America's coming renaissance

DESPITE recent signs of recovery, there remains an economic discontent in America. The shadows of double-digit inflation and rising interest rates still stalk the land. Some Americans worry that their future will be worse than the present - which, they may feel, is not as good as the past.

Against this backdrop of economic jitters comes the soft voice of William F. Miller. As president of SRI International, a distinguished and diverse research and consulting organization, he stands at the top of an impressive pyramid of expertise. And from this vantage point he is delivering an unexpectedly upbeat message these days: A number of signs point, he feels, toward a future not of faded glory but of cultural and economic renaissance for the United States.

The little-noticed engine of this renaissance, is, he believes, a fundamental shift in basic American values, which is sparking an unprecedented outburst of entrepreneurial activity. The basic tools of transformation will be high-technology. And its institutional midwife will be the venture-capital community.

Some may dismiss Dr. Miller as a technological optimist, one who believes that new machines can solve all human problems. But in discussing his reasoning amid the filtered sunlight and the early Saturday morning hush at SRI, this physicist-turned-computer-expert, academic administrator, business executive, and venture capitalist displays a breadth of knowledge and concern which makes it hard to consign him to such a narrow role.

A slight man dressed in a well-tailored three-piece suit, Miller is physically unprepossessing. He talks softly and slowly and does not try to overwhelm others with a display of erudition. But as he speaks he reveals a breadth of experience and an ability to draw connections between widely diverse elements in the panorama of human affairs, which give his conclusions added weight.

''My job here is basically one of integrator, trying to fit the pieces together,'' Miller says.

This is certainly the case with his optimistic scenario of America's future, a theme which he is developing into a book. All the elements in his argument have been discussed elsewhere. But Miller has tried to step back, put the pieces together, and explore their implications.

He predicts, in a word, a renaissance. By this he does not mean a golden age or a paradise. (''The Renaissance was pretty messy,'' he says. ''The coming period is likely to be the same.'') Rather, it will be a period of dynamic cultural and economic change and revitalization.

He sees a number of forces, each with both positive and negative aspects, that are working together to bring about such a cultural and economic flowering. Among them:

* A revolution in values. ''The industrial world is undergoing a fundamental change in values,'' he says, ''something as profound as the values revolution that took place between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.'' People are turning away from materialism for its own sake. They are no longer loyal to old institutions.

These ''new-value'' people make up less than a quarter of the population, but they are well-educated and have already made their views count. They are more inner-directed than their predecessors, more committed to issues like world peace, environmental protection, affirmative ac-tion, and women's issues. While just as hard-working as past generations, they are turning away from the corporate world because they feel smaller, more entrepreneurial companies are more challenging and rewarding.

* Information revolution. The nation is well into the transition between an industrial and an information economy. Information and people are becoming the key strategic resources, surpassing land and capital in importance. Information is a much different kind of resource. It is difficult to put a value on it. The more it is used, the more it is worth. It tends to be democratic, empowering the individual and disempowering institutions.

California is perhaps the best model of an information-based economy. The experience here indicates that information technologies are job-creating, not job-destroying. From 1973 to 1980 California added half a million jobs a year, about 60 percent in high-technology.

''Throughout history new technologies have always created more jobs than they have destroyed, although they tend to produce dislocations and painful adjustments during transitional stages such as this,'' he notes.

* Emerging technologies of the 1980s. Five technologies will be the driving forces in economic progress: information technology, new materials, factory and office automation, biotechnology, and health and medical technologies.

Information technologies have been the major agent of economic change for some time and will continue to be so for the next 20 or 30 years. Automation is on the verge of dramatically increasing the productivity of office workers. The factory of the future - well stocked with computers, robots, and human caretakers - will not take shape for another decade. Biotechnology, the use of genetic engineering in everything from improving plants to making new chemicals, will take hold in the 21st century and will have a truly revolutionary impact.

The pace of introduction of new technologies will explode in coming years because research begun after World War II is beginning to bear fruit. At the same time, global economic competition is spurring corporations to capitalize on new scientific ideas and the flow of venture capital into new technology is increasing. The nation is experiencing an explosion of entrepreneurship.

* New entrepreneurship and the coming burst of productivity. In 1950, 93,000 new companies were incorporated in the US. From 1980 to 1982, the number of incorporations ran at an unprecedented level of nearly 600,000 annually despite the recession. Thus, there are many new high-tech start-up companies pursuing the billions of dollars of venture capital that has become available. This combination is shortening the time it takes to translate a scientific discovery into a marketable product from about 20 years to as little as 5 years.

These factors will produce a dramatic spurt in stagnant productivity, creating new wealth and prosperity. ''The US will be dealing with the twin problems of unemployment and inflation for another three to four years,'' Miller says. But after that these problems should fade.

* Corporate and government responses. Corporate leaders are pouring more money into research and development. In 1982, private R&D spending surpassed public support for the first time in decades. Large companies like IBM and AT&T are seeking new ideas outside their organizations. Many companies are restructuring themselves to encourage entrepreneurism.

Politicians have also discovered high-technology. Ronald Reagan is a self-proclaimed apostle of high-tech. And Congress shows every sign of trying to one-up him on the issue. States and communities are vying to attract high-technology firms.

''Many observers have suggested that the US has lost the high-tech race to foreign competitors,'' Miller continues. ''We have lost ground in some areas and completely lost out in others. But the Japanese and Europeans don't think we're out of the race, and neither do we at SRI.''

* Crisis in education. ''Two hundred years ago, it was almost preordained that Japan and the US would today be competing head to head because the two countries are the most passionately devoted to education and development of the intellect in the world. We have let this slip for the last 10 or 15 years. But we are now recovering.''

Education, particularly technical education, is crucial to the economic future of the United States. There are two major educational tasks which represent a challenge ''as great as anything we have faced in recent history.'' One is upgrading public education. The second is retraining the 15 percent of the work force whose present jobs will disappear by 1990.

Today, 50 percent of high school graduates are functionally illiterate. This represents a high cost to society in welfare ($6 billion a year) and in unrealized earnings (some $237 billion annually). In addition, only one-third of US high school graduates take three years of mathematics, and half the students entering even the best universities can't write coherently, Miller says.

Worker retraining is a more immediate problem: ''I'm often asked whether we can afford to retrain our work force. My answer is that we cannot afford not to do so.''

Tax incentives are needed to encourage private corporations to train people for existing jobs. The labor unions could play a major role in this process as well. If these issues are not addressed, they could put a damper on the American renaissance, Miller believes.

While Dr. Miller sees these forces coming together to create a cultural and economic flowering in the US, he is well aware of the pitfalls of prophesy. There are wild-card events, such as war or world economic collapse, which would nip such a development in the bud, he cautions. But, short of unforeseen cataclysm, he thinks there is every reason to believe that the nation's future, while radically different from its past, will be challenging, exciting, and even more prosperous than ever before.

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