The Time magazine essay for the week of February 25, 1966, was titled “The Futurists: Looking Toward AD 2000.” The essay was not prompted by any particular occasion or by the accident of neatly rounded numbers but by what Time saw as an important new social and commercial development—the growing professionalisation of futurology.
Noting that “the US had always been a country in love with the future,” Time announced the birth of the serious business of professional prophecy from out of the ashes of science fiction and utopian writing. At that time in the United States, government agencies, the military, large corporations and academic institutes had begun committing huge funds to forecasting the future. General Electric, at an annual cost of $7 million, had just set up its own institute, employing 200 physical scientists, engineers, sociologists and economists with a brief to contemplate and predict the future. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences was supporting a Commission on the Year 2000 and the prestigious University of Illinois was undertaking a “computerised exploration” of 2000.
New, more sophisticated and “scientific” methods were being developed to forecast the future and, as one trailblazing futurologist rather cryptically put it, there was general agreement that “the future of the future is in the present.” The Rand Corporation had developed its own special technique called the Delphi method, in which a wide range of experts were queried and re-queried about their views on possible scenarios for social and scientific development until the researchers finally arrived at a “near-consensus” of expert opinion.
The Time essay catalogued some of the fruits of this labour. Despite the millions spent and the toil of so many earnest and talented scientists and researchers, it will come as no surprise that the resultant scientific forecasts were as likely to miss the mark as predictions with the more lowly pedigree of Old Moore's Almanac. Rand's Delphi method identified 82 prominent scientists who agreed that, by 2000, a permanent lunar base would have been long established and that men would have landed on Mars. Marshall McLuhan, while correctly predicting the growth of teleworking, could not have been more wrong when he predicted the obsolescence of both the wheel and highways, which were to be replaced by fleets of all-terrain hovercraft. Nearly all experts, Time reported, were agreed that, by 2000, viral and bacterial diseases would be virtually wiped out. Doctors were also predicting that it would be possible to grow fetuses outside of the womb, in order to accommodate women who wished to be spared the burdens of pregnancy.
It is easy to scoff at some of the dafter and more naïvely optimistic predictions, but it is well to remember that many of the technological advances that we have actually grown accustomed to would have appeared outlandish and wonderful 32 years ago. After all, we do now have test-tube babies, surrogate mothers, and mothers past retirement age, as well as cloned sheep.
Often the predictions have gone wrong not because the scientific expectations were wrong but because of a failure to take into account the human element—ever-shifting individual and social value systems. For example, it was probably sensible in 1966 to predict a Mars landing within a few decades. What was not correctly predicted was the loss of interest and thus investment in this goal, following the demise of an ideologically propelled space race.
In pre-HIV, pre-BSE 1966, Pandora's box seemed to offer more than hope, because all its ills were thought to be identified and solid progress was being made in combating them. What was not appreciated was that the ills yet to be discovered were of a particularly insidious and pernicious kind, specifically designed by evolution to get behind our best defences. It was also not fully appreciated that human over-reliance on and misuse of once miracle cures like antibiotics would in time destroy their essential magic.
Given the disconcerting tendency for the human element to upset logical, linear predictions about scientific innovation, it is not surprising that the futurists of the 1960s were even more drastically wide of the mark when it came to predicting the shape of human society in 2000. Buckminster Fuller, for example, believed that the near future would usher in an era of general plenty, in which politics would be superfluous and simply fade away.
Especially interesting are the predictions about the activity at the very centre of our social organisation—work. Back then, there was an almost total confidence in a golden future, when automation would finally free mankind from the yoke of working for a living and provide instead endless opportunities for diverse and fulfilling leisure.
One estimate was that, by the turn of the millennium, only 10 per cent of the population would be working and that these would be high-level workers engaged, like Plato's philosopher-kings, in major decision-making and long-range policy-making.
This Elysium was premised on the belief that machines would be producing so much that everyone in the United States would, in effect, be independently wealthy. One estimate was that even totally non-working families would be provided with an annual income of more than $250,000. The major social problems would be how to fight the ennui of limitless idle time and how to inject significance and self-respect into lives with leisure activities.
No one predicted the modern malaise of intense time pressure, the desperate search for enough time to experience the elusive high of quality time. Astoundingly, despite all the super-productive machinery and the new labour-saving and instant communication devices, time is at a greater premium than ever before and is a constant source of stress.
Many people coming to adulthood in the 1960s sincerely subscribed to the happy vision of a workless future and awaited its arrival with impatient expectation. The ironic reality of the year 2000 is not only that this paradise on earth not been attained but also that changing conditions have by now created almost diametrically opposed attitudes to work.
