Examining the future -- with 'Megatrends' author John Naisbitt

UNTIL recently, trend analyst John Naisbitt didn't even need a secretary. But now, 900,000 copies and 16 months after the release of his best seller ''Megatrends,'' Naisbitt needs two. His speaking schedule is among the heaviest in the country; his audiences, ranging from Boy Scouts to Standard Oil executives, are among the most diverse.

And now, with the softcover edition of ''Megatrends'' in the stores, the saga continues. In February, the paperback climbed immediately to No. 1 in the non-fiction charts, where, ironically, it jockeyed for popularity for a while with George Orwell's ''1984,'' then topping the fiction charts. Ironic, because the two books present social scenarios that are about as similar as salt and pepper.

Where Orwell's novel describes a state held in a stranglehold of centralized power, Naisbitt's analysis indicates that America today is going through a period of intense decentralization (characterized by private charity, self-help, and a reawakening to community issues and local initiatives) in which the traditional centers of power (Washington, D.C., New York City) are often behind, rather than ahead of the times. Further, the Orwellian theme of mass uniformity has no part in Naisbitt's ''multiple option'' society, where people have more diverse products and services to choose from than ever before. And if Orwell ends his scenario darkly, pessimistically, ''Megatrends'' ends with a yawp of optimism: In the final line of the book, Naisbitt writes, ''. . . what a fantastic time to be alive!''

Apparently, the author still feels this way. He made no changes in the paperback edition of ''Megatrends.'' ''All I did was rewrite the intro,'' he told the Monitor, and ''update the statistical data from the 1979 figures to 1982 figures.''

These figures, compiled by the author's business consulting firm, the Naisbitt Group, are obtained using a research process called ''content analysis.'' First legitimized by wartime intelligence agencies, the process spots budding trends by compiling data from thousands of local newspapers. Content analysis has been one of the selling points of the book, since it offers supporting data rather than theory.

Nonetheless, one social scientist's data is another's wishful thinking, and, since ''Megatrends'' does make sweeping statements about shifts in culture, Naisbitt has made himself a target. Perhaps the most scathing public attack came in last August's edition of Harper's magazine in which an article more satiric than substantive labeled Naisbitt's work as ''megabaloney.''

But there is also a gallery of informed Naisbitt critics - some partially sympathetic, others virulent.

Social analyst Walter Truett Anderson is a little of both. He feels Naisbitt makes too many claims for his research process. ''There is a weakness in connection between (Naisbitt's) proof and his statements,'' Anderson says. ''In the book he makes an impression of having a great empirical source of data for all his material when in fact he may have a tremendous amount of data for one statement and almost none for another.'' But in terms of general direction, Anderson adds, ''the book is an important one.''

In his recent speeches, Naisbitt has characterized the past few years as an ''end of denial'' for the United States. During a whirlwind book tour that brought the author to Boston, Naisbitt elaborated to this reporter on what he feels that means:

messed up quote ''For several years we spent all our energy denying that our industrial base was declining. Now there is a general acknowledgement that it is. So energies are starting to go into addressing the problem and taking advantage of opportunities. I don't think there is a recession, and I don't think we are going through a recovery. We are actually changing economies. One - the economy based on the computer - is accelerating; the other - the economy based on the car - is declining. At the same time, the number of people in the work force is declining as the baby boomers trail off. Unemployment has gone down 25 percent in the last 14 months, and it will continue to go down as the accelerating economy takes off. Further, I think we will be back to full employment in three years, and that there will be labor shortages between now and then.

However, he adds that ''in the new economy, thousands of computer and software companies may go under. That is a measure of the vitality of a new economy. In the first part of this century, when we began making autos, there were hundreds of auto companies, 2,300 to be exact. There was a long shakeout period - and we ended up with only a handful.''

Naisbitt held forth on a number of issues. The global economy is the greatest force for world peace, he said, adding that as the world becomes even more economically interdependent ''businessmen may become more important than politicians in keeping it together.'' He adds that the downing of the Korean Air Lines Flight 7 by the Soviets last August) ''didn't cause a single change in our economic relationship with the Soviets.''

The current level of technological achievement prompts many Americans today to be concerned about achieving a better ''quality of life,'' Naisbitt says. ''During the long industrial period that has just ended, when we wanted to locate a plant somewhere, we looked for things like transportation, availability of water, resources. But in an information economy we can put a facility where we want. We look for good schools, good climate, cultural opportunities, recreation - quality of life.''

Naisbitt has high hopes for American prosperity, and he is well paid and much sought after for what he knows. Yet in this area of study he realizes he doesn't have all the answers.

''It is true that America is wonderfully positioned in terms of a global economy,'' he says. ''Yet there are tremendous problems in the area of human resources. I don't think anyone has figured that out yet. What do you do about the hardcore unemployed - the people that wouldn't have jobs no matter what happens? What about our aging population? Social security is really catching up with us. And what about assembly-line workers who are less assertive, less entrepreneurial, who have not moved to the Sunbelt, who are still unemployed?

''I think we are going to make it. But its going to be a bumpy ride.''

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