The future's not looking so good, which is to say it's looking great!
This is either encouraging news, or, in a strange way, a letdown. Doomsday had its moments. The dank, acid-rainy sadness of 2019 as seen in "Blade Runner," for example: all that diffused light, the sexy androids who could quote Nietzsche. That's why new-wave music sounded so oddly romantic--it held out no hope. That's why the heavy black eyeliner. Some comfort could be found under that metaphorical school desk. Apocalypse had always just happened, or was about to. The Orwellian dystopias, the mushroom clouds, the inevit--
Nope. Forget that.
Here are three men from California.
Of course they're from California.
They are named Peter, Peter and Joel. They say we are living in the middle of a profound era, what they call "The Long Boom," and they have come to commit what is perhaps the last modern intellectual crime: optimism.
If our prophets once wandered the desert, it now seems they wander between Barnes & Nobles: "Everyone needs to let go of his or her fears and preconceptions and move on," urge the authors of "The Long Boom: A Vision for the Coming Age of Prosperity," Peter Schwartz, Peter Leyden and Joel Hyatt. In the new future, there is no population crisis (neither too many nor too few) or energy crisis and, in the end, no Armageddon.
Not only a book, "The Long Boom" has been catching on for three years as an idea, an optimistic contagion, or to use a nifty Nethead word, a "meme": It what-ifs 40 years of unprecedented global economic growth--4 to 6 percent annually for at least 20 more years--and a dazzling heap of scientific advances. Not to mention human harmony.
"The Long Boom" is a future-history and a challenge. Technology will free us to be superpeople; a worldwide free-market economy has no choice but to spread the wealth. Surprisingly, even some former critics of the Long Boom concept have started to recant.
"We're not talking about a rocket ship to Nirvana," Hyatt says. "We're talking about sustained trend lines. There will be bumps in the road. Economic bumps, social bumps . . . but we're talking about a safer, more secure world in the next century."
"We're not talking about a world that's perfect," Schwartz says. "There are still failed marriages in the future. There are unhappy childhoods, people suffering . . ."
Well, okay then.
From its origins in a Bay Area think tank, where future scenarios are assembled and dismantled like Tinkertoys, to the cover of Wired magazine in 1997 (the old Wired, the pre-Conde Nast Wired), the Long Boom is now popping up like unexpected flowers on barren op-ed pastures. It's billed as the main topic at a European trade conference. It's bandied about in planning meetings deep within the Pentagon. Long Boom, Long Boom, like a distant artillery barrage.
Even Steven Spielberg has consulted the Long Boom gang to conceive a positive, more sunshiny vision of tomorrow to be seen in his next film, "Minority Report," the futuristic Tom Cruise thriller due next summer.
Schwartz says "The Long Boom" is about complete and total openness, and that it's unrelated to the current crop of gung-ho bestsellers like "Dow 36,000" that obsess on being rich, rich, rich. He's talking about richness beyond that. "Are we," Schwartz asks, "going to get as rich as we possibly can and then turn around to the rest of the world and say, sorry, we got ours, now the door is closed?"
Leyden says the old conflicts don't apply, such as the Left vs. the Right, this country, that country.
Hyatt says the only real conflict is optimists vs. pessimists.
So who and what is "Long Boomish," as the authors like to call anything that pleases their vision? Well, all of Silicon Valley is. And open-source software. Bill Gates stepping aside as a mogul and being a philanthropist only. Deejays who spin world-techno-ambient remixes in smoothie bars. Money. Hundred-story high-rises in Kuala Lumpur. Living past 99. Great-grandkids. Those Gap commercials where everyone sings. Anyone who routinely upgrades his computer. Jules Verne. Laser eye surgery. Cell phone calls placed from mountaintops in other countries. That Jedediah Whatsisname kid who wrote the new manifesto against irony. Hydrogen-based fuel cells. Electric cars.
And who and what is Anti-Long Boomish? Newspaper reporters. Paris, France. Old-party politics. Microsoft Windows. Tweedy, tenure-track academia. Fascination with World War II. Marxism. Old codgers who write letters to the editor against free-trade agreements and affirmative action. Nuclear war. "The Handmaid's Tale." Dying at 77. Pat Buchanan. Bad knees. The entire cast of "The Road Warrior." Gloomy economists. Luddites. Pantyhose. Smog. Houses without cable or Internet access. Typewriter enthusiasts. Goth kids. The East Coast. Carbon-based fuels. Factories. Bad attitudes.
Taking the Long, Long View
In the lobby bar of the Capital Hilton, Peter Schwartz is talking about living forever. Close to it anyway. He is convinced he will live to be 150.
