For many, the future is a source of anxiety. Macbeth’s temptation–to know with certainty the outcome of our lives–is powerful because it is common. Yet there are others for whom the unknown possibilities of what is to come prompt only excitement, optimism and an eagerness to innovate.
It is this conflict, this disparity in dispositions to the future, that Virginia Postrel claims in her book The Future and Its Enemies is the central issue of our day.
On the one hand are those whom Postrel calls stasists. They are both the reactionaries who value stability–think those who want trade barriers with China erected to preserve American unions–and technocrats who value control. While individual perspectives on which future should be implemented vary within the stasist camp, they are fundamentally the same in that “they disapprove of ’emergent, complex messiness,’ dread the ‘reckless ride into the unknown.'” Daunted by the unknown future, stasists seek to preserve the world as it is or shape the future in their own image.
On the other hand are the dynamists, or the “party of life” as Postrel calls them. Rather then plans, they appreciate the messiness of human creativity. They value competition, change and processes. The appreciate the flexibility that is demanded by an open future, and love the innovation that freedom from control results in. Rather than rules, they value individual empowerment. Rather than a single, centralized authority, they value the ability for small communities to create rules that are specific to their particular environments and needs. They value discovery and the criticism which often leads to it.
If it seems there is little to commend the stasist way of life, that’s mostly because Postrel’s book is an apologia for dynamism. And as such, it is effective. In Postrel’s hands, one wonders why anyone might be inclined to the arid, dull, lifeless stasist position.
But beneath the surface lurk significant problems. For one, it seems that Postrel’s work depends upon an updated and popularized Popperian philosophy, and hence is subject to its problems. While Postrel’s rejection of “the natural” as a ground for ethics is itself problematic, so is her replacement: consequences. With respect to bioethics, she points out (rightly!) that the problems of Brave New World, for instance, stem from the use of biotechnology by a central authority. She argues that those who oppose biotechnology do so on similar grounds–that someone will enforce a “homogeneous model of humanity.” Such arguments, of course, ignore the central problem of biotechnology–whether we should, in fact, subject our selves to our own control and make ourselves into our own image. Postrel, it seems, has way to answer, “Which image?”
Postrel’s work is fascinating and enjoyable, and her analysis of the different approaches to the future is absolutely correct. But while there is much in the dynamist position to commend itself, it lacks a crucial element that makes it ultimately no more desirable than that of the stasist.