The Future Business
S. K. Oberbeck
February 28, 1969

Mr. Oberbeck is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from Newsweek, Inc. This article may be published, with credit to S. K. Oberbeck and the Alicia Patterson Fund.

Milles Future
Carl Milles Man looks into the future at Millesgården in Stockholm

“Technology is governed by scientific principles, some of which are understood…”—Sir George Thomson

Lausanne, Switzerland—The Future Business (FB) is not telling it like it is, but how it’s likely to be—if everyone cooperates. It grows daily in importance and prominence. Vastly comprehensive and often mysterious, it deals in words and concepts that seem almost magical, changing the pattern of our lives daily.

Today, its focus is on the Aladdin’s cave of Science and Technology, where presiding genies display treasure beyond belief. But the dazzle of tomorrow’s glittering means can blind one to the ultimate ends such treasures might also bring. Then, too, judging from any of today’s news, there seems to be some sort of Parkinson’s Law involved in this FB: as rosier futures are forecast, a host of unforeseen troubles seems to “fill in” the present. The vision of tomorrow’s orderly progress is flawed by today’s chaotic competitions. There are questions we would like to ask the genies before they slip back into their bottles.

But the future beckons. Will we be ready for it?

Seed-Packet Kids

Will we be ready, say, to be “plugged into” computers that dialogue and procreate? Ready to choose our children like choosing seed packets, implantable embryos available in a wide variety of genetic codes? How about permanent “youth” or just vastly increased longevity, among some cell biologists considered a strong possibility? What about simply sleeping off a century, in hypothermic hibernation at minus 170 degrees? Or crowding a night’s sleep into an hour or so through electronarcosis with programmed dreams to boot? For the deskbound (or the invalid), technological forecasters contemplate direct sensory stimulation of experiences, a revolution in armchair-travel.

Such notions, decades ago, were in the purview of the science fiction pulps, along with other far-out notions—many of which subsequently helped send our astronauts to the moon. Now, these “fantasies” have passed from the orbit of exotic speculation into the realm of theoretical possibility—if not serious laboratory research, which is being performed in every one of the above fields. Surprisingly, many scientists believe that realization is more a matter of continuing research levels and than simply time or money.

The Old Way

Such fancies would be no cause for alarm, or hope, if they were not already developing. The human fetus was again recently produced outside the womb. But…Test-tube babies? Aren’t more than enough being made the old way. Permanent youth? There aren’t enough occupiable university buildings to go around. Surely, genetic control is not just around the corner. Asia and Africa still hunger. Even America has a nutritional problem (among others). Let us try to master birth control before setting out to conquer genetic control. The futurists do not operate that way. The times are changing, they warn, faster than ever. And they are right.

Even the average citizen today recognizes the important difference between change and rate-of-change, and the rapid acceleration of scientific and technological discovery. Suppose, for example, an electronically controlled, jet “spy” plane of the 1960s was somehow thrown back in time to 1930 and discovered. Its Instruments and structure would have perplexed scientists.

30 Years From Bafflement

In fact, says sci-fi editor John W. Campbell, “The best scientific minds of 1930 would have been completely baffled and unable to make any sense of the equipment. They might have concluded that it [was] either a Martian machine or it must have come from 10,000 years in the future.”

Not until after 1930 were such things as jet engines, complex guidance systems, microelectronics, lasers-masers or induced-radioactive elements even anticipated. But we take the exponential growth of such discovery for granted now; new marvels even fail to phase us. Campbell’s anecdote, however, illustrates what students of “knowledge” are saying: where knowledge once took 10,000 years or more to double, it now takes only 15 years.

Data Flow
Data Flow: Leaping growth as the data pile up

The incredible quantum leaps these figures represent obviously had drastic effects on man’s existence. Human history changed direction on a piece of stationery when Albert Einstein wrote his fateful letter suggesting the energy potentials of fissionable materials to President Roosevelt. The world at large was taken by surprise, and the changes wrought in the globe still reverberate. Forecasting such change is the paramount challenge to the people in the FB—the future-businessmen (FBM). They labor to ascertain the changes in the nature of change.

Glaring Light

The crush of the present also weighs. A society anxious not only about future discovery but about where we are going with what we know only now pays close attention to its FBM. To a society wracked with troubles—revealed suddenly by pervasive media as if a glaring light had been turned on in a dark room—the prophecies of the FBM seem even more essential. Especially so when they translate laboratory science into the metaphor of social policy. A need exists. It is filled.

