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America's Alternative Futures:
Images Past and Present

Wendy L. Schultz
Hawai'i Research Center for Futures Studies
3 August 1994

The United States -- and please allow me the efficient colloquialism of referring to the United States as "America," in the full knowledge that I am using that term as a nickname of sorts, and not deliberately slighting Canada, Mexico, or the rest of Latin America -- the United States of America is a little over two hundred years old. That is young in the lifespan of nations, particularly when compared to the national cultures of Asia. America also represents perhaps the only completely synthetic national culture: the immigrants who came in trickles and then in waves brought myths and traditions with them, but upon arrival those myths and traditions were traded, blended, occasionally discarded, and often used merely as a springboard for the creation of entirely new myths and traditions suited to this New World.

They also brought to the New World goals for the future: spiritual freedom, political self-determination, and economic prosperity were among their highest priorities. They wished to create a new nation which avoided the evils they suffered in Europe: religious oppression, a class-controlled society, and poverty. The first settlers came with a clear image of a preferred future for themselves, their families, and their communities, which they wished to create: what futures researchers call a vision, an image of people's preferred future. This image was captured in the first paragraph of the American Constitution: We, the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union,
But since that vision was formulated, as eloquent and elegant as it was, Americans have articulated many other images of the future, both possible and preferred. Some of them have fit under the umbrella of "the American dream;" others have challenged it.

Over the next half an hour, my presentation will cover three basic topics: America's past images of the future; her present images of the future; and the critical issues emerging in the 90's which require us all to rethink the possibilities the future may present, and our own preferred futures. In order to be as clear as possible in discussing these images, let me begin by explaining briefly why futures researchers bother to collect and analyze people's images of the future, and by defining a few key terms.

The Image of the Future
What will Europe look like in 2025? or Hong Kong? Who will win the play-offs [fill in the blank with your favorite sport]? Will the hurricane season be bad this year? How will the stock market perform next quarter? Will I acquire fortune and glory? Is the Apocalypse imminent? People have always thought about the future: for millenia humanity has tried to peer beyond the interval of the present. Here in the latter half of the 20th Century, many approaches to modelling and forecasting the future exist. The oracle at Delphi has been replaced with the oracles of RAND and SRI: the methods of reading the future in tea, entrails, bones, and smoke have simply been replaced with slightly tidier techniques.

But one sizable branch of futures studies eschews the quantitative and chooses to examine the images that people hold of the future, in the theory that people act upon what they believe or assume will be true of the future -- or upon their desires for the future. Those actions in turn create the futures in which we find ourselves.

Images of the future fall into three categories: the possible, the probable, and the preferable. The possible: scenarios are images of possible futures -- narratives that explore potential answers to the question, "what if?" A well-crafted scenario will portray a future containing both opportunities and threats; it is up to the individual considering the future to judge whether it is a "positive" or "negative" scenario -- it entirely depends upon what you might want to achieve given its conditions. The probable: by monitoring current conditions and trends of change, the probability of any given scenario may be evaluated -- NOT very precisely, but relative to other scenarios.

Finally, the preferable: an image of the future which depicts a preferred future is usually referred to as a vision. Vision has become a buzzword of the nineties: usually used in the context of what political figures, businesses, or organizations lack. The best writing on leadership in the past decade, in either political science or management, invokes the concept of vision: see Kanter's The Change Masters, or Kouzes' and Posner's The Leadership Challenge, or Tom Peters' In Search of Excellence or Thriving on Chaos, or Peter Senge's superb treatise, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Visions are "futures for the heart" -- they touch and move us. In contrast, scenarios are "futures for the head" -- they provide information, identify opportunities and threats, and stretch our imagination.

The theory that people act on their images of the future is applied at many levels of human congregation: individual, community, nation, and civilization. One of the seminal works in the field, Fred Polak's The Image of the Future, argues,
"As long as a society's image of the future is positive and flourishing, the flower of the culture is in full blossom."
While Polak acknowledged that many forces interact to create history, he nonetheless affirmed that the positive ideas and ideals of humanity, expressed as positive images of the future -- or visions -- make history what it is. These images serve as "motifs and guiding stars" to the societies which create them. He continues,
"Once the image of the future begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture cannot long survive."
In short, visions have a life cycle: they emerge, flourish, and decay.

In the beginning, the vision offers a single symbol for the creatively interwoven goals, norms, and values of the community; it gives people something to work toward, a benchmark for community and personal achievement. The vision creates value for individual members and turns chance into destiny: it pulls people towards the future. Because the vision offers people the opportunity to create meaning and transcend the boundaries of the present, it motivates action. In the space created by the sense of potential implicit in the vision, we can reconstruct our communities and ourselves into some form more nearly approximating our ideals and aspirations.