Right now he's 53, and yakking at the speed of a man who has only five minutes to spare, rather than 97 more years. He's about yay high. Someone once called him a "cosmic cowboy," and he liked that. He'd settle for genetically engineered medicine giving him 150 years, but when you press him about it, he wants to live to be 1,000. He feels he should. His parents survived Nazi concentration camps. His mother-in-law is 84 and just took up snorkeling. She's wild about snorkeling. They trade e-mail about it. That's the future, and that's what these three guys see as a small thing to savor: ancient grandmas swimming in a wired-up paradise.
But why live that long?
"I love life. I'm having a great time," Schwartz says. "Why give up?"
Isn't a hundred years enough?
"No offense, but that's a silly question," he snaps.
Schwartz has just come from talking to a committee of Pentagon brass entertaining the idea of the peaceful shucking-off of international barriers. This is how Schwartz makes a tidy living, telling corporations and governments how trends and events might play out. Since 1988, in a converted factory near Berkeley, Calif., he has helped run the Global Business Network--a think tank and a consulting firm that connects its clients to a brain trust of futurists, scholars, urban planners, economists, sci-fi novelists and environmentalists.
This can be big business if you're good at it. Schwartz worked prophetic wonders for Shell in the 1980s, predicting the oil bust and enabling the company to fortify its cash reserves to buy out competitors. But he's not always right. He once staged a big economic conference in Mexico in 1994, touting growth potential, three weeks before the peso went in the toilet. ("And Peter's been really wrong about the 49ers," Hyatt offers.)
Schwartz's devotion to the Long Boom concept is a similar risk to his credibility. Although it is rooted in years of research and suppositions, it exhibits what one critic called "remarkable naivete" about human virtue in economics. "The Long Boom" is solidly upbeat, mindful but ultimately dismissive of history's potential for asterisks and evil. (World War I comes to mind as a boom-stopping disasterisk nobody planned for. Yet who in 1947 would have dreamed of the American boom of the '50s? Certainly not the Gloomy Gus academic futurists of the day.)
Critics have said that Schwartz and company are also too smitten with the Internet. A ragtag "Technorealism Project" emerged on the Web last year to pooh-pooh the utopian offerings of the Long Boom and other cheerleaders. Schwartz is bound, in some way, to be as wrong as he could be right.
While Schwartz is at the Pentagon, Leyden and Hyatt are on the radio, promoting "The Long Boom." The three men rendezvous in a black Lincoln on 15th Street NW and are driven back to their hotel. If mapping out the future were like rock-and-roll (which it isn't; reading scenarios can be incredibly dull), then Schwartz, Leyden and Hyatt would be something of a garage band:
Leyden is 40, a journalist and former managing editor at Wired, and the hired scribe behind "The Long Boom." He is tall, wears wire-frame specs, has a ponytail and meticulous three-day stubble, and eschews the old paradigm of neckties. "What we're trying for is a first-draft version of how the world can buy into a positive vision," he says. "No one ever had a positive scenario of how the world could evolve post-Cold War."
The third man in the Long Boom equation is Joel Hyatt, 49, a former Democratic senatorial candidate in his native Ohio--and the man who brought us Hyatt Legal Services, better known as the strip mall "Lawyer in a Box." He likes gray suits. He has weatherman hair. He says: " 'The Long Boom' can be easily misunderstood. This isn't a prediction. What we're saying is that it could happen. It's about people's response to all the global integration, the global economy, the rate of technological change. In all these things people want to know: A, what does it mean to me? and B, what should I be doing about it, how can I be a player in the world that lies ahead?' "
What "The Long Boom" suggests is that we're already playing.
Since about 1980, the theory goes, the world has been rumbling into an era of monumental change and prosperity. (So maybe it didn't feel like that in 1980--"We were paranoid," Leyden says of that era--"We were freaked out"--but trust them, it was the start of something wonderful, namely, the hatching of the clutch of PCs.)
It sounds a little like the Gospel According to "Star Trek." The boom is leading us to a place of higher living standards. The gap between rich and poor (despite all current evidence) actually narrows. Hunger subsides. Work shifts to the technological. We unbind ourselves from old-style politics and irrelevant trade laws.
In the future we put bumper stickers on our environmentally friendly cars that proclaim the Long Boom's Tarzan-syntaxed mantra: "Open good. Closed bad."
That's maybe not the catchiest slogan you've ever heard.
"We ran into this problem," Leyden says. "We had originally built eight scenarios that get to 2050, but we didn't have the drama. We didn't have the tension--"
"It was boring," Schwartz says, pulling out a green plastic Flossup, picking at his teeth.
"That's really it, they were boring," Leyden concedes. "We started thinking a little more dramatically about the ups and downs and the tensions."