The need is as old as man’s oracles, prophets, seers, medicine-men, journalists. It has long been a feature of modern economic and political life. But the FB’s scope and vision now encompass more and look farther. Popular examples abound: television’s “21st Century” series, the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or the book “The Year 2000” by Hudson Institute’s Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener, in the scenario format that speculates on triumph and tragedy alike. An important, continuing ten-year study goes on in Harvard’s “Program on Technology and Society.”

Media pulses across the board have quickened to the futurian forecast. Most of the newsweeklies and monthlies regularly drink from the more prestigious think tanks. A special economic section of the New York Times recently featured a spectrum of the FBM, among them Glen T. Seaborg, AEC chairman; scientist Rene Dubos; sociologist Daniel Bell, also chairman of the “Commission on the Year 2000,” and fellow Columbia scholar/consultant Zbigniew Brezezinski. Among the older FBM, who reach both forwards and backward, might be placed such minds as R. Buckminster Fuller and Lewis Mumford.

Tomorrow Is Yesterday

The names, and the literature, pile up. And one aspect of the FB worth noting in that its tomorrows often turn into yesterdays before the ink of prophecy is dry. Take this speculation on “future” youth from the “Year 2000” book: “Youth could be especially self-indulgent or alienated, as the identity confusion typical of adolescence is exacerbated by the confusion, normlessness, and anomie of the society.

“Indifference to moral and ethical values and irresponsibility would be combined with feelings of outrage about the vast discrepancies between the wealth of the rich nations and the poor,” the book continues. “In spite of the prominence of symbols of rebellion and non-conformity, these youth...would be subject to extreme fads of behavior and political, ethical, and religious ideas.”

It could be a gloss on last year’s headlines, but we know the present always contains the past. Modern life, someone has suggested, should be posted with the sign “Subject to change without notice.” Simon and Garfunkel croon “Slow down, you’re goin’ too fast...” The future rushes towards us from numerous fronts. “Freedom Now” became “Black Power” long ago. The pols look at population charts, note the teenage swell and start growing their sideburns. But our anxiety is measured in equal amounts of impatience and dread. “The future is now,” says Eric Hoffer,” and hope has turned into desire.”

Incredible Value!

“The times they are ‘achangin’”—and the values are too. “Kids in trouble, cities in crisis, nations in turmoil,” a radio newscaster plugs, “wherever it’s happening, you hear it first on WINS.” A New York movie critic writes, “It’s dirty—a combination of lust, impotence, vulgarity, nudity, neurosis, brutality, voyeurism, hatred and insanity that culminates in murder.” The really kinky must have recognized the film as an incredible bargain. The cinema managers did; the comment appeared inevitably in their ad to entice customers.

Perhaps these are merely minor symptoms in a society for which vaster changes are daily forecast. Many of the basic scientific prophecies will undoubtedly come to pass--(ectogenesis, increased longevity, human transplants and synthetic organs or parts).

Drugs, the man/machine symbiosis, tri-dimensional image reproduction will change our notions of what constitutes standard personality, intelligence, even reality. The news is full of major breakthroughs every week. Our knowledge promises to double more rapidly, creating the necessity of higher levels of assimilation and correlation, and continue to become the primary social tool of an increasingly privileged class of human beings. At least, this is forecast.

Prag East
Young Revolutionaries on the march in the East....

Prag West
.....and in the West

For What?

It is as one crosses the bridge from the realms of Science and fundamental research to Society and human problems that a question arises: longevity for what? At this end of the overpass, a somewhat different breed of FBM awaits. His crystal ball may be slightly cloudier than the scientist’s, but he has the words. And strung together, the words sway. This type of FBM, concerned with the implementation of the scientist’s discovery—or the policy application of the sociologist’s supposition—has assumed a new importance in today’s life patterns.

Star System

In a country devoted to the star system, they are rising constellations, sought out by government, industry, information media. They agree generally on some major aspects of future society (partly because they often refer to or corroborate each others’ prognostications) and while the portrait they paint of that society has definitely dark passages, the general emphasis is on control and planning. With no claim to being comprehensive, and with much compression, some of the primary features of that portrait:

• Planning and control are major factors of the “postindustrial” or “technetronic” society. Sophisticated technological concepts and electronic hardware (thus, technetronic) facilitate manifold planning techniques and contingency procedures. These extend and widen our “foresight,” allowing anticipation of problems on an interdisciplinary level and formulation of synergistic solutions.