As new people join the community, the vision is offered to them as a source of inspiration and as an explanation of community activities. The vision is thus repeatedly etched into the social structure, until it becomes an underlying ideology, an assumption: it is discussed less and less, and taken more and more for granted. Once it locks into the community value structure, the aged vision becomes just another constraint to critical, creative social action. Unlocking those constraints requires creating a new vision, the very presence of which critiques the flaws of the old vision and sets new standards for achievement. The founders' vision of America provides a good example of this life cycle: let us consider it.

America: Futures Past
The Pioneer Years: Prosperity in Land, Part I
The original pilgrims locked their vision to the goals of spiritual freedom, political self-determination, and economic prosperity, all linked to the idea of progress. Progress implied development, the taming and domesticating of wild lands for bountiful agricultural endeavors. Spiritual freedom implied the right to worship God -- the Christian God -- as one saw fit. Political self-determination meant the right to vote for any man who owned land -- and the millions of acres undeveloped, untouched, and seemingly unclaimed meant that any man could own land. And prosperity was the outcome for every God-fearing man who cleared the wilderness, built a home, supported a family, and worked to become a self-sufficient gentleman farmer. Every man's home was his castle, and on that vision was independence based. And it was the duty, indeed, the destiny of each pilgrim to bring God and order to this trackless wilderness.

All the Gold Rushes: Prosperity in Land, Part II
The self-sufficient gentleman farmer was not the only vision available to young Americans. The California gold rush demonstrated that one need not be a farmer to wrest one's prosperity from the land: the vision of taming wild America also encompassed exploiting her mineral, animal, and vegetable resources. The many "gold rushes" ranged from the gold of furs to the black gold of Pennsylvania oil wells to the green gold of Washington forests and Hawaiian lands perfect for sugar cane and pineapple. The commodification of the American continent, with its seemingly infinite resources begging for production, laid the foundation for the mass marketing vision of plenty that characterizes the American dream of our century.

But it also laid the foundation for the emergence of many off-shoots of the American dream -- not all of which were to agree with each other. The ranch wars in the west between the farmers and the cattlemen, and the cattlemen and the shepherds, between the upriver and downriver users of the Colorado: these all illustrate that as means to achieving the vision of freedom and prosperity proliferated, and the resources to achieve it grew scarcer, conflicts would grow more and more common. Yet still the country seemed vast enough to provide elbow room for all these differences, and destiny still called: the manifest destiny of Americans to tame a continent, civilize the savages found thereon, and build a country the likes of which history had never before seen.

Widgets are Wealth: Technology as the New Real Estate
The textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, which were followed by the inventions of Edison and the mass production designs of Ford added the concept of technology, innovation, and information as the new frontiers on which everyone wanted to own real estate. In a very real sense, those industrial technologies proved the catalysts for the passing of the industrial age: the first computer controller cards were adapted from the control cards used in weaving jacquard fabrics.

Progress came to mean scientific and technological progress even more than the exploration and development of land. With the increased ability to produce goods, came the need to increase the market, increase the number of people paid a wage rather than living self-sufficiently off the land. This signalled the beginning of the end for the gentleman farmer; the beginning of the exodus to the cities and the vision of America's future as urban. The vision of technological progress took root and would emerge, post World War II, as the Continued Growth image of the future: the present only more so; exponential growth as the means of spreading America's standard of living around the world.

The world's fairs of the 30s, 40s, and 50s provide quaint examples of this image, with animated dioramas that portray futures in which technology changes everything about how our world looks and works, but leaves untouched the basic family unit, our values, and the political and economic systems within which we live.

America: Futures Present
The 50's: The Vision Achieved?
Post-war prosperity -- the new technologies, the newfound national strenghth -- we ARE the world's policeman -- the incredible burst of productivity, the dreams of ease. America has been tamed, civilized, beautified, developed: the age of progress ushered in by technological innovation. But from this age we have inherited the Conventional Wisdom image of the future: Continued Growth -- the present only more so, more of everything for everyone, trickle down economic development. But the seeds of several changes have been planted: Rosie the Riveter has gone home -- but she remembers the economic independence and the feeling of job satisfaction: from this seed springs the women's movement of the seventies.

And the down side: the nuclear age, the bomb shelters, the dark images of a nuclear holocaust; the Korean war -- an ultimately unsolvable problem.

The 60's: New Dreams Emerging
The man on the moon; the Aquarian Age -- peace on earth, drugs, DNA, and discovering the East: zen and motorcycle maintenance. The roots of both the green image of the future and the high-spirit transformation image of the future; the rediscovery of the Native American. The pill and the sexual revolution; the beginning of the equal rights movement.

