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In the past, people organized conferences devoted to the future. They discussed things like the New Economy, changed paradigms for social linkage, and digital technology, "the solvent leaching the glue out of our economic structures," according to Paul Saffo, who runs a Menlo Park consultancy called the Institute for the Future.
For seven years, many people paid keen attention to Saffo, Howard "Digital Communities" Rheingold, Peter "Long Boom" Schwartz, Tom "The New Economy Is Reinventing Fundamental Interaction" Peters, and a host of other authors, consultants, pundits, and gurus. Their predictions on how the Internet would remake society aided people who invested in companies such as Kibu.com and Pets.com. Their prognostications inflated, and probably extended, the 1990s tech boom. Now they are largely discredited. But just as there's much to be learned by dissecting and interpreting the utterances of Nostradamus, a close examination of the words of 1990s gurus such as Saffo actually points toward transcendent insight.
In 1993, for example, Saffo penned a book, subtitled "A Paperless Future Is Waiting in the Wings," in which he predicted that "paper is well on its way to becoming a metaphor, rather than a medium."
Eight years later forensic engineers determined that paper and other office detritus burned so hot in the WTC towers that it melted support beams, causing the buildings to collapse. And that hourlong inferno became a metaphor for a deadly new age.
At a July 2000 conference at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts titled "The Next 20 Years" Saffo predicted that "we will be in an airplane. In fact, we will spend all of our time in airplanes. The plane will never land. We will never reach our destination."
At the time, Saffo seemed to be saying that the more people e-mailed each other, the more they'd also visit by commercial aviation. Fourteen months later, three airplane flights to oblivion transformed the world.
Saffo seems to have known a great deal more about the future, as alluded to in that same San Francisco conference.
"We will ... live ... in an age of creative destruction -- technologically induced creative destruction," he said then. "The gales of creative destruction are blowing."
I feared the wisdom of Saffo might be lost for the ages -- until I took a look at the Web site for the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Information Awareness Office, popularly known as DARPA IA. This is the agency that Adm. John Poindexter recently left, the one that had hatched plans to catch terrorists with a giant database of Americans' personal information, the group that hoped to create a terrorism futures trading floor.
And according to the DARPA IA site (www.darpa.mil/iao/), this is the agency that plans to pay Saffo's outfit to provide "long-range forecasts of the interaction of information technology, society, and organizational models." A DARPA spokeswoman told me the agency will subscribe to the Institute for the Future's future prediction service.
Yeah, I believe Saffo could be of great help to George Bush's War on Terror, which has recently showed signs of weakening, what with U.S. troops continuing to die in Iraq, Congress continuing to balk at the enormous cost of that invasion, and policy-makers rethinking the country's go-it-alone foreign policy.
During the 1990s, the science-fictionish predictions of futurists such as Saffo helped legitimize the absurd behavior surrounding the Internet stock craze. This decade they could likewise affirm the excesses of the War on Terror.
Just as these celebrity futurists helped prolong the New Economy, I believe they could be of great service in extending the terror wars. If they reach the level of success they achieved during the 1993-2000 Long Boom, the War on Terror might just run past the 2008 election season.
The futurists' work is as valuable today as it was before, because the New Economy and the War on Terror are of a cloth.
The New Economy had a legitimate core that consisted of a moderate renaissance in mail-order shopping, expanded use of e-mail, and greater popular access to information via online databases. But this core cast an enormous and hype-expanded shadow that for a brief period became far more important than the thing itself.
The War on Terror likewise has a legitimate core; it's composed of the efforts by the FBI, CIA, and other agencies to track down individuals and organizations responsible for a Sept. 11, 2001, hijacking-murder plot. There are investigations into money-laundering networks used to finance terrorism, probes into terrorism's roots in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Europe, stepped-up airline security, and attempts to protect, harden, and facilitate evacuation of potential terror targets. These legitimate phenomena likewise cast a propaganda-inflated shadow that's become more important than the thing itself, a shadow composed of the USA Patriot Act, Desert Storm II, and a host of government policies and actions that might be called Fortress America Against the World.
Futurism is a business that fits this legit-gone-mad pattern. Economists, stock analysts, and entrepreneurs all stake their living on perfectly reasonable forms of forecasting. But during the futurism boom of the 1990s, a new breed of techno-social soothsayer took this prosaic activity one step further, wrestling for the limelight by proclaiming ever bolder and more absurd scenarios for the future of mankind.