• Thus, we move from a basically post-crisis, fragmented problem-solving sort of institution to a system of pre-crisis, interrelated institutions.

• As cities balloon into increasingly standardized, megalopolitan belts (“Bowash” = Boston-Washington; “Chipitts” = Pittsburgh-Chicago), former political structures—“old urban political elites”—are replaced by the technocratically skilled: the professional planners and information processors. These are the interdiscipline people who understand how to use the technetronic equipment, the Gestalt folks. Their power and influence grows. Our GNP and government leaders depend more and more on their skills.

• Ergo, their camp increases. The “technocrats” gradually take over the complex job of deciding what was formerly a matter of political debate. Forecast by many FBM to comprise about five per cent of society, they become a new elite, using mass media for more direct contact with the “public” (few FBM concur on or even venture the substance of this media contact; perhaps “the medium will be the massage”).

• A dual trend emerges from this general forecast: the media create a faster feedback loop, and the public feels an upsurge of “individuality”—of having a voice, of being recognized. The information coming the other way (presumably a primer on the workings of a more technocratized society) suggests a radical reshaping of values and status standards.

• The automated, cybernated systems are humming; the computers are busily gobbling the information, opening new horizons to the increasingly specialized (in synergistic studies!) technocrats. And an odd thing has happened: A society once founded on manufacturing and private property has become a postindustrial society, based on management institutions structured by technocrats who possess the skill and knowledge to handle the machines and the information (not to mention the money).

• In this society, increasingly dependent on ever more highly interrelated skills, education and research become the prime tokens of advancement and power. Universities and private research centers (destructive students notwithstanding) have become “elite” resevoirs of technocratic skills. Academe finally gets control of the button.

• Strains of rising leisure and changed values of personal worth become serious challenges to the public. Blocks of people, more aware of themselves, are feeling somewhat useless. Certain FBM suggest the creation of a huge social service “industry,” with educational overtones, may alleviate the problem; others imply inevitable violent upheavals resulting from feelings of worthlessness or alienation.

• Fewer and fewer people are making bigger and bigger decisions (and bigger money). Power becomes increasingly concentrated, less diffused, as old societal institutions crumble or atrophy.

Myopic Morals

This roster may seem ominously bleak, but the FBM take the measure of technological trends and look the grinning skull of the future unflinchingly in the eye. Myopic mortals who have been struggling over the decades to get in step with History or Progress are now faced with a new set of obligations. Here is what some of the FBM say:

• Brezezinski: “... in the political sphere, the increased flow of information and more efficient techniques of instant coordination need not necessarily prompt greater concentration of power…” One paragraph later, “…power will gravitate increasingly into the hands of those who control the information and can correlate it most rapidly.” (New York Times 1/6/69)

• Bell: “It would be absurd to aim at reducing the number of existing states—for historical, traditional, and political reasons. But all sorts of state functions could be ‘detached’ and taken over by multi-state or regional ‘compacts.’” (Life magazine article “Toward A Communal Society”)

• Bell: “...in the next 50 years, the university—and other centers of research—will become the primary institutions of society, not in the sense of wielding political power, but as possessing the scarcest and most necessary resources in the society.” (NYT 1/6/69, emphasis added)

Faustian Spiral

To their credit, the above FBM seem to be wrestling frankly with the spectre of bloc power concentration. The prospect of control and heightened achievement gives others something of a second wind in this contest:

• Seaborg: “We will have to use all the tools and knowledge of extended man—and certainly some yet-to-be discovered wisdom to eliminate the hunger, poverty and despair that still exist in the world…” (NYT 1/6/69)

At times, anticipation of control in a knowledge society causes the pronouncements of FBM to ring up in Faustian spirals. Says incisive Jesuit scholar Father Walter J. Ong: “If knowledge is power, knowledge of how to generate knowledge is power over power.” When this level has been reached, we can all breath easier: at that point, human problems will no longer have to face the dilemma of keeping up with technological discovery.

Blizzard, Blackout

The FBM are primarily concerned with positive values and positive solutions, but reading much of their conjecture with a radio newscast going at the same time can be blackly humorous. One might ask “who’s kidding whom?” or sigh plaintively “Brother, don’t I wish!” Order, planning, a measure of calm, a respite from crisis and abrasive factional wrangle—all would be blessed. But give the urban populace a dose of blizzard, blackout or garbage strike and their faith and patience in smoothly tooled predictions of coming efficiency and pre-crisis planning are sorely tried.

