentennial Horizons Day. With an emphasis on communications technology and process, this group would seem to be what future populists are looking for: a way for everyone to learn and communicate about the future equally.

But their Syncon process and their technology have problems. “We started out six years ago to search out new options for the future and get them out to the public,” said co-founder John Whiteside. “But we still don’t really know how to do that.” Their attempt to use video at the end of the Washington convention to replay comments made by participants earlier, failed entirely when the technology wouldn’t work.

The organization otherwise seems caught between the two strong personalities of its founders: Barbara Marx Hubbard, a strong visionary who calls herself a “transformational evolutionist” and radiates a sense of purpose and care for people that attracts future populists. And Whiteside, a former military and NASA communications officer who exudes technical enthusiasm and optimism. His technocratic bias shouldn’t make any difference, but it’s one thing to take at face value the list of priorities for the next century he says he wrote one morning in his room, and something else to hear him say, while chatting about 1976 presidential candidates, “I’m not for any of them but I’ll tell you who I’m against—Jerry Brown. He’s contrary to the human spirit—he’s a Buddhist.”

Dick Maynard defends the role of technology in fostering communication. “Futurism does have its technical problems,” he said. “We’re always surer about technology than what it does. It’s easier to do the tangible things that to understand how to use it.” But he defends the attempts because eventually they may show results in greater understanding of complex problems inherent in studying events, causes, effects and patterns systematically.

“Computer graphics and video tape will be really helpful to people who have to make decisions,” he said. “Congressional staffers can compare what witnesses say, and see by means of computer graphics the implications of what they’re advocating. Now at these meetings you just get people waving their hands at each other because they don’t know what the other one is talking about.”