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Total Future Awareness 

The Defense Department hires a New Economy futurist to help fight terror. Don't you feel safer already?

Wednesday, Sep 17 2003
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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."

Indeed.


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.

Saffo and his 1990s futurist-boom cohorts -- who used cryptic, tech-soc language to, I believe, predict the War on Terror -- are the perfect men for extending and expanding that war. If the folks at DARPA have their thinking caps on -- and recent history suggests they do -- they'll assemble a Dream Team of Extraordinary Gentlemen assigned to issue proclamations about the future of the New War. At the helm will be Saffo, and just as it's possible to read Saffo and envision the future of humanity, it's also possible to use Saffo to predict the future of Saffo prediction-making.


In September 2000, Paul Saffo was quoted in the e-business-hyping journal Fast Company as saying "as we build New Economies, we create a whole renegotiation of culture."

In 2003, I foretell, Saffo will proclaim: "As we build a New War, we create a whole renegotiation of culture."

And after the renegotiation, mass arrests of people of Arab descent, indefinite incarceration without trial, all-inclusive databases that spy on citizens, diplomatic isolation from the world, and the brutal and costly takeover of weak nations will seem increasingly normal.

In 2000, Saffo told the Internet-worshipping magazine Fast Company, "What excites me most about the New Economy is that we're in the middle of a fundamental change in the nature of commerce, in the nature of capitalism. Commerce isn't about buying stuff -- it's about interacting with people in different ways. And that's happening everywhere."

In 2003, I predict Saffo will say: "What excites me most about the New War is that we're in the middle of a fundamental change in the nature of law enforcement. Law enforcement isn't about catching, trying, and sentencing criminals. It's about interacting with people in different ways. And that's happening everywhere."

And the more we interact, the better we'll feel about our government's failure to capture and put on trial the criminals and accomplices who murdered thousands on Sept. 11, 2001.

In 2000, Saffo told Fast Company, "If there's a rule for the New Economy, it's to keep your head about you, because we're in the midst of exhilarating change. And that kind of excitement inevitably leads to a sobering downside."

In 2003 I predict he'll say: "If there's a rule for the New War, it's to keep your head about you, because if you're a citizen you're likely to suffer invasive searches at airports, be spied upon by government agencies, and have your due process rights usurped by legislation of exceedingly dubious constitutionality. If you're a citizen of another country, you're likely to be bombed, machine-gunned, or made a refugee in the name of fighting terrorism.

"And that kind of excitement inevitably leads to a sobering downside."

About The Author

Matt Smith

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