The future is now -- and then

Professional "futurists" see a golden tomorrow -- but they don't love computers.

Published August 4, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In the future, there will be cars that drive themselves and "mag-lev" trains connecting major U.S. cities. There will also be video phones that connect over the Internet, and even "digital assistants" that store all sorts of handy information in a box the size of your hand.

I came upon this crazy quilt of prophecies -- some pie-in-the-sky and some already outdated -- at "FutureQuest: Strategies for the New Millennium," this year's gathering of the World Future Society. Hanging out with the WFS at Chicago's Hilton and Towers a couple of weeks ago, I felt like I was inhabiting William Gibson's old story "The Gernsback Continuum." There may not have been streamlined cities popping up in the corner of my eye or flying wings gliding overhead, but I was surrounded by the conceptual detritus of an equally grandiose, though somewhat more recent, vision of society's destiny.

Founded during the mid-'60s wave of technological idolatry that spun off from the space race, the WFS preserves the high-efficiency, clean-and-green spirit of that era with a hermetic disregard for the all-too-messy march of time. The June-July 1998 issue of the WFS publication the Futurist, whose inside front cover depicts a chrome-and-glass domain straight out of "Logan's Run," spotlights such notions as the use of moss to clean indoor air, a movement to grant nationhood to whales and the poolside Solar Shower. Its list of "65 Forecasts About Your Future Life" includes "intelligent refrigerators" that tell you when you're running out of orange juice and "fully automated bedrooms ... allowing us to control lights, phones, drapes ... with the touch of a button."

Of course, the smart refrigerator is dubious at best, and we already have a device similar to the last one -- it's called the Clapper. But no matter. As was all too apparent at the convention, this mix of predictions -- some unlikely ever to happen, others that have arrived without exactly transforming society -- is perfectly in keeping with the futurist ethos.

Throughout the weekend, the atmosphere in the Hilton and Towers' shabby-luxe ballrooms faded from grandiose dreaming to barely concealed anxiety and back again. With a median age of around 50 and a median income that couldn't be much higher than $50,000, the futurist movement is a middle-aged, middle-class phenomenon, with all of that demographic's wishes and worries. The plenary session could have been a convention of Midwestern middle managers, with perhaps a few systems analysts thrown in. Men wore navy blazers, tan pants and inexpensive ties; women tended toward wrinkled linen jackets, floral skirts and little white flats. Panelists and audience members alike scribbled notes on hotel stationery and carried their convention packets in thin, well-worn leather satchels. No cell phones or pagers were in evidence, and only one or two laptops.

The reasons for this dearth of real, live high-tech gadgetry soon became clear. "No other society on this planet is so besotted with computers," warned Buffalo, N.Y., futurist Deborah C. Sawyer in the workshop "The Information Age and its Repercussions." The author of "Sawyer's Survival Guide for Information Brokers" and the forthcoming "Getting It Right: Decision-Making in the 21st Century," she explained that even though she'd worked with computerized databases since the age of punch cards, she nonetheless regarded the computer revolution as (to quote her presentation's title) "The Second Coming of the Pied Piper." And the whole world is in danger of being seduced.

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Sawyer illustrated this with a laundry list of familiar Net-phobic bugaboos: an increase in the quantity and decrease in the quality of information; reduced interpersonal contact and a corollary rise in bad manners, dishonesty and alienation; a decrease in learning skills. "There's a tendency in young people today, if information is not on a computer, to ... not have heard of it," she said. "If it comes out of the computer, it's the gospel truth."

Sawyer referred to such trends as "catalysts of chaos." It's a phrase many of the other speakers would have found useful. Oddly enough for a group professing excitement about the glorious years to come, the futurists spent much of the weekend brooding about the evil ramifications of current trends. Speakers predicted a "cascade effect" from the Y2K problem that would inspire either "chaos or social transformation." They warned of a "megatrend of ... a new and more ugly nationalism." And they wondered, "How Ready Are Our Business Systems for the Future?" An audience member at one panel, noting the increasing pace of technological development, plaintively asked, "What can be done to slow down or stop this?"

Much as they might occasionally like to echo his fear, futurism's leaders maintain a tone of loud, though cautious, optimism. They are, after all, futurists, and they're not going to abandon 30 years' worth of ebullient visions just because the world's caught up with them. So they strive to give their ideas a subtle singularity, something that will stand up to the economic analysts, digital-culture gurus and other, better-connected prognosticators who have ridden the '90s tech wave to our culture's fore.

One such twist is a thick streak of populism. This gives the futurists a meaningful voice for their aging, anxious membership, who are clearly groping for some bulwark against technology's unpredictable advance. Expressions of pessimism like those above are usually couched in anti-elitist terms, pointing up ways that ordinary folks can band together to counter the digerati's blinkered view. These methods might include "international communities of wisdom," "creating a pluralistic environment in which excellence is found in everyone" or even a global sing-along on the night of Dec. 31, 1999.

Not surprisingly, few actual digerati were in attendance. Looking like a tiny delegation from a faraway place with their sleek black laptops and relatively trendy clothes, MSNBC commentator Omar Wasow and NetGuide creator Michael Wolff (author of "Burn Rate") told a sparse crowd of 25 what it was like to use the Internet. Their panel was ostensibly about "The Future of the Media," but they stayed clear of such involved topics as online economics or the new-vs.-old-media debate. Wolff, having assured the audience he was "the consummate media professional," doubtless befuddled most listeners with a discourse on technology as metaphor and "the fundamental assumption [that] the Internet [is] media." The 28-year-old Wasow, talking about his experience with computers ("There's something called Usenet, which is this forum to post messages back and forth"), sounded like a kind of cross-generational interpreter filling the parents in on the weird pastimes of their kids.

The atmosphere was far more electric at the earlier "Emerging Technologies: Forecasts of the Technology Revolution for 2000-2050." Two hundred people packed into the room to hear leading futurists do what they do best: place current developments in a reassuring context of wildly idealistic, "Star Trek"-style pipe dreams. Reviewing the findings of the George Washington University Forecast of Emerging Technologies (which, amusingly, were displayed via one of those overhead transparency projectors you may remember from elementary school), the panelists were only moderately perturbed by wild divergences in their predictions' probability.

The survey found that computerized language translation would be widely available in 2012, personal digital assistants would be used by a majority of people in 2008 and mag-lev (magnetic levitation) trains would connect most American cities by 2017. But the specific dates weren't important, futurist consultant Joseph Coates said. "How will it affect politics?" he asked. "How will it affect home life? ... What's of interest is the consequences."

Besides, as one audience member pointed out, at least someone's trying. "We shouldn't bash people for trying to predict the future," he said after a brief eruption of anti-Delphi sentiment had sparked tension in the hall. "We shouldn't put people down for trying. We ... [should] just help people keep on keepin' on."

He was answered with a round of hearty applause -- well-deserved, since he had validated the futurists' mission and restored their tribal bond. After all, who cares if they're wrong about a few details in the next couple of decades? There's still the year 3000 to look forward to.

By Etelka Lehoczky

Etelka Lehoczky is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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