Still, it tends to gnaw that these FBM can sit with their envelope curves and Hahn-Strassman points, correlating the information, blithely peering ahead in a cool, objective way, seemingly undisturbed by the galloping dislocation outside their think-tank doors. Calmly, with an enviable discipline, they gaze beyond the smoke, sizing up the future, ticking off possible catastrophes matter-of-factly while talking of the university as the primary institution of the knowledge society—while outside, it looks like there may be no more universities left after the mad bombers are finished.

Miracle Drugs?

Which is why we need the FBM. It is no irony they rise in prominence during periods of advanced change and turmoil, or that their scientific analysis often answers problems wracking the present. Didn’t the ancients run to the oracles? And just to remind us how much we need them, they reject the notions of simple solutions or sweeping panaceas, every new miracle drug has its side effects; new solutions breed new problems. They are at one with the values of compromise and alternatives.

Doorway to an anxiously uncertain future (René Magritte’s “La Victoire”)

If one attempts to copy their ways, one naturally finds apparent contradictions emerging from the trends forecast above. One is the dilemma of growing public self-awareness and the developing technocracy. As we find wider feelings of “individuality” through education, urban experience or media exposure, the place of the individual in guiding a complex society shrinks. More people demand a voice in government, while fewer people formulate the policies that run it. The planning is too involved for the average individual to understand, so the checks and balances of the “old” politics become increasingly obsolete. Every action has its reaction and the pace picks up.

Bell has observed that a critical problem is how to give people “a sense of effective participation in [national] policy...” It is even more critical when people announce they will not be satisfied by “a sense,” but require a true “voice” or “share”—a piece of the action. The difference between “sense” and “voice” also helps illustrate the operational problem of those who govern in an era when individuality, and perhaps even pluralism, are becoming “obsolete.” (The title of an excellent “scenario” in the Kahn-Wiener book might serve as a label for this dilemma. It is called “Eroded Democracy Scenarios,” an arresting essay by Frank E. Armbruster).

One reason this future development commands interest is that it, too, is already occurring—with ugly results—in the realm of student youth, race relations, “community action” and national unity—and without the degree of technocratic consolidation forecast. As communications media closely follow all the noisome news, more and more people, recognizing their individualism, are banding together with others of their kind into vocal, violent collectives. (Strength in numbers! Us individuals have gotta stick together!) Suddenly, spokesmen turn up on our t.v. screens and in our print media. Usually, they denounce the System or the Establishment (which, in fact, has become increasingly difficult to locate or pinpoint). These spokesmen stick in the literature. They often become “authorities.” Many an instant celebrity has turned into an expert simply by his introduction into the morgue files of media, where journalists seeking “background” (and obliged to make their sources sound authoritative) tend to escalate a spokesmen’s credentials. But these are current problems.

Keeping Up

Looking ahead, in the same media, a few national leaders who have “technocrats” working on the societal problems try to mobilize the people’s support, to explain (in a language the people can understand) the complexity of the problem and the sophistication involved in correlating the information. The question is, can the leaders keep up with the people’s growing sense of individuality and the crush of burgeoning information? Meanwhile, the information is thrumming through the machines, modernizing and streamlining the already outmoded policies in which the people want a voice.

But surely, one might respond, this is too unbalanced a reaction, a fantasy when one looks at reality. New York Times writer William K. Stevens, interviewing Harvard’s “Program on Technology and Society” director Emmanuel Mesthene, recently reported, “In his view, the rise of the expert analyst and decision-maker places a heavier burden of citizenship on the individual than before, that is, the ordinary citizen must learn more and work harder at his public role—almost as hard as he does at his private career—if he is to understand what the technocrats are doing.” (International Herald Tribune 2/20/69; my emphasis).

Leisure to Learn

Here, the temptation to cite FBM musings on the challenges of a “leisure society” is strong. It seems we may require more leisure time to learn more and work harder at our public role. But the essence is elsewhere. Think of the small percentage of American voters who come out at election times and reread the above quoted paragraph. Or think of the relative abstraction, not to mention galloping hyperbole, with which issues are presented to the voters who do bother to turn out (how an issue is pitched vs. how it ends in legislation after committee filleting) and ask how an “ordinary citizen” is to understand what future technocrats are going to be doing. Sullen taxpayers are in for even nastier surprises.