And the down side: the Vietnam war (another unsolvable problem), government by assassination, the questioning of technology and its effects on society.

The 70's: Race, Space, and the Planet Earth
The flowering of the women's movement and the equal rights movement; the first Earth Day. Psychedelia and spirituality; cross-cultural explorations. Ecological and environmental management; spaceship earth and the hiatus in both the space program and the Star Trek phenomenon.

The 80's: The Vision's Last Hurrah?
Reagan, Evil Empires, the Moral Majority, the Religious Right, the Right to Life vs. Planned Parenthood; aging hippies vs. young yuppies; the authoritarian future; the growing importance of fundamentalist religions worldwide; the growth of cultural separatism worldwide. The miracle of microprocessors, the boom in economic vitality everywhere, but most especially in Asia: the origin of the high technology transformational future.

The 90's: The Vision Splintered
What are the visions in America today? By the 50s we had achieved the vision articulated by the Founding Fathers and implicit in the lives of the pilgrims -- and were discovering its flaws and limitations with a vengeance. Spiritual tolerance seemed limited to Christianity, and preferred forms of Christianity at that. Within the political system, the vision disenfranchised women and non-whites. The commodification of resources favored the large investor, not the small landholder. The internal contradictions in the original vision have emerged into the light of day, and none was perhaps more glaring than the contradiction between fragile and limited ecological resources and the imperative to explore, develop, and exploit: the impacts of the contradiction between the development drive of Manifest Destiny and the limitations of the environment's ability to recover spilled over national borders and caused acid rain in Canada.

Both the economy and the national government are moribund, personal, corporate, and national debt have reached staggering levels. We no longer have a worthy adversary, a great enemy, but instead face a hundred conflicts based on histories and cultures of corners of the world we do not understand, because of a long proud tradition of provincialism and because our educational system is also staggering -- as are our legal systems.

A myriad of young visions has sprung up in response to the disenchantment people feel with the present, and the concerns they have about the future. The Continued Growth image of the future [more = better] still has adherents, but its ranks are fading in the light of undeniable and growing resource scarcity, environmental degradation, and poverty. The Green image of the future is growing in popularity, as is perhaps best attested by the fact that "environmentally friendly" is a major marketing ploy. Consumers are aware enough to want their mass consumables a little greener, and business is discovering that not only is the customer always right, but environmentally appropriate industrial design can even save them money.

George Bush was perhaps the last US President still running on a Continued Growth image of the future: infinite production, infinite marketing, infinite consumption -- and we will all be healthy, wealthy, and wise. Clinton represents not only a generational watershed in American leadership, but also a watershed in images of the future: Clinton and Gore represent that compromise between an out-and-out green vision of the future, and the Reagan-Bush let 'er rip entrepreneurial capitalism.

It is also interesting to note the upswing in media focus on the future, as we near the millenium caught in this malaise of national spirit. More science fiction in the movies; not one but two versions of Star Trek on at one time; AT&T focussing a major part of its advertising budget selling us on products it will not even be able to deliver in the next two years: have you ever taken a call on your wrist? sent a fax from the beach? YOU WILL.

There is a sense in people more or less in our age range and a little bit older that somewhere in the last 20, 25 years, we fell off the merry-go-round. That we stumbled. And that we stumbled in Vietnam, we stumbled with John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy and King. We stumbled in Korea. Wherever it was, or maybe it wasn't any one thing. It was a series of stumbles.

And the problem is, when you stumble a lot, you look at your feet. You look down. And what science fiction television specifically, and television in general, must do, I believe, is to make people raise their eyes back up to the horizon.

Because when you do that, people discover something extraordinary. That they're part of a grand parade that is building the future. That behind us are our ancestors looking to us to say, make our lives have had meaning. Make it so it wasn't for nothing. And ahead of us are our inheritors and our children, saying, build the world we're going to live in. And that it isn't just a question of having a job, and coming home in the evening, and watching television. You're building the future. That we have come to this place through two million years of evolution, struggle, and blood, and that the culmination of all of this is not Beavis and Butthead. There is more to come.

And that's the obligation of television, and science fiction, to tell that to people, and say move on. Build the future. If you want it, and you make them want it now, they'll build it tomorrow.
-- J. Michael Straczynski, creator, writer, and producer of the science-fiction series, Babylon-5 [from "One Step Beyond" radio program, 7/24/94, KDHX-FM, St. Louis. Chuck Lavazzi, producer.]

