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
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
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
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
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
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
The 80's: The Vision's
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
The 90's: The Vision
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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!
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
"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.