Paid employment is now perceived as both a cherished opportunity and as a right, albeit one denied to some. Work is rarely seen as a necessary evil or a restrictive yoke to be flung off at the first opportunity. Studies in the United States have established that American employees now work longer hours, do more overtime and take less holidays, often voluntarily, than 30 years ago.
Rather than progressively easing themselves out of the work habit, Americans have turned into incorrigible workaholics over the last few decades. The work ethic has grown fat on the anxieties and fears of the worker. The same process is clearly perceptible in this country. Rather than sensibly rationing work and sharing it out more equitably, we seem trapped in a system that excludes huge numbers from the privilege of work but at the same time psychologically extracts more and more from those who benefit from employment.
Employment is more than ever the key to status and security in society. Competitiveness has become ever more intense, both in the workplace and among the young, who must strive for their place in the sun through the educational system. The student is locked into a simulacrum of education that is increasingly geared only to the jobs market.
More clearly than ever before, the employer's aim is simply to maximise productivity and profit, but the employee's role has been more profoundly transformed. The new culture of work makes huge demands. The employee's labour was always a commodity to be sold but, in the new fiercely competitive world of work, it is no longer acceptable for labour to be sold with resentful detachment.
To get in and to get on it is almost necessary to fuse one's personal identity with the job and fit one's life's goals to the corporate mission. The expectation is that one will sell burgers with the same passion and zeal and the same sense of satisfaction and spiritual harmony that Michelangelo might have brought to the painting of the Sistine Chapel. While there are some professions where this might be appropriate and fulfilling, for most people, including many of the legions of new service workers filling the gaps where machines cannot go, this process is experienced as an intrusive extension of the dominion of work.
What is amazing is that the system works and convinces many people to be happy with their lot in life, even if means working at a job that most others would not dream of doing. The new culture of success demands an unquestioning submission to corporate definitions of success, which in the final analysis translate into concern only for the bottom line. Some employers have now successfully blurred the distinction between the workplace and non-working life, providing a congenial working atmosphere littered with free Coca-Cola and Mars bars. It is even possible to point to companies like Microsoft, who have pulled off the trick of creating millionaires out of hundreds of ordinary workers. The cost, however, is the sacrifice of almost all of one's quality time to the company.
The only freedom valued and encouraged by this system is the freedom to consume and so further nourish the system.The renewed uncritical enthusiasm for global, free-market capitalism has created a system that is obviously different from the brutal capitalism spawned by the industrial revolution, but it has revitalised the sense of enslavement, if only on a purely psychological level. There is now a limited working week, health and safety regulations and, for most workers, substantial payment far beyond the requirements of basic survival. The horrific conditions for 19th-century workers, which we can read about in Dickens or Zola, stood in stark contrast to the wealth and privilege enjoyed by the owning elite.
Today's more sophisticated owning elite have made themselves invisible, through the trick of sharing access to the means of ownership with all and sundry.
Almost everyone who is not self-employed can be easily fooled into thinking that they are. After all, they are usually working for an abstraction, for an idea and not for an identifiable capitalist fat cat. They are even more easily persuaded if they are granted a few shares in the enterprise.
The futurists were not so wrong about the wealth-creating potential of technology. Just three decades on, we, as a society, are immensely more wealthy. Where the futurists went badly wrong was in their benign judgement of human nature. The naïve assumption was that the benefits would be equally shared. They imagined a rational response to the increased potential for the production of wealth.
Instead, Ireland has a system in which the upper 10 per cent or so of the population manages to accumulate an ever-increasing share of the wealth. At a global level, this translates into a disastrous division between the developed nations and an utterly impoverished, often famine-stricken Third World. The lower echelons, even in the developed West, are still almost totally excluded from the feast and are pacified by a degrading and minimalist welfare system.
The current, seemingly unchallengeable ideology of work is, more than ever before, firmly rooted in a vision of man as a creature driven by greed and in a system that depends totally on the exploitation of an individual's dependency and anxiety.In Ireland, only CORI, with the notion of a decent, basic, unearned income for all citizens, challenges the prevailing ideology and holds out the prospect of revolutionising the world of work by presenting the worker with the genuine option of rejecting it. Their ideas, of course, terrify the modern free-marketeers, who fear that they wish to destroy the incentive to work.
But CORI should take some consolation from the fact that, in the past, thoughtful and informed people, when given the freedom to forecast the future, considered that CORI's kind of approach was the only rational and constructive response to the increasing potential for the creation of wealth.