'Megatrends'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

If you trust John Naisbitt's crystal ball, you probably would:

* Move to Tampa, Fla., buy an ''electronic cottage,'' and decorate it with blues, pinks, and folk art.

* Begin attending language classes - Spanish and computer.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

* Get a job in the computer software industry.

* Discourage your offspring's aspirations to become president and steer them toward the state legislature. Or better yet, into engineering.

* Learn how to learn - you'll be doing it for the rest of your life.

Florida? The state legislature? Spanish? Is this guy some sort of states'-rights sun-worshiper?

Not at all. John Naisbitt, a one-time Utah sugar-beet farmer, executive at IBM and Kodak, and then special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson, has spent the last nine years telling the nation's large corporations what today's events bode for their future. He and his associates at the Naisbitt Group dismember more than 200 daily newspapers, seeking patterns and trends in the 15 million or so lines of newsprint they scan each year.

Now, with his hot-selling, highly lauded new book ''Megatrends,'' he's presenting his forecasts to the public.

Across the tablecloth at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Mr. Naisbitt sits percolating. His eyes steam with intensity, but his words are soft and fatherly. ''We're living in a difficult period. What's happening to America has not happened for 150 years - we're changing economies. There are great uncertainties. But we've got to make uncertainty our friend.'' He speaks with a serene confidence that inspires the listener with hope.

''The message is that we can be victims of these great changes, or we can make these great changes work for us.'' How? Naisbitt's firm conviction is that ''you learn about the future only by really, truly learning about the present.'' Unfortunately, he observes dryly, America today is ''a society of events; we just move from one event to another, not noticing very much the process that's going on underneath.''

''The book is an effort to try to put all the pieces together,'' Naisbitt explains, an attempt to draw patterns and provide structure so ''people understand where the events fit in.''

''Megatrends'' brings hopeful news. In it, Naisbitt claims America is not an economically decaying, morally bereft society reliving ''The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.'' In fact, the United States holds the keys to a new kingdom: the information age.

America's principal product of the future will be the creation and distribution of information, technology, and expertise, Naisbitt says. The computer, with its video display screen and software, will be the essential tool of this new age, infiltrating everywhere - from the urban town house to the rural ranch, the 45th-floor executive suite to the family-run corner market.

But in response to the rapid proliferation and use of impersonal technologies , there will be increased need for what Naisbitt calls ''high touch'' - more desire to be with one another, with nature. And there will be a continuation of the current religious revival, although not necessarily abetting established, traditional churches.

On the political scene, Naisbitt sees other trends: It doesn't matter who is president anymore, he insists, or who is filling the seats on Capitol Hill. Power resides at the state and local levels, in places like Carson City, Nev., St. Paul, Minn., and Talahassee, Fla., not in Washington. Already, the electronic media and communications satellites mean that all discoveries, news events, and other information are shared instantaneously. This capability is nudging the US toward a grass-roots direct democracy. Look at nuclear-freeze referendums, Naisbitt says. They were not Washington-based initiatives, they were the result of grass-roots movements. And they were passed by voters in eight out of nine states in November.

Meanwhile, says Naisbitt, many industrial cities of the North are crumbling, sending Americans in growing numbers to the Southwest and Florida, where most of the real innovation and change is taking place today.

Glancing at this blond-bearded man clad in a gray pin-stripe suit, one might think he was a member of the clergy. Often his subtle voice is almost lost in the clatter of dishes and customers that resonates through the restaurant. But his sermons have a different message: ''If you sense that computers are kind of a linchpin to everything that's going on,'' and he is certain this is true, ''it seems to me you would decide that you were going to find out what a computer is, what it can do, and learn how to run it; because that's so much a part of the present, not to mention the future.

''If you don't do that, you're ignoring the present.''

Naisbitt stopped ''ignoring the present'' about 18 years ago, while working as a special assistant to President Johnson. Deeply enmeshed in Johnson's Great Society programs, he spent hours pacing the White House halls, wondering ''what the impact would be of all the legislation that we were battering up to the Hill.''

He met frustration. ''What I discovered was that I couldn't find out what was going on now, let alone what might go on in the future. There was nothing to turn to. . . .''

''Then one day I was reading Bruce Catton's Civil War books and I suddenly realized that yes, he was using newspapers of the day as a primary source of material'' - reconstructing events by scouring local tabloids.

''I went out to a newsstand and I bought about 50 out-of-town newspapers. And I was absolutely stunned what I learned in three hours about what was going on in America.'' So what we [at the Naisbitt Group] do is look at the local events that are happening today and see what the patterns are that are emerging.''

This process is called content analysis, which Naisbitt first used in 1968 after leaving the Johnson administration. It was earlier employed by the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) in Washington during World War II to read the barometer of Hitler's Germany.

The way newspapers generally work is that, over time, important events surface and begin to command more and more column inches, forcing other events to dwindle. For example, the Naisbitt Group found that civil rights issues - which filled a large portion of papers in the 1960s - were gradually usurped almost line for line by articles about the environment through the early '70s. And his group tracked the shift in concerns from racism ('60s) to sexism (early '70s) to ageism (late '70s to the present).

Naisbitt has corralled content analysis and transformed it into a multimillion-dollar business. His clients - Atlantic Richfield, International Telephone & Telegraph, Sears, Roebuck, and 67 others - pay $15,000 a year for his quarterly publication, The Trend Report. In addition, he has taken his trends on the road. Over 100 corporations each paid him $5,000-plus to hear him last year, and he recently won a top speechmaking award.

From his reading of local daily newspapers, Naisbitt has become convinced that ''the only important things that happen in society are those things that come from the bottom up.'' One bold-lettered phrase in his book proclaims: ''Despite the conceits of New York and Washington, nothing really starts there.''