A Brighter Tomorrow
It goes without saying that "The Long Boom" hinges on the complete techno-wizarding of everything. What's different is that now it doesn't seem as creepy as science fiction always had it. In this version, using hydrogen fuel cells, we manage to kick the fossil fuel habit and clean up the environment--without nuclear waste. Tomorrow has trees. Tomorrow never gets paved over. Birds chirp. This departure from apocalypse can be jarring to almost anyone born after George Orwell wrote "1984," in 1948. Most futures since then paint the future in some shade of gloom.
It wasn't always this way. The trove of futurist writing a century or so back is more upbeat than we give it credit for: The novelist Edward Bellamy, in "Looking Backward," told the story of a man from 1887 who wakes up in 2000 and marvels at the elimination of egoism and competition. H.G. Wells foresaw "the larger synthesis" of technological societies in his 1902 book "Anticipations," a "shriveling up and vanishing of boundary lines" that would further a world economy. "Citizens, can you imagine the future?" Victor Hugo wrote in "Les Miserables" in 1863. "City streets flooded with light . . . nations brothers . . . no more events. All will be happy."
And speaking of people who like happy endings, somewhere along the way Steven Spielberg came knocking. He is making his next blockbuster, a movie about the future called "Minority Report": Based loosely on a story by Philip K. Dick (who also wrote "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," the novel that informed 1982's dystopian "Blade Runner"), the film is about a police chief (Tom Cruise) in 2080 who is suspected of murder in a system that relies on psychics to predict and pre-punish crimes. Spielberg wanted a peaceful, clean, bright future. Peter Schwartz (who also supplied scenario to "Deep Impact" and "War Games") and the Long Boomers gave it to him.
" 'Minority Report' is the anti-'Blade Runner.' It takes place in a world of incredible prosperity, where personal income is a half-million dollars a year," Schwartz says. "How can I not be pleased? The greatest director of our time wants to put the vision of the Long Boom future on the screen. That says something."
And the setting of this utopia?
Why, it's Washington, D.C., 81 years from now.
"No, don't tell him it's Washington!" one of the authors says, shushingly.
"Don't put that it's Washington," Schwartz says.
What will Washington look like?
"I don't think we can say it's Washington."
It'll look better than it does now. It'll look better than it did in 1975's "Logan's Run"--when it was fallen down, abandoned, covered in vines.
A Tough Sell
In the Washington of 1999, meanwhile, the three authors acknowledge that the Long Boom has been a much easier sell on the West Coast than on the East Coast.
"We don't get a lot of guff in Silicon Valley for being optimistic," Schwartz observes. "It's no accident we all happen to live out there. People aren't fighting the past out there; they're building tomorrow. So it's not surprising that a lot of the criticism of the Long Boom, frankly, comes from New York, or Paris, which still have a strong investment in yesterday."
Let's put it to the test.
Seven blocks away and a few hours later, the Long Boomers are situated in easy chairs on a dais in the Center for International Peace near Dupont Circle for an evening of cocktails, snacks and discussion of the Long Boom, sponsored by the people who edit the New Republic, and attended by some of the people still reading the New Republic. It has that surreal D.C. feeling of occurring in a vacuum, with the obligatory Olsson's sales table in the corner. There are 35 genuinely interested people present, most of them men in suits or in layers of tweed. Schwartz, Leyden and Hyatt spin their optimism for a half-hour. Schwartz remembers that when he used to give lectures, he would ask people if they thought their children were going to live in a better world than their own. Hardly anyone used to raise his hand. In that way, Americans were like punk rockers.
"Now," Schwartz says, "they do raise their hands. They are finally beginning to see a better future."
People here frown. Sometimes they laugh. Like good cynics, they have statistics on the tip of their tongue. One man raises his hand and suggests the citizens of the Third World should write a book called "The Long Gloom." Another says that Generation X is still statistically underearning. Another derides the idea that technological advances are all for the best.
Another raises his hand and takes issue with Schwartz's claim that the threat of nuclear war is way over.
"Aren't there still nuclear weapons?" the man implores. "How can you say we won't all die in a nuclear war? It's still very real."
Is not, Schwartz says.
Is too, the man says: "You're living in a dream world."
Exactly. Three guys from California live in the Long Boom. They've crossed over into an unfamiliar light. Maybe the world will decide to live there with them. The future, as ever, remains to be seen.
CAPTION: "We're talking about a safer, more secure world in the next century," says Joel Hyatt, left, with "Long Boom" co-authors Peter Leyden and Peter Schwartz.
CAPTION: Harrison Ford in the bleak future of 1982's "Blade Runner"; 1936's "Things to Come," below, which predicted a popular uprising against progress in 2035.