This review appeared in the
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
"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.