THE FUTURE AND ITS ENEMIES by Virginia Postrel

The Future and Its Enemies
The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress/Virginia Postrel/The Free Press/New York, NY/1998/265pp.
Finished 2/19/07 Rating: 10

Did you ever write a book review and wish you could include the whole text of the book? That’s the case with this one. I realize it’s early in the year, and I have a lot of reading to do, but this book may well end up my “book of the year” for 2007.

One of the most influential books in my life was The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper. This book, which obviously borrows from Popper even in the title, is an unpacking of his thoughts on a popular and practical level. Virigina Postrel begins by describing two basic philosophies about how life, culture and civilization ought to be gone about. The first group, which she calls “stasists” are the folk who fear change in the future. Stasists are broken into two camps: reactionaries, who abhor change (“the good ole days” camp), and technocrats who, recognizing the inevitability of change, seek to control it centrally. Those who have read Popper will notice that both these groups spring from Plato’s idea of “the ideal”. The reactionaries want to go back to some ideal past, the technocrats want to centrally control everything, so that their vision of an ideal future can be achieved. Set against this “stasis” way of thinking are what Postrel calls “dynamists”: people who recognize that life and culture and civilization are, well, alive, and will move forward better without the intervention of centralized control.

While stasists believe in “the one best way” (and seek to force it on everyone), dynamists believe that there is no “one best way” (again, Plato’s “ideal”) and instead see what she calls “undesigned order” emerging where creativity is allowed to be free and decentralized. After setting forth the basic distinctions, she gives a chapter to each of the five basic principles of dynamism:

(1) Dynamists allow individuals to act on their own knowledge. People usually know better what works for them than do far off centralized authorities.

(2) Dynamists apply underlying rules to simple, generic units and allow them to combine in many different ways. This is the way of nature, the way of life, the way of creativity. Do you remember that Secretary of the patent office in the U.S. that, in the late 1800s wanted to close the patent office because everything that could be invented had already been invented? The truth is, the more inventions there are, the more there will be. The alphabet is a good example (and so is the music scale): a few basic “units” can be combined to create limitless combinations, some good, some bad.

(3) Dynamists rules permit credible, understandable, enduring and enforceable commitments. That is, contracts, or covenants; agreements between parties for them to work together to create something that neither could create on their own – without a lot of centralized interference.

(4) Dynamist rules protect criticism, competition and feedback. Unlike stasist rules, which seek to protect special interests (government schools, for example), dynamists embrace simple rules that allow for freedom of experimentation. Some things will fail miserably, some things will work spectacularly, but in the process new discoveries are made, forward movement is created, and things become “better” (but none of this is related to that Platonic utopia that centralized entities espouse).

(5) Dynamists rules establish a framework within which people can create nested, competing frameworks of more specific rules. In other words, what works in Texas may not work in Ecuador. Rather than creating over-arching rules that apply everywhere (one size fits all), dynamists embrace a basic structure of rules but allow within that structure the freedom for “pockets” of rules and applications to be developed. This is what Popper calls “quality control”. An example of my own making: a church denomination that is stasist might create one seminary program or one mission program and insist that the exact same rules apply to all cases (each diocese, every student, every nation); a church denomination that is dynamist would instead establish a framework (quality controls), but within that basic structure there might be a variety of educational forms or missionary programs. Again, what works in Kenya may not work in El Salvador. What works in a compacted highly populated urban area may not work in a geographically large, sparsely populated region. You get the idea.

None of this is to suggest that dynamists seek a world without rules – quite the opposite: they seek rules applied at the right levels. One of my favorite chapters in the book is “Fields of Play” where Postrel dissects the area of our life that includes games and sports and child’s play, and points out that, far from being an environment with no rules, play is full of rules, but the rules are dynamic, and so the outcomes – the creativity, the possibilites – are endless. I mean, that’s what makes basketball so exciting. Go Spurs.

My 2004 Book of the Year was Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, one of the hardest and best books I have ever read. My 2005 Book of the Year was Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which shows how our world is coming to a place of bringing freedom and equality and blessings to all places, not just a select arena. This book should go between the Popper and Friedman. But if you have to choose just one, read this one (it’s so much easier than Popper). I highly recommend it to everyone with one caveat: read the whole thing.

One response to “THE FUTURE AND ITS ENEMIES by Virginia Postrel

  1. My favorite story of the book was of (no contest) Newt Gingrich’s speech about beach volleyball and the resulting political fallout.

    Although I struggled a bit with the length of this book (after a while I found myself wishing this book were seventy pages long–it’s a dense 218), but Ms. Postrel is such a great storyteller. I never grew tired of her examples of technocratic rule.

    Rather than explain what the book was about to a curious fellow passenger on a plane, I read aloud the story About Vidal Sasoon and his rebellion against the industry. Who knew?

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