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Book Review

The Future and Its Enemies

Virginia Postrel (1998).   Free Press (218 Pages) $25.95

©  Fred Nickols 2000

 

This review appeared in the Journal of Management Consulting.

The dust cover for Virginia Postrelís book displays FUTURE and ENEMIES in much larger text than the other title words, providing a less than subtle hint about the focus of her book.

The enemies of the future include the usual suspects: reactionaries and technocrats. Surprisingly, they also include certain liberals and conservatives, whether Democrat or Republican, as well as some hawks and doves and some of those on the left and the right. In short, the enemies of the future donít fit any conventional category. They include all those who want to keep things the way they are or who want them to change only under tight, central control in accordance with a master plan.

Because the protagonists in Ms. Postrelís view of the world transcend conventional categories, she has coined two new terms. The protagonists are called "dynamists." Her antagonists defy conventional labeling, too, and are called "stasists." The dynamists embrace a world of "constant creation, discovery and competition" and the stasists search for "a regulated, engineered world." As she writes in the introduction to her book:

To stasists "the future is scary, progress a fantasy, and technology suspect."

"Stasists demand that knowledge be articulated and easily shared. Dynamists, by contrast, appreciate dispersed, often tacit knowledge."

"Stasists seek specifics to govern each new situation and keep things under control. Dynamists want to limit universal rule making to broadly applicable and rarely changed principles, within which people can create and test countless combinations."

The future, Ms. Postrel argues, is unknowable. Moreover, progress happens not as the result of carrying out a carefully orchestrated plan but as a consequence of unbounded experimentation, a process of trial and error. This process occurs in an open-ended or "infinite series" of experiments and changes instead of goal-bound and plan-driven stages. Opposed to this emergent view of progress are those who want no progress at all and those who want to control it.

In addition to clearly relevant subject matter and an easy-to-read writing style, the examples she provides makes Ms. Postrelís book worth reading, and particularly worth reading for management consultants. To borrow a term she seems fond of using, there is a "plenitude" of examples illustrating the tension between those who want to get on with moving into what is essentially an open-ended future and those who either donít want any change at all (the reactionaries) or those who want it very carefully controlled (the technocrats).

Her examples provide humor and food for thought. One moment youíll be chuckling over the boneheaded state bureaucrats whose cosmetology licensing test Vidal Sassoon refused to take until it was revised and in the next youíll be reflecting on the process by which the doughnut market in Los Angeles came to be dominated by Cambodians. Or perhaps, like me, youíll find yourself musing over the incomprehensible irresponsibility of Florida regulators who refused to allow out-of-state contractors in to help with emergency repairs in the wake of hurricane Andrew. In any event, her examples are real and striking. If nothing else, they provide a wealth of anecdotes upon which all change-minded consultants can draw.

Ms. Postrelís enthusiastic attacks on regulation carries her a bit too far in at least one instance. Commenting on the FDAís 1992 decision to place a moratorium on silicone-gel breast implants, Ms. Postrel writes, "But the scientific evidence that implants cause serious health problems is nonexistent." Well, I found that surprising, so I looked into the matter. I did a little web searching and I spoke with two knowledgeable research physicians at the FDA. According to them, Ms. Postrelís statement is not true. Breast implants rupture and there is growing evidence that ruptured breast implants do indeed cause "serious health problems." In Ms. Postrelís defense, what these two experts also acknowledged is that breast implants are not the cause of any sizable increase in diseases of the connective tissue or of breast cancer. In any event, reading The Future and Its Enemies can be educational.

My guess is that Virginia Postrelís book is going to be widely read and then widely discussed and debated. I know I bought a copy for my CEO. As Tom Peters is quoted as saying on the jacket, "Itís the best damn nonfiction Iíve read in years!"

Note: Virginia Postrel is the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for Forbes and Forbes ASAP. Her work appears regularly in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Wired magazine.

Hardcopy $25.00                                             Paperback $13.00

Postrel1 (4768 bytes)                                            Postrel2 (7136 bytes)

Link to Amazon.com                                   Link to Amazon.com



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