The Tomorrow People

By Hari Kunzru, 10 May 2001

For a good few years before the NASDAQ began to crash, a certain synchronicity existed between where California’s tech companies said they were going and where their share price went. Did they know something the rest of us didn’t? Or did they have better kit? One popular tool they might have used is ‘futurecasting’, a cybernetically enhanced mode of storytelling. Last summer Hari Kunzru went to California to meet the Global Business Network, an eclectic cabal of futurecasters, and its founder Peter Schwartz. One year on, how bright does the futurecasters’ future look?


Last summer, just before the dot com bubble burst, I visited San Francisco. The Bay Area local press was already running nervous articles on high burn rates in the new tech sector, and noting the advent of ‘pink slip parties’ held by sacked dot com employees, which were starting to replace the lavish corporate launches of the previous three years. Nevertheless the atmosphere at the Webby Awards, a glitzy ceremony for the beneficiaries of the technology boom, was upbeat and self-congratulatory. Limos pulled up to the Masonic auditorium on Nob Hill, disgorging twenty-something CEOs and their highly-styled partners. Outside the ceremony, activists protested about the destruction of the working class community in the Mission District, which was being pushed out by spiralling property prices. No one took much notice of them. They were yesterday. Inside the auditorium, standing on the shoulders of the workers from Adobe, C|Net and Google trying to out-cheer each other like rival fans at a sports event, was tomorrow.

In retrospect, no one seemed aware of what was on the horizon. The crash was neither predicted nor planned for. This has an irony to it, since prediction and control of the future were the cornerstones of the ideology driving the dot com bubble. Much has been written (a lot of it by Californians) about California’s ‘future-orientated’ society, with its focus on envisioning, creating and profiting from new trends and technologies. From the 1849 gold rush to the space race (orchestrated by West Coast aerospace companies), California’s history has been driven by a sort of techno-economic transcendentalism, a yearning for a New Jerusalem on the temporal (Tomorrow!) and physical (The West!) frontier; dot com was simply the latest incarnation of an established trend.

For a period in the 1990s confidence in the future and in the possibilities of prediction and control was exemplified by Wired magazine and by the Global Business Network, a strategic consultancy specialising in ‘scenario planning’ a technique of futurism with its origins in cybernetics. Both Wired and GBN became associated with a visionary teleology, an account of a near future in which the accelerated deployment of new technologies of computer networking would lead to an exponential rise in economic prosperity and an attendant social and cultural renaissance. This rhetoric was instrumental in selling dot com to a techno-illiterate (and initially techno-indifferent) public. Its millenarian quality (“Everything You Know Is Wrong” was the poorly-judged slogan for the publicity campaign which launched Wired UK – a doomed venture in which I played a role) appalled and excited people in equal measure, and arguably it was the cascade of this rhetoric through the mediasphere that inflated the bubble in the first place.

The high-water mark came with the publication in Wired in 1997 of an article by a group of GBN affiliates entitled ‘The Long Boom’. “The world” they wrote, “is faced with a historic opportunity”. In a book-length expansion of the article, GBN co-founder Peter Schwartz argues that computers and telecommunications are increasing the productive capacity of the economy and that big companies are becoming more flexible and responsible. Soon a whole new generation of technologies will provide clean energy, better health and massively-increased longevity. Schwartz states his belief that “with the right choices” the economic boom which the US and Europe is enjoying “has the potential to pull the whole world into it, allowing literally billions of people to move into middle-class lifestyles. And that spreading prosperity will help bring about beneficial changes far beyond the economy, changes that could truly make this a better world.”

By the time of my visit, a body of criticism of this position, mainly from writers in Europe, had emerged. In this view Schwartz and his organisation are not ‘objective’ futurists, but proponents of a particular free-market libertarian political position which has the not-coincidental effect of reinforcing America’s global hegemony. GBN is proud of the network of experts they use to provide insights for their clients. Economists, business theorists and financial bigwigs like Robert Hormats, vice-chair of Goldman Sachs, are mixed with politicians, including the odd former US Undersecretary of State. There are technologists – a very A-list crowd – including the founders of Sun Microsystems, Broderbund Software and Thinking Machines, neurobiologists, anthropologists, complexity theorists and even a paleontologist. There are writers and musicians – Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Douglas Coupland, William Gibson and beat poet Gary Snyder are all on the books. There is even an Apollo 9 astronaut. To the European critics this list has a quasi-masonic quality, reading like a roll of Californian illuminati.

