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The Strategy of Futureness

 

Studies of the reactions of astronauts, displaced families, and industrial workers almost uniformly point to the psychologist Hugh Bowen’s conclusion that “Anticipatory information,” “allows … a dramatic change in performance.” Whether the problem is that of driving a car down a crowded street, piloting a plane, solving intellectual puzzles, playing a cello or dealing with interpersonal difficulties, performance improves when the individual knows what to expect next.
The mental processing of advance data about any subject presumably cuts down on the amount of processing and the reaction time during the actual period of adaptation. It was Freud, I believe, who said: “Thought is action in rehearsal.”

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Even more important than any specific bits of advance information, however, is the
habit of anticipation. This conditioned ability to look ahead plays a key role in adaptation.
Indeed, one of the hidden clues to successful coping may well lie in the individual’s sense of
the future. The people among us who keep up with change, who manage to adapt well, seem
to have a richer, better developed sense of what lies ahead than those who cope poorly.
Anticipating the future has become a habit with them. The chess player who anticipates the
moves of his opponent, the executive who thinks in long range terms, the student who takes a
quick glance at the table of contents before starting to read page one, all seem to fare better.
People vary widely in the amount of thought they devote to the future, as distinct from
past and present. Some invest far more resources than others in projecting themselves
forward—imagining, analyzing and evaluating future possibilities and probabilities. They
also vary in how far they tend to project. Some habitually think in terms of the “deep future.”
Others penetrate only into the “shallow future.”
We have, therefore, at least two dimensions of “futureness”—how much and how far.
There is evidence that among normal teenagers maturation is accompanied by what
sociologist Stephen L. Klineberg of Princeton describes as “an increasing concern with
distant future events.” This suggests that people of different ages characteristically devote
different amounts of attention to the future. Their “time horizons” may also differ. But age is
not the only influence on our futureness. Cultural conditioning affects it, and one of the most
important cultural influences of all is the rate of change in the environment.

This is why the individual’s sense of the future plays so critical a part in his ability to
cope. The faster the pace of life, the more rapidly the present environment slips away from
us, the more rapidly do future potentialities turn into present reality. As the environment
churns faster, we are not only pressured to devote more mental resources to thinking about
the future, but to extend our time horizon—to probe further and further ahead. The driver
dawdling along an expressway at twenty miles per hour can successfully negotiate a turn into
an exit lane, even if the sign indicating the cut-off is very close to the exit. The faster he
drives, however, the further back the sign must be placed to give him the time needed to read and react. In quite the same way, the generalized acceleration of life compels us to lengthen
our time horizon or risk being overtaken and overwhelmed by events. The faster the
environment changes, the more the need for futureness.

Urbanization, ethnic conflict, migration, population, crime—a thousand examples
spring to mind of fields in which our efforts to shape change seem increasingly inept and
futile. Some of these are strongly related to the breakaway of technology; others partially
independent of it. The uneven, rocketing rates of change, the shifts and jerks in direction,
compel us to ask whether the techno-societies, even comparatively small ones like Sweden
and Belgium, have grown too complex, too fast to manage?

Why, therefore, should the system be spinning out of control?
The problem is not simply that we plan too little; we also plan too poorly. Part of the trouble
can be traced to the very premises implicit in our planning.
First, technocratic planning, itself a product of industrialism, reflects the values of that
fast-vanishing era. In both its capitalist and communist variants, industrialism was a system
focused on the maximization of material welfare. Thus, for the technocrat, in Detroit as well
as Kiev, economic advance is the primary aim; technology the primary tool. The fact that in
one case the advance redounds to private advantage and in the other, theoretically, to the
public good, does not alter the core assumptions common to both. Technocratic planning is
econocentric.
Second, technocratic planning reflects the time-bias of industrialism. Struggling to free
itself from the stifling past-orientation of previous societies, industrialism focused heavily on
the present. This meant, in practice, that its planning dealt with futures near at hand. The idea
of a five-year plan struck the world as insanely futuristic when it was first put forward by the
Soviets in the 1920’s. Even today, except in the most advanced organizations on both sides of
the ideological curtain, one- or two-year forecasts are regarded as “long-range planning.” A
handful of corporations and government agencies, as we shall see, have begun to concern
themselves with horizons ten, twenty, even fifty years in the future. The majority, however,
remain blindly biased toward next Monday. Technocratic planning is short-range.
Third, reflecting the bureaucratic organization of industrialism, technocratic planning
was premised on hierarchy. The world was divided into manager and worker, planner and
plannee, with decisions made by one for the other. This system, adequate while change
unfolds at an industrial tempo, breaks down as the pace reaches super-industrial speeds. The
increasingly unstable environment demands more and more non-programmed decisions down
below; the need for instant feedback blurs the distinction between line and staff; and
hierarchy totters. Planners are too remote, too ignorant of local conditions, too slow in
responding to change. As suspicion spreads that top-down controls are unworkable, plannees
begin clamoring for the right to participate in the decision-making. Planners, however, resist.
For like the bureaucratic system it mirrors, technocratic planning is essentially undemocratic.

The move from manufacturing to service production, the psychologization of both
goods and services, and ultimately the shift toward experiential production all tie the
economic sector much more tightly to non-economic forces. Consumer preferences turn over
in accordance with rapid life style changes, so that the coming and going of subcults is
mirrored in economic turmoil. Super-industrial production requires workers skilled in symbol
manipulation, so that what goes on in their heads becomes much more important than in the
past, and much more dependent upon cultural factors.
There is even evidence that the financial system is becoming more responsive to social
and psychological pressures. It is only in an affluent society on its way to super-industrialism
that one witnesses the invention of new investment vehicles, such as mutual funds, that are
consciously motivated or constrained by non-economic considerations. The Vanderbilt
Mutual Fund and the Provident Fund refuse to invest in liquor or tobacco shares. The giant
Mates Fund spurns the stock of any company engaged in munitions production, while the tiny
Vantage 10/90 Fund invests part of its assets in industries working to alleviate food and
population problems in developing nations. There are funds that invest only, or primarily, in
racially integrated housing. The Ford Foundation and the Presbyterian Church both invest
part of their sizeable portfolios in companies selected not for economic payout alone, but for
their potential contribution to solving urban problems. Such developments, still small in
number, accurately signal the direction of change.

 

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