Recently I came across a discarded copy of a pamphlet by Donald Michael, Cybernation: The Silent Conquest. Michael was part of that generation of American social scientists that created things like the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions and the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution (if I ever start a band that's what I'm going to name it).
Cybernation is a pretty fascinating historical document, because the arguments it makes about the coming revolution in automation sound like the same ones we make today about robotics, the Web, etc.
Computers are being used rather regularly to analyze market portolios for brokers; compute the best combinations of crops and livestock for given farm conditions; design and 'fly' under typical and extreme conditions rockets and airplanes before their are built… write music, translate tolerably if not perfectly from one languages to another, and simulate some logical brain processes…. Also, computers are programmed to play elaborate 'games' by themselves or in collaboration with human beings. Among other reasons, these games are played to understand and plan more efficiently for the conduct of wars and the procedures for industrial and business aggrandizement. Through such games, involving a vast number of variables, and contingencies within which these variables act and interact, the best of most likely solutions to complex problems are obtained. (Cybernation, p. 7)
The National Association of Manufacturers' filmstrip voice-over tone aside, this paragraph from 1962 sounds like a pretty good list of the cool things futurists are still highlighting as Revolutionary Uses of Computers.
This theme of the– what, institutional amnesia?– appeared explicitly tonight, when I came across a retrospective piece Michael published in 1985. Again it inspired a little deja vu:
How is it that, when I reflect on over 23 years of sharing thoughts about the future, I really cannot convince myself that I know why I was right sometimes and wrong other times? Indeed, often I cannot clearly decide whether I have been right or wrong! Inadequate documentation contributes to this but there are other far more profound reasons for my retrospective malaise. (Donald N. Michael, "With both feet planet firmly in mid-air: Reflections on thinking about the future," Futures (April 1985), p. 94.)
I also found this interesting, in a slightly disquieting way:
The pronouncements of experts are useful, when thinking about the future, not because their information is based on esoteric and valid knowledge about social change, though that occasionally may be so (but how is one to know?), but because, by virtue of the authority with which they are endowed, i.e. as experts, they are able to influence the definition of social reality others hold. Their expertness resides not in a prescience their logic engenders but in the 'psychologic' that logic activates: the authority of logic and, therefore, of the expert as a practitioner of logic, is what carries weight. This source of authority legitimizes the stories they tell. But the source also tends to subvert the story- tellers’ own recognition that they are telling stories. Their own belief in their authority, ie the authority of logic, leads them to believe they are doing something very different from 'merely' telling stories.
Over the years these insights and learnings have led me less and less to the doing of futures studies and more and more to questions and understandings regarding the functions futures studies perform, or could perform. (ibid., 96)
Really, the whole thing could have been subtitled, "why we need social scanning."