America: Awash in the Tsunamis of Change
Prof. Jim Dator, Director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies at the University of Hawaii, often refers to -- and warns people of -- the "tsunamis of change." These are emerging issues of change sweeping over us even now. Dator tells us that turning our backs and closing our eyes will only get us flattened against the reef: we must learn to SURF. Surfing the tsunamis of change involves identifying them, monitoring their growth, considering their impacts -- asking "what if?" and imagining scenarios of possible futures based on these tsunamis -- and then visioning what we would prefer that our future be, given that many of these changes will occur whether we like them or not. These tsunamis will impact the potential of the images of the future in America, reinforcing some, invalidating others.

The tsunamis of change fall into six major waves: demographic trends; economic trends; political and cultural developments; environmental transformations; technological innovations; and the awareness of change itself.

Demographic trends: in 1890, 50% of the world was white, and 50% non-white. In 1990, 20% was white, and 80% was non-white; by the mid-21st century, only about 1-5% of the world will be white, and 95-99% of the world non-white. What does this mean? The unlocking of the voices of the rest of the world's cultures: for almost the entire twentieth century, the world capitalist system has had a white, Western voice and culture, and has marginalized the cultures, arts, and emerging media of the other cultures of the world. The lessening of the Western stranglehold on media means a much livelier mixing of ideas, myths, metaphors, and inevitably a burgeoning of creativity in the cultural space that will open up.

The developed world is greying; the developing world has a high percentage of energetic young people. Unfortunately, the old grey white folks still control a disproportionate amount of the resources -- and have used up or damaged a disproportionate amount of resources, and that is not lost on the energetic young folks. One early sign of the shift away from Western culture is the increasing re-inscription of once-marginalized cultural voices in the world's media: pop music is much more international than it used to be.

Economic trends: from industries to services; from gathering facts to sorting facts; from manufacturing to information; from permanent careers to permanent job mobility; entrepreneurship is up as people invent "trans-market niche" products and services, chasing ever more specialized consumer tastes.

Political and cultural developments: from superpowers to regional associations; from federal/central government to local/community government; from sovereign states to cultural and ethnic sovereignty; creation of more and more powerful communities of interest that span traditional boundaries and borders: look at the Internet.

Environmental transformations: going down -- hectares of rainforest; arable land; lakes; underground aquifers; numbers of plant and animal species. going up -- mean global temperature; sea levels; ozone loss; and amounts of garbage and hazardous waste.

Technological innovations: microprocessors are old hat -- it's biochemicals, it's neurochemicals, it's genetic engineering, it's virtual reality. The future of technologies lie in the interfaces among disciplines: biotech and nanotech, giving us human-machine interfaces; nanotech and informatics/medianets, giving us virtual reality, planetary plebiscites; multidisciplinary global data and media exchanges -- logged onto the World Wide Web lately? Ocean sciences, space sciences, material sciences, and human factors design giving us settlements in non-terrestrial environments. Generally, the end of "nature" and of "reality."

Awareness of change: in the 20th century we have become uniquely aware of change, both changes unbidden and changes we design. We are more conscious than people of any other age of our ability to wreak change on the face of our home planet. We also live in a time where not only has the speed of change increased enormously, but also the magnitude of change has increased. We move from innovation to product to market saturation within months; we move from community news to global awareness within minutes. Our discoveries cross national boundaries with ease -- and so does our pollution.

Imaging positive futures is the most strategic response to the challenges posed by the tsunamis of change. To quote again from Polak's The Image of the Future,

The future challenges us to examine and prepare in advance to solve the problems which it has in store for us, problems which may well overwhelm us with their sudden onslaught if we do not anticipate them. It is the not-yet-existent future, or certain special possibilities out of a numberless infinity of possible futures, which throws light or shadow on the present...[And an] adequate response to the ever-shifting challenge of a rapidly changing future can be nothing less than a comprehensive and inspiring vision of the future!

Vision inspires and motivates; it unifies those whose hearts it touches; it allows us to exceed our own potential, to transform ourselves, and to create together new worlds. Many voices are creating visions of the future in America today; but the nation as a whole still lacks "a comprehensive and inspiring vision of the future" to act as the beacon which will light our way into the 21st century.

I have offered you images of the future both old and new, both possible and preferred -- nightmares to avoid and ideals to seek. I have tried to suggest some of the changes that will sweep us all into some future very different from what any of us might imagine today. I would like you to ask yourselves what images of possible futures are emerging in your own countries; what visions of preferred futures exist in your own cultures; and what you imagine the impacts to be of these emerging critical issues. And then I will leave you with this quote from John McHale, one of the founding fathers of futures research:

"From this point on, there is a growing realization that man's future may be literally what he chooses to make it, and that the ranges of choice and the degree of conscious control which he may exercise in determining his future are unprecedented. ...The outcome of the futures chosen will depend in turn on our ability to conceptualize them in humanly desirable terms... There is, in this sense, no future other than as we will it to be."

What shall we will it to be?

Thank you, and best wishes for a bright future of your own devising.


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