The Long Boom is what GBN calls a ‘scenario’, a form of structured story-telling about the future. It is an example of a style of futurism which stems from cybernetics, the creation of Norbert Wiener, who dreamed of a science of rational prediction and control. During the Cold War cybernetics was hugely influential on both sides of the iron curtain. In the USSR Wiener’s books were at first banned (a 1954 Concise Dictionary of Philosophy defines cybernetics as a “reactionary pseudo-science”), but during the fifties the climate thawed and in 1960 a decision was taken to found the USSR’s first cybernetic institute at the Novosibirsk academic village, Siberia. During the latter part of the Khruschev era and into the Brezhnev period, cybernetics became increasingly integrated into the running of the Soviet state, and was applied particularly intensively in the grand plan of centrally managing the economy. Economic data was collected and fed into Moscow mainframes, which determined ‘rational’ price and production levels that were then imposed on the regions – with disastrous results.

The USA made its own gargantuan command-control blunders, notably with the RAND corporation’s attempt to cybernetically manage the Vietnam war. RAND conducted a vast information-gathering enterprise, with every patrol, every engagement being recorded on standardised forms whose impersonal mathematical language of ‘contacts’ and ‘kill ratios’ became part of the popular jargon of the war. Throughout the years of America’s engagement in South East Asia RAND ran this data through cybernetic models which influenced both policy and military strategy – RAND simulations (which failed, for example, to take into account NVA morale as a factor) were a primary justification for the bombings of North Vietnam and Cambodia. The greatest debacle came in the latter stages of American engagement when a simulation exercise was conducted to find out how much longer the war would continue. The response given by the computer was a date several years previously.

Like these Cold War policy-makers, Wiener had always believed in the application of cybernetics to social and cultural systems, and the idea of modelling the variation of such systems over time was an idea which held great fascination for futurists. Since no mathematics existed to make such models, it remained a tantalising dream, a dream which seemed to promise profound, even transcendental revelations. This extension of this American science into the realm of ideology was largely responsible for 1950s Soviet hostility to cybernetics. At RAND, futurist Herman Kahn, who had previously worked with John Von Neumann on the ‘Monte Carlo’ simulation of the effects of a nuclear explosion, turned to the ideas of social cybernetics to model entire nuclear wars. Kahn chaired the Strategic Objectives Committee, which proposed a variety of simulations that became the basis for US strategy throughout the Cold War. Kahn’s wargames played through a variety of scenarios, taking imaginary conflicts through forty-four “rungs of escalation” from “ostensible crisis” through “justifiable counterforce attack” to “global nuclear war.” Utilising game theory models like the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, Kahn’s scenarios had a social element, political situations being represented and considered through an increasingly ‘soft’ non-mathematical technics of modelling.

Kahn’s published works were widely read, and the concept of cybernetically modelling the future spread from military to business circles. Corporations began to allocate large budgets to cybernetic futurism. In the mid-sixties the oil company Royal Dutch Shell hired an eccentric Belgian, Pierre Wack, to run its planning department. Prone to burning incense and chanting mantras in the office, Wack cut an unusual figure in the corporate world. He was also a disciple of two seemingly contradictory things – Kahn’s RAND scenarios, and the thought of the central Asian mystic Gurdjieff. From RAND he learnt the importance of research, of collating accurate information about the present in order to make predictions – and through the abject failure of RAND’s methods in Vietnam, the uselessness of simply trying to mathematically extrapolate the future from the present. From Gurdjieff, he took the idea that a certain number of ‘remarkable men’ exist in the world at any one time, people whose knowledge has the power to change the world. From a fusion of the two he invented ‘scenario planning’ a technique where organisations create a number of ‘alternate futures’: visions of how the world might be in ten, twenty or fifty years time. To do this they work with ‘remarkable’ outside thinