Future Schlock

Forget the Jetsons. In our market-driven present, the future is only a focus group away.

Not long ago I spent an afternoon with a visionary named Watts Wacker. I know he was a visionary because he told me so himself and he has written one of those books the guy next to you on the airplane is always reading, entitled The Visionary's Handbook. A big man with a cascade of blond Peter Frampton curls, Wacker wore khaki shorts, leather sandals, and white socks the day I visited his Connecticut complex. He showed me a special room set aside especially for "ideating." Like a lot of visionaries, he talks funny. He uses "futuring" as a verb, a lot.

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Back when the future was a noun, it seemed a lot farther off than it does now. Disney's Tomorrowland and all those Ike-era pipe dreams about jet packs and Venusian colonies and space hibernation were all preposterous notions but metaphorically rich with American optimism. Today's future is pretty much limited to our own immediate desires, polled and measured in the short term so that the latest versions of [this space available for unique product placement] can be sold right back to us. Things declared to be "new" reek of familiarity, the off-product of a future so heavily routinized. Look deeply at the future, and it's become just another start-up venture in the Internet age, scrambling for capital.

The Cluetrain Manifesto, full of futuring dogma, is on the best-seller list. There's Grant MacCracken's e-book, Plenitude, and in meat-space, a book called Dow 100,000. There are a half-dozen Web sites with URLs like preteristarchive.com or longnow.com or even earth-mother-crying.homepage.com. For a whole new set, the future is a sure thing.

At least Wacker thinks so. In his office, he told me with absolute certainty that the Digital Age is already over. The past 2,000 years have been a journey, in 500-year chunks, through "wholism, pantheism, cause-and-effect, and complexity." Now, he told me, the "big way" of thinking is finished, kaput. These days, a study of 17 small ideas that Wacker has selected is key. I'd go into them but, like Wacker, I'd need a large pad set on an easel and a squeaky Magic Marker to draw all the lines. Taken together, Wacker said, these ideas show that "the future we're entering is about paradox and our ability to absorb it," where "the only certainty is uncertainty."

And one other thing: "Every person by birth will be intellectual property so that every person can now create their own specific view of reality." Man. For you it's two paragraphs, but for me it was two hours of Wacker ideating and visionizing and imagineering. Like all futurists, he keeps the actual focus-grouped specifics of what he's selling for the clients who can write the big checks. For the rest of us, we get the big round concepts, which I realized after a while was just another form of marketing the near future. But Wacker pronounces it all with a patter that is soothing in its soft-spoken amiable confidence. I don't know if he ever inhaled. And it all sounded vaguely true. We do live in an age of uncertainty, don't we? I left his office late that afternoon, dazed and confused, mostly by the present.

For a while there, I visited a bunch of our nation's futurists, hoping to learn something, and I came away wanting nothing more than to gather my rosebuds and live for the moment and carpe diem and just drink heavily. Take the Global Business Network. It's a futuring group in California that has reduced it all to science. Depending on the specific future you want to see, they will cull out "predetermined forces," after which they "can reduce bundles of uncertainties that have some commonality to a single spectrum" and then graph them as "quadrants of uncertainty." (You really need an easel and a Magic Marker for this one, too.) But the point is: "Our goal is to pin down the corners of the plausible futures."

What's most noticeable about the future, pithed as it is like a high school frog, is how much we've come to take it for granted. I wake every morning to hear that Wall Street estimates of future earnings were correct, so the stock market just hums right along. The "market" is the monster metaphor of our time, as it should be, because what is it if not the mightiest force struggling to bring the future under our control -- to give "present value" to "future expectations"?

Never in history has human desire been so tamed into meekness. Have you been shopping lately? It's vaguely menacing, so visibly displayed are our immediate longings in every store. What I want appears on the shelf, it seems, just minutes before I walk in the door. Have you had that odd contemporary experience akin to déjà vu: of cooking up some brilliant scheme -- the idea for eBay or for one of those reality television programs -- only to see it featured on the cover of a national magazine the next week? The future feels so confined and small, like a well-trampled empty lot on the edge of town, with crowds of futurists hovering around the perimeter staring at some miniature animal yapping madly to get out.

At the same time, the past has taken on majestic dimensions. It's become a happening and expansive place. Does the Confederate flag stand for heritage or hate? Did James Earl Ray assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. or was it someone else? Did Thomas Jefferson sleep with his slave? Did Vincent Foster commit suicide or did Hillary shoot him? Did George W. Bush win the election or did Al Gore? You marshal your facts and I'll marshal mine. It'll be fun. Anything is possible in the past. It stretches out behind us, gleaming with endless vistas of possibility, the new tabula rasa. A while back I read David Gelernter's book on the 1939 World's Fair, where he writes wistfully about how we no longer see the future as a place of hope and renewal and invention. The man just needs to turn around.

I had thought for a while that one could pin all this on Y2K's official clown, Bill Clinton. He is in some ways just another of these dime-a-dozen futurists, a man happily devoted to discerning what's happening in the small knowable terrain of our immediate caprice and selling it back to us -- not as a product on the shelf but as sentimental nationalism on television. But Clinton, who has described his last eight years as just "a job," isn't really to blame. He just reduced the ideals of the presidency to the same goals one hears from any other product marketeer, filmmaker who field-tests his ending, corporate consultant, or cool hunter.

Clinton's merely part of a larger tide away from the old 20th century style leaders. Only a hundred years ago, at the dawn of the age of uncertainty, a reporter asked Theodore Roosevelt if he knew what the American people thought, i.e., what their immediate desires were. "I don't know what the American people think," Roosevelt groused. "I only know what they should think." A future different from the one we want? It's hard to imagine.

Then I thought it might just be that we are in a transitional era. Between enemies, as it were. Americans have always needed a sharp Manichaean view to get up in the morning. And the Russians are spent. After destroying their government, we permitted our financiers to finish off the economy. The manufacturing power formerly known as the Soviet Union has been looted to the point that it is now an agrarian backwater, replete with tribal wars and criminal gangs selling off natural resources, like the Congo on a continental scale. And our foreign policy alarmists haven't yet completed their work inflating China into a frightening superpower enemy. China has fewer nuclear weapons than Rhode Island and a navy unprepared for blue water. Maybe we'll settle back into our old frantically visionary style after we feel comfortable with the balance of good and evil in the world.

But I think not. I believe we the people have actually changed; we have turned a corner. Throughout all the media chatter last year about the turn of the millennium, there was frustration because no one could discern some kind of epiphany, a sign, a big shift in America. We still had the greatest economy in history, a defense system more potent than the rest of the world's armies combined, and all the entertainment resources poised for the new era of convergence. Yet there was a big change, and historians will see it clearly. Our cultural gaze turned away from the future.

It seems like only yesterday (or a century ago, whenever) that the American idea of a perpetual frontier enraged the Europeans, who peevishly complained about our lack of a sense of the past. Because we were constantly overwhelmed by eager immigrants, our future always seemed tumultuous, unfinished, and spacious. But now we've capped immigration, closed off the ports, and turned inward. Maybe we've matured, if that's the right word, and are settling into the middle age of empire. Now we more closely resemble Old World Europeans, whose present is routinely freshened by a keen remembrance of things past -- and then, usually, blood.

Our older generations who eagerly threw off their ethnicities in fits of assimilation are dying out. Today we all wear our histories up front, before the hyphen. Our past has become the cacophonous cathedral of the American conversation, while our once-ranging future has shrunk into a snug and warm place, as cozy and shag carpeted as a suburban den.