Robert Fulford's column about Daniel Bell's Toward the Year 2000

(Globe and Mail, October 26, 1999)

Gazing into the future one day in the 1960s, Daniel Bell saw something that resembled the Internet, a system that would not be designed until years later. As a futurist (a word freshly popular in the 1960s), Bell glimpsed one major element of the world we are living in now. He wrote that by the year 2000 we would have a "computer utility system, with tens of thousands of terminals in homes and offices," all hooked into a network, capable of selling goods and providing information. As it turns out, he had the main idea right, but the scale wrong. Had he written "tens of millions" instead of "tens of thousands," he would be considered even more of a prophet than he is now.

Bell, who turned 80 last summer, is a brilliant sociologist and essayist. A poll of American professors once ranked him first among influential American writers, and for years after he was always described as "the intellectual's intellectual." Bell ushered the now common phrase "postindustrial society" into the language and then explained in detail what it meant: a world in which information matters more than physical goods.

His prediction of the Internet appeared in Toward the Year 2000 (Beacon Press, 1969), a book that makes interesting reading as the century ends. Bell edited it while chairing the Commission on the Year 2,000 for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a project he described as an attempt to understand the problems of the future before they became the problems of the present.

Why was he wrong about the scale of the Internet? Like most people in the 1960s, Bell radically underestimated the power of commerce. When the Internet got started, anyone could see that it was useful to many thousands of people. But making it clearly valuable to hundreds of millions was a job not for engineers but for financiers and marketers. When Bell was writing, no one dreamed how powerful those forces would become. In fact, they were widely thought to be waning: Marxists and others spoke casually of "late capitalism," as if it were slowly drawing to an end. Who could have guessed that capitalism would create the Internet? Who could have imagined that the Internet, in turn, would give a bizarre new shape to capitalism?

Most of the writers in Bell's book exhibit similar blind spots. The writers include many impressive figures -- Daniel P. Moynihan on government, David Riesman on the way elite classes develop, Erik Erikson on youth, Margaret Mead on the division of roles in society.

These were among the great seers of the day, hugely accomplished and knowledgeable people. That's one reason why Toward the Year 2000 often makes dismaying (and, once in a while, comic) reading. It's a little like watching people try to put together a complicated piece of Ikea furniture while blindfolded. They have all the bits, they can occasionally guess the function of one or two pieces, but they can't figure out how to make sense of them. Now and then they get something right, by accident.

Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener, both of them widely respected in 1969, contribute a piece on future technology, including a list of 100 innovations that the world will probably see before 2000. Sometimes they're right: They predict many practical functions for lasers, widespread use of transplanted human organs, communications satellites with direct-to-home broadcasting, cheap video recording, pagers and "perhaps even two-way pocket phones."

However, they also anticipate 3-D movies and TV, automated housekeeping with robots acting as slaves for humans, and something, otherwise undefined, that they call "programmed dreams." Kahn and Wiener show a quirky affection for ideas requiring huge organization and titanic effort. Writing in the shadow of John Kennedy's audacious promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s (which, of course, will be fulfilled), they seem to think that a moon landing will encourage ever more ambitious projects. By 2000, they suggest, we will likely have manned satellites, undersea installations ("perhaps even colonies"), a permanent installation on the moon, and "artificial moons ... lighting large areas at night."

But it's in the social and political spheres that Bell and his colleagues give their worst performance. They assume confidently that public policy will be increasingly controlled by bureaucrats; the market, they seem to think, will matter less and less. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique is already several years old and the new wave of feminism is about to explode, yet these events are invisible to the writers of the book, including Margaret Mead. They cannot imagine (nor can anyone else) that politics in the democracies will become increasingly polarized, with the rise of a whole new class of intellectuals, right and left, performing as zealous cheerleaders and adherents rather than critical analysts. Above all, it occurs to no one that the Soviet empire can possibly collapse in this century; Eugene Rostow's piece on international affairs makes it plain that co-existence with communism is the West's best hope.

All books that pretend to be about the future are, of course, about the present. Today, Toward the Year 2000 says far more about the vanities and dreams of the 1960s than about the end of the century. It can also stand as a dire warning to all those soothsayers among us who set out to predict the future and its possibilities.

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