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The Consumer Republic: Future Imperfect

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When it comes to predicting the future, a growth industry as the millennium approaches, the world is divided between the optimists and the pessimists. Optimists, who see a future of daunting challenges and limitless opportunities, make handsome livings spinning these scenarios for business--since their message is what CEOs want to hear. Pessimists, whose grimmer predictions don't play well in the marketplace, are usually academics or journalists.
Recently, as the stock market tumbled and the future seemed a much scarier place, I sat down to read optimistic and pessimistic visions of the coming world. On the sunny side of the street is the 1997 book The 500 Year Delta: What Happens After What Happens Next by Jim Taylor, global marketing director at Gateway 2000, and Watts Wacker, resident futurist at SRI Consulting. The title metaphor is meant to describe our current condition, where the rules of the old world are crumbling. Downriver, however, lies the Age of Possibility, a golden era of individuality, democracy and consumer marketing.
Those who go with the chaotic flow, who can dump outworn relics like cause-and-effect thinking and possess the requisite intellectual capital in a world where ideas are king--those, in short, who closely resemble the authors themselves--will inherit the earth. The good news is delivered in a hail of bullet points, great gusts of sweeping generalizations and a glossary of would-be Popcornisms such as "nanostalgia" and "thrival skills." No doubt clients eat this stuff up in presentations.
On the dark side is the sober Eugene Linden, a freelance writer for Time and other publications. His recently published book, The Future in Plain Sight, is short on English-torturing buzzwords and long on intellectual niceties fatal to success on the biz-consultant circuit: It dutifully cites evidence that contradicts its thesis. Linden's argument is that the highly stable world of the present--50 years without a major war or financial collapse nested in 150 years of extreme climate stability--is an anomaly. He gives nine visible signs that our stable systems--financial markets, climate, the biosphere--are "tipping" into instability. He then leaps to the year 2050 to imagine life in places such as London, central Africa, Kansas and the Philippines. We find society intact, but with one big difference: It is no longer a consumer society.
Considering how different these books are in temperament, their visions of the future coincide on a remarkable number of points. Both books predict a financial collapse, the inexorable growth of megacities, disturbances in the biosphere, epidemics, the growing influence of spirituality and the waning faith in scientific rationality.
Yet Linden, stuck on the old-fashioned notion that cause is followed by effect, actually tries to imagine the consequences of these events. In The 500 Year Delta, we're supposed to believe that the stock market crashes, rogue viruses ravage the population and a bio-accident "threatens the future of the world"--none of which stops the consumer from marching toward the "Four New Freedoms: To Be, To Do, To Go, To Know."
This is why the book's subtitle doesn't ring true. It's not about what comes next, let alone what happens after that. It's a book about the present, entirely envisioned within the limits the present imposes on our imaginations. While the authors insist the "only true constant" of the future "is acceleration of change itself," their vision depends on one system remaining eternal and unchanging: consumer society itself. But what if it's not?
Linden attempts an answer in his chapter on New York in 2050, focusing on a meeting of ad execs creating a campaign for a perfume. His scenario ignores all the futuristic issues that roil the industry today: one-on-one marketing, brand loyalty, media fragmentation. Yet advertising in post-consumer society is a world no late 20th-century creative director would recognize. In the meeting Linden envisions, the young defer to their elders, a sign of the resurgence of respect for authority in unstable times.
The proposed ad is Bible calendar art come to life in a hologram: a tableau of green grass, gamboling children and an old man in a flowing robe. As ever, advertising reflects society's
values, and in an unstable world, those values hallow tradition, nature, community--and conformity. So much for one-on-one marketing. Surely readers of this column will breathe a sigh of relief knowing they'll be out of the ad business by then.
Unthinkable? Of course.
The future is unthinkable by definition. If nothing else, Linden's book avoids projecting the preoccupations of the present into the world to come. Today it can be said that no one imagines an alternative to consumer society. But isn't conjuring the unimaginable what futurism is all about?