Instead, he identifies five ''bellwether'' states in which the majority of America's social invention is taking place - Florida, Colorado, Washington, Connecticut, and California. California started the physical-fitness and ballot-referendum (Proposition 13) trends; Colorado gave us the ''sunset laws'' (terminating government agencies unless renewed by acts of the legislature); Connecticut elected the first woman governor and passed the initial worker's right-to-know laws; Washington was the first to outlaw mandatory retirement; and Florida brought us the boom in condominiums and time-sharing vacations.

Naisbitt foresees Florida becoming the leading bellwether state. He reasons that the challenges of a large aging population in Florida foreshadow those the entire country will face in coming decades. And Miami, he says, will become the center for a booming trade with Latin American nations, whose Spanish culture and language will soon infiltrate every level of American society.

But even as power, innovation, and change become localized, Naisbitt sees a world more closely knit than ever before, tied together by international trade and electronic communication.

''You know the saying 'Think globally, act locally'? That's perfect advice for the information age.'' In Naisbitt's eyes, this is already taking place. He cites the hundreds of companies that deal with countries all over the world. ''We're just part of a global economy - it might lead to California's having a foreign policy,'' he ponders. ''Maybe they already do.''

Often, when he speaks to groups of America's corporate bosses, Naisbitt asks them, ''How many in this room own stock in the Tokyo Stock Exchange? London Stock Exchange? Singapore?'' No hands go up, he reports.

But when he puts a similar question to a London or a Tokyo audience, he finds that most of them own stock on several exchanges around the world. With gentle but persistent swoops of his hands, Naisbitt drives home his point: ''It's so hard for us Americans to think global. I catch myself all the time being provincial.'' He explains that several years ago ''when I was thinking about buying stocks, I suddenly realized that I only was thinking about the New York and American exchanges. So I bought some stock on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, and I want to look at buying stock in London and Singapore.'' (His stock in a Japanese robotmaker has done well for him.)

''For example,'' he says, zeroing in on another of his favorite topics, ''you can't understand, perhaps, that the automobile industry is not coming back, the steel industry is not coming back, by just looking at the US. But if you look at it globally you can see that we will continue to lose our squirrel's share of market as those things are increasingly made by other countries.''

And who will take over the role of industrial manufacturer?

The third world, Naisbitt answers. Countries like Taiwan, South Korea, and Brazil will provide the next surge of industrial activity. ''Then there's a wave behind that,'' probably including countries in Africa and more in Latin America, ''and a wave behind that.''

Once we recognize our global context, he continues, America will realize that its place as industrial kingpin is gone forever. Then it will begin to fill its new role as innovator for the world. ''It's not by chance that, if you add the three we got this year, we have 98 Nobel Prize-winners and Japan has two. Because their monolithic society - and they'd be the first to tell you this - is the reverse of ours.''

''We are tremendous at creativity and innovation because we have such a rich ethnic racial mix in the US.'' He sees our principal new task as designing and producing computer software. (The Japanese will build the hardware.)

Naisbitt advises that, once the US recognizes its new place in the world, it should ''not squander our energies and our capital on old declining industrial tasks,'' like auto and steel, but to reeducate the work force to fit information-age jobs.

Here, in reference to employment, Naisbitt makes some of his most striking predictions. ''What's coming is a labor shortage,'' probably within five years. He says that during the 1970s, according to the findings of David Birch at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ''we created 20 million new jobs. Only 5 percent of those 20 million new jobs were in manufacturing. Only 5 percent.m And only 11 percent in goods-producing.'' Right now, he asserts, as it moves between the industrial and information ages, the US is contending with structural unemployment: ''We're losing more jobs from the industrial side than we're adding on the information side. But the information side is accelerating and that gap will close.''

Creating imaginary men with his fingers on the tablecloth, he draws an analogy. ''Here you have one unemployed auto worker. He's the victim type.'' He stays in Detroit, collects unemployment, and ''believes that some day the automobile industry will come back.''

''Then you have another unemployed auto worker who says, 'Well, I'm not sure this is ever going to happen. Doesn't look too good to me. Let's go where the jobs are.' The jobs are in the Southwest and Florida. So that person moves there , gets into another line of work, and is gainfully employed again.''

This country, he says, must recognize the value of reeducation - as the Germans and Japanese have. They already have corporate programs for this. He suggests that US companies follow suit soon. ''People say, 'Gosh, how are we going to retrain those auto workers?' As if they're a bunch of dummies! Intelligence is distributed equally through that group as any group.''

In the information age, learning will be a mandatory, lifelong commitment. In essence, Naisbitt asserts, we must forsake today's narrow specialism and become generalists. ''The advice I have for young people is learn how to learn. Because you're going to be involved in a lifelong learning process, adapting and changing. Maybe changing careers, etc.'' And learn how to use a computer, Naisbitt intones again. ''It's a great tool for handling complexity,'' he says, for it can run through vast amounts of information and select only the data you need.

But even as high-tech comes of age, ''high-touch'' is emerging.

''The scenario for sitting at home with our computer and tapping out messages to the office is a very limited one. My line about that is that it's OK for emergencies, like Mondays. But for the most part people want to be with people.'' A slight smile grows on his face as he confidently relates that we'll be ''going to the office, going shopping, going to movies, going to restaurants, getting together for any excuse as the counterbalance to an incredible amount of technology in society.''

''High-touch'' means nature hikes will be more common; homes will be decorated with soft pastel colors and artwork that is personal, emotional. Furthermore, he feels that an essential part of this balancing act will be a deep reexamination of nonmaterial values. ''What's resulting is that we're more and more examining our own humanity as we more and more technologize our communities.''

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