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December 9, 1997

Riding the Third Wave

by Konrad M. Kressley

This is the third in a series of articles about Future Studies. The first two articles introduced the discipline with a description of ancient and modern forecasting techniques. Now we turn to the heart of the matter with a look at the forces shaping future developments.

As you are probably aware, future developments are predicated on a number of evolving trends. Futurists have long debated which factors are most important. In the social realm, demographic, economic, technological, cultural and political trends have received the most attention. Since they are interrelated, there was always some confusion about ultimate root causes. Fortunately for us, scholars of the future have now arrived at a consensus that stresses the central role of human innovations. According to mainstream thought, human civilization has passed through a relatively small number of truly fundamental changes. The first was man's transition from a life of nomadic hunting and gathering to agriculture between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago. The second was the industrial age, launched by mechanical inventions in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The third transformation, now in progress, is the advent of the "Information Age." The accompanying graph shows a continuum of the three waves. Note how the pace of change has accelerated.

The Information Age and the Future

In order to understand the full impact of the information age on our future, we need to step back and examine the profound effects of earlier historical transformations. The futurist Alvin Toffler popularized the concept by referring to three "waves" of technological development. In prehistoric times, human beings spent most of their energy looking for food and trying to stay alive. This hand- to-mouth existence left little time or energy for anything else. Then came the first great wave of innovation with the invention of agriculture. By domesticating animals, herders could shear, milk or slaughter animals at will, providing predictable supplies of food, hides and other animal products. At roughly the same time, people learned to plant and harvest crops, which also provided a more abundant food supply that could be bartered or stored for leaner times. Most importantly, it made a civilized life style possible. Why? To begin with, it ended or slowed down the process of constant migrations, and gave rise to permanent settlements that eventually concentrated larger numbers of people in urban areas. That in turn precipitated the invention of government and other forms of social organization. As agriculture produced a surplus, some members of the society were freed to seek careers in arts and crafts, not to mention warrior or religious vocations. Civilization was born.

Despite enormous achievements, the era we have just described was essentially powered by human and animal labor. Then scientific and technological advances, such as the invention of steam power, launched the "second wave" of innovation shortly before the turn of the 19th century. We know this episode from our history books as the Industrial Revolution. When coupled to machinery, coal- and petroleum-powered engines ushered in the age of mass production, whose enormous output dwarfed human productivity of earlier centuries. Agriculture, too, was transformed through the process of mechanization. Naturally, each wave of development required a different social system and labor force to make it work. We'll tackle contemporary implications of that issue in a future installment.

And now, to the "Third Wave." Different thinkers have used a variety of terms to describe this phenomenon. While Toffler's wave analogy has gained common usage, related concepts abound. For instance, Daniel Bell described it as the "post-industrial society," Zbigniew Brzezinski coined the term "techno-tronic" era, while others refer to it as the Information Age. No matter what we call it, it has the potential to change society as profoundly as the invention of agriculture and industry did in previous eras. Basically, it's related to the invention of the computer, a breakthrough that earlier futurists had not anticipated. What steam power did for muscles, the computer does for the brain. These "thinking machines" have the power to enhance and replace human mental functions.

What makes the Third Wave so special? Since I'm not a computer expert, I can't belabor the technical aspects. You can read up on that elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the mind power of this machinery is not only awesome but also expanding at an exponential rate. Since the first computers were built in 1942, huge gains in capability have been matched by correspondingly dramatic reductions in size, cost and complexity for the user -- although perhaps that final point is debatable. Grover Starling, a leading futurist, illustrates the point with a comparison to the auto industry. Had the car manufacturers realized an equal rate of advancement over the past half century, one should now be able to buy a Rolls Royce for $280 and drive it a million miles on a gallon of gas. Within the next decades, the cost effectiveness of computers is expected to increase at least a million-fold. When your kid is an adult, he or she may well have inexpensive gadgets whose transistor chips equal the power of some 20 Cray 2 super computers, which currently sell in the range of $20 million each. The technology has been demonstrated in the laboratory. 'Nuff said.

Even more important than the power of the computer is this technology's role as a catalyst, advancing and transforming other technologies and fields of knowledge. Some applications, such as astronavigation and gene mapping are beyond the comprehension of the average person; on the other hand, the Internet and bar-code check-out at the supermarket are becoming downright pedestrian. Moreover, this information revolution will have an enormous impact on all aspects of our lives in the future. We will return to this topic in later installments. For now, simply consider what will happen to the workforce as robots take over factories. Even white-collar professionals are not immune. Robot surgery has already been performed, while educators, psychological counselors and the like will find themselves replaced by screens and keyboards. Like nineteenth century critics of industrialization, today's crop of futurists warn about dehumanizing consequences of this new technology. Culture? Advances in robotics and virtual reality could make human actors and performers obsolete. Visit Disney World for one possible scenario of what lies ahead. There, talented college students from around the nation get suckered into spending a summer sweeping floors and ushering crowds for shows performed by robots. On the positive side, the Information Age could be very liberating, freeing people from menial mental tasks and unfolding a world of human knowledge, contacts and experiences via electronic means. The potential for a richer, fuller life is certainly there and will be explored in future segments of this series. It's high time to think about our preferences for the direction of civilization in the next millennium.

Mixed Messages

You may recall from an earlier installment that information technology was a key component in helping us achieve the first truly comprehensive inventory of the globe, followed by computer models of future developments. In 1972 a group of scientists calling themselves the "Club of Rome" published their findings in Limits to Growth. This study was based on an MIT computer simulation linking population growth, food supply, environmental degradation and resource shortages. Their dour conclusion could best be described as "neo-Malthusian." As had been forecast by the English parson some 150 years earlier, the world of finite resources was hard pressed to support an exploding population. Unless drastic steps were taken, the planet would soon be plunged into chaos as teeming billions fight over food, energy and other means of survival. It is worth noting that this pessimistic news flash coincided with the birth of environmental politics. In 1980 the same group issued the Global 2000 Report, which bolstered the earlier contentions with additional data. We might also mention the work of biologist Paul Ehrlich, who coined the term "Population Explosion." In his view, exponential growth of the world population must be slowed before we overshoot the carrying capacity of the earth.

