Near-to-Far Future Forecasts

A trio of overview books anticipate the profound social changes of the coming decades

WHERE are we really headed?"These are bizarre times." At least we can all agree with this opening line of "The Popcorn Report," as well as Thomas Hine's assertion that "Tomorrow is running in all directions at once, toward boom and bust, heaven and hell." We are surely in an era of multiple transformations, with profound changes taking place in every sector of every society. But how do we get a grasp on what is changing and where we are headed? It is quite reasonable to seek out a book that gets it all together and gives us the "Big Picture." The problem is that there are a dozen or so candidates for our attention, each with a distinctive message of at least some value. And they compete with newspapers and magazines promising that "We Make Sense of It All for You." The problem of multiple perceptions of our multiple transformations was avoided in the Reagan era of happy-face reality evasion. The easily digested solution was John Naisbitt's books, "Megatrends" (1982) and "Megatrends 2000" (1990). Each bestseller listed 10 key trends that were pleasant to contemplate - or at least not threatening. A global economic boom, renaissance in the arts, more women in leadership, and triumph of the individual - all from Naisbitt's 1990 megalist - are trends that many would like to believe in, even if the supporting evidence is arguable. Putting the big problems on the back burner while whistling a happy tune can only last for a while, even for Republicans. Three new social-overview books, each very different from the other, reflect this new and necessary sobriety. Similar to "Megatrends" I and II, "The Popcorn Report" boils down everything to the 10-trend formula - which is not necessarily a bad way to focus on essentials. Popcorn improves on the "Megatrends" method, which purported to get its wisdom from scanning newspapers, by reading the cultural tea leaves in a variety of print and visual media. The key to the top-10 list by the unforgettable Faith Popcorn (nee Plotkin, she confesses in a footnote) is perhaps "Trend 9": the tendency for nearly all of us to try to live "99 Lives." We have never been busier, nor lived our lives faster, just to get everything done. The acceleration of life, also noted by a few other observers such as British sociologist Michael Young and technology-critic Jeremy Rifkin, is a master trend deserving more attention. The antidote to the stress of "99 Lives" leads to four other trends. The first is "Cocooning," or huddling in our high-tech and controllable caves. Popcorn first predicted this in the late 1970s and seems to have made her reputation on this concept. Second, we seek "Fantasy Adventure" or risk-free risk-taking sought with imaginative desperation. We also seek "Small Indulgences" now - an upscale ice-cream cone serving as prototype reward. And at least some of us are involved in "Cashing Out" by getting off the urban fast track and running an antique shop in the country or, vicariously, listening to down-home Garrison Keillor. The five other trends are a "nicer narcissism" than that of the departed Me Decade ("Egonomics"), reinterpreting the definition of aging ("Down-Aging"), our hyper-quest for health ("Staying Alive"), the next generation of protesters to make corporations listen (the "Vigilante Consumer"), and saving our society (the "S.O.S. trend") through any effort to make the 1990s "our first truly socially responsible decade: the Decency Decade, dedicated to the three critical E's, Environment, Education, and Ethics." The last two trends are heavy on the ideological flavoring. Put these 10 trends together and you have the keys to marketing goods and services in the 1990s, as Madison Avenue consultant Popcorn intones. Even if you aren't in the business of selling, Popcorn does have good intuitive smarts about where American culture is headed in the short-term. She exaggerates a lot to make her points, but the grains of gut-truth are worth sorting out from the pounding prose of modern-day business-speak. "Facing Tomorrow" also confronts American culture, but in a reflective style quite the opposite of Popcorn's frenetic pace and chopped-up mini-chapters. Thomas Hine, a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of "Populuxe," confines his thoughts to a handful of chapters that effectively get to the heart of where we are today. His key concept is "The End of the Future," our death-of-progress psychic condition where no compelling, comprehensive vision of the future has captured the American ima gination for at least two decades. "Our culture is like a child raised without adults." Or, "The future was once a radiant city; now it's a slum." We arrive at this condition because the technology- and consumption-driven future of personal expansiveness outlived its usefulness. A "useful future" is needed, though, to provide a foundation for hope. AFTER stepping back to consider the history of "Oracles, Prophecies, and Utopias" from Biblical times to the present, Hine touches the necessary modern bases for any serious overview, with discussions on world population and resources, the potential uses of technology, working and living in the information society, and human environments. Hine concludes with a plea for "subtle" direction. Using the metaphor of the Red Delicious apple, crafted for convenience and looks but without much pleasure, he points to "a subtler apple" designed with greater emphasis on nourishment and taste and less on uniform looks and availability in time and space. He says that this will require redefining progress, taking the "vast machinery of modern society off automatic pilot," and imagining our lives with more meaning but possibly fewer things. "2020 Visions," by economist Richard Carlson and journalist Bruce Goldman, takes a longer and broader view than either of the above two books, but does not consider a near-term shift in values (what Popcorn calls a "socioquake"). The key theme is that we are at the beginning of World War IV - an economic conflict between the highly developed nations that the United States is losing, after winning the World War III cold war. The authors provide virtually encyclopedic coverage of numerous topics, such as the birth of a global economy (and its dark side of dividing haves and have-nots), the emerging world order of megastates, changing United States demographics, dealing with a mountain of debt, the "technotopia" of the next 30 years, the education gap between the US and its rivals, the likely advent of national health insurance by 2010, global environmental management by 2020, a return to neighborhood identity, more tolerance across religious and cultural groups, the political logjam at the US federal level, and environmentalism as the political movement to watch in the next century. Political and economic organization are seen as the keys to success of a modern society. The book points out that if the United States is to avoid the fate of an Argentina, it can and must rethink a variety of policies and follow the lead of Europe's Economic Community. Indeed, "The United States is moving toward economic and ultimately political union that will extend at least throughout North America and the Caribbean." Things ought to be clearer after reading any of these three books - or more confusing, especially if all three are read. But that's the price of living in a more subtle society and equipping oneself for World War IV.

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