A Hall of Mirrors
For the ordinary citizen: a Hall of Mirrors (Belgian Luc Peire’s “Mirror Room”)

Mr. Mesthene is right, of course, in his statement of the necessity of the citizen to keep current with the workings of his government. He will obviously need some help—even if inclined to give up a large part of his private life to learn what the government (constituted in part to assure him of a private life) is doing. What agency is likely to facilitate his “understanding?” The irony is a little mordant: the “university” again. Presumably, it will not only supply the minds and methods for running complex society but will also account for, or explain, its conduct to the people. One prays for its continuing integrity.

The Question: A Third Way?

The Harvard program director is further quoted: “If you go the full way of the technocratic elite you’ll wind up with a technocracy. But if you go the way of those who want full participation you’ll wind up with a chaos...The question is how to take advantage of the knowledge necessary to run a big, complex society without giving up the values of participation. The answer we’re looking for is a third way. We haven’t found it yet.”

A third way has been found, however, though it bends the sense of Mesthene’s conditions. The information-rich environment of Cambridge has bristled with images of its discoverers and applicants—Marx, Mao, Ho and Che. Finding a “third way” for America is a challenge worthy of Mesthene’s labors. He and other FBM are indeed involved in “inventing the future.”

Meanwhile, in the midst of rising tension and chaos around the globe, we anxiously wonder when the planning and order, when the pre-crisis phases will be ushered in and felt by the populace. For it is indeed crisis that strains and severely tests our doctrinal conventions today with a fierceness and frequency that leaves the average citizen frustrated and confused—even if he has a stake in the precipitation of crisis.

Americans’ notions of “democracy” are being subjected to some especially withering challenges at home and abroad. People are wondering if we ever really had a “democracy,” if a voice and a vote for each American (at that, only a share in approving or disapproving a relative abstraction) has ever been anything more than a comfortable myth. We have been discovering the “invisible man,” “the other America,” “the third world,” even the international “games people play.” Our faith and our patriotism are being sorely tested.

Dream vs. Nightmare

Democracy’s military involvements around the globe are bitterly disputed. The American dream of civil rights, true equality in opportunity, has turned into a nightmare of demagoguery in some sectors, as angry Black Nationalists indict the society as utterly racist. A vocal segment of our youth, of whose education we are so proud, call for either the overthrow or a complete overhaul of the “system” while treasuring as intellectual paradigms Mao and Marcuse. They find ready listeners. The democratizing effect of mass media has led to the international broadcasting of a Babel of conflicting voices. In his “Communal Society” essay, Bell implies that the proliferation of civic groups and associations, all competing for the mayoral ear in large urban centers, has helped to make our cities “almost ungovernable.”

These phenomena lead some to question the very roots of democracy. Can complex society really be run effectively by the one-man, one-vote system; is “rule by numbers” really feasible, or does it result in a convulsive and defeating pluralism? Can politicians operate efficiently when faced by progressively rapid feedback from the public (which feedback loops many politicians, in eagerness to demonstrate their compassion for the commonweal, hastened to set up—i.e., by ombudsmen, civilian review boards, storefront complaint centers, “listening posts”)? Still others, perceiving the relativity of democracy, wonder if the forecast technocratic elites will be any more than the old, diffused political network, tooled up by electronic media and amassing control in super agencies?


Finally, the prevalent metaphor of a “technocracy” (it is, in fact, more a metaphoric quantity than a ready reality, a way of thinking about extrapolated trends of the present)--which in its complexity, impersonality and pragmatic ethos bring up questions about the general “nature” of Western man. To what degree is he unbalanced by the technological change (and social upheaval) that surrounds him? To what degree can the structural system of a “technocracy” remain flexible to shifting human problems, or to human frailties? Can it adapt its workings to the speed—or lack of speed—with which modern man masters his educational duties of understanding its intricacies? Will postindustrial society prematurely surround a not-yet postindustrial man?

Questions, Questions

Apologies for so many questions. Doubtless, bigger questions and keener ways to ask them are already in the minds of others. I concentrate on the above because I see their signs around me; they beckon to other areas of debate which seem to steer society’s current course. These are the realms—the forbidden territories—of instinct and faith. They are the subjects of “The Future Business: II.”

Received in New York March 10, 1969.