So, is the world going to hell in a hand basket? Not so fast, say other futurists. Some, like the late Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute, claim that the world has steadily become a better place to live, and there's no reason why this must end. Kahn's book, The Next Two Hundred Years, points out that improvements in crops, resource extraction and benefits of new technologies have consistently outpaced the dangers of population growth. According to Kahn, we are probably headed into a golden age of human existence. Julian Simon, an economist from the University of Maryland, is another flamboyant optimist. Never mind those alarmist neo-Malthusians, says Simon. His data indicate that fertility levels and population growth taper off as the world's standard of living improves. This has already happened in the industrialized countries, and evidence from Third World countries points in the same direction. Meanwhile, more enlightened government policies to control pollution, conserve resources and maintain an ecological equilibrium are hitting the mainstream. Simon contends that we've worried too much about petroleum, water, minerals and other resources. Let's focus instead on our ultimate resource, the human mind, with its proven capacity to resolve these problems.

The Future in Terms of Choice

By this point, I hope you have come to the conclusion that the future is not fixed, but that the direction of development depends largely on human choices. In other words, humanity has acquired both self-awareness and a knowledge base; now it's possible to make informed decisions about likely and preferable futures. There are, of course, many contending viewpoints regarding the future. The renowned futurist Barry B. Hughes has condensed contemporary views on these issues into two main schools of thought which he has labeled the MODERNIST and NEO-TRADITIONALIST approaches.

Modernist ideology is based on the theory of Progress. As mentioned in an earlier installment, this concept of a steadily improving world, guided by human discovery and invention, is at the heart of Western civilization. By using science and technology, man has the opportunity, perhaps even the duty, to transcend and master nature. When it comes to the future, emerging technologies will allow us to resolve our material needs and reshape the surrounding environment to our liking. After all, what nobler purpose does our planet have than that of supporting human life?

Neo-traditionalists, on the other hand, believe that mankind is a part of nature and should seek to fit in rather than overpower the environment. They view nature as a complex web of interdependence that is exceedingly difficult to understand, let alone be manipulated by human hand. When man tries to play God, such as by diverting rivers, draining swamps, or eradicating animal "pests," unforeseen ecological disasters usually follow. Thus, in this view, if we hope to survive, we must learn to respect nature's restraints and live in a way that does not disturb the delicate balance.

The clash between Modernists and Neo-traditionalists is more than just a scuffle between developers and conservationists. It's ultimately a debate about the proper role of science and technology. Consider the emergence of bio-technology, sometimes called Genetic Engineering. Without getting technical, it is now possible for scientists to identify and manipulate inherited characteristics of plants and animals. The potential benefits are enormous. Do you, or anyone you know, suffer from diabetes? For many years diabetics depended on insulin removed from slaughtered animals, and the quality and purity of the product was often questionable. Recently, a way was found to introduce the insulin-making genes into otherwise harmless bacteria. This process now yields ample amounts of high-quality insulin manufactured in controlled laboratory settings. Now consider the potential for agriculture. Imagine how drought-resistant grains could alleviate world food shortages or how highly nutritional animal proteins could be grafted to easily cultivated plants. You don't believe it? In one bizarre laboratory experiment, glow-in-the-dark banana trees were created by introducing genetic materials from fireflies. Further down the road, bacteria could be engineered to produce fuels and other chemicals whose current production techniques involve environmental degradation. A horn of plenty awaits mankind; so what's the problem?

Neo-traditionalists cringe at the thought of altering nature. Jeremy Rifkin, the "high priest" of the movement, used his book Algeny to point out dangers of doing Alchemy with Genetics. According to Rifkin, the analogy of turning base metals into gold won't work in the natural world where all organisms have a niche and are controlled by unique sources of sustenance as well as enemies. To be sure, even inanimate parts of the natural environment fit into the equation. Take the lowly Alabama beach mouse. It protects the shore line against erosion by spreading non-digested sea oats with its droppings. The sea oats thus sown hold shoreline sand dunes in place. It is a mighty lesson in the importance of existing bio-diversity. Now imagine what could happen if we introduce newly formed germs, plant and animal species who are not part of this vast system. Will they fit? Could they dominate and become uncontrollable predators like the jack rabbits once were in Australia? Finally, neo-traditionalists voice concern about who will control the planet's biological inventory once we have gained mastery. We've always thought of nature belonging to mankind; now, patented plants and animals are making their appearance.

Ultimately, genetic engineering has human consequences. We have already begun treating patients with genetic disorders by substituting "healthy" genes in their bodies. If life can be made better for people, what will keep the next generation of geneticists from making better people at the outset? It will soon be possible to predetermine the genetic characteristics of an embryo, which can then be cloned in multiple copies. From a parent's standpoint, the idea of customized kids is probably a good idea. On the other hand, there are some eerie implications. For one thing, it will end the evolutionary process as we have known it. Up to now, random variations altered the species over time; once genetic manipulation is perfected, it will become a matter of choice. Furthermore, sexual reproduction, which combines the genetic materials from a male and female partner, will no longer be necessary. No more love, you say? We'll discuss the surprising future of sexuality and intimate relationships in a future installment of this series. For now, remember that the future is not predetermined, but an evolving series of truly profound choices.


The next installment in this series will look at America in the first decades of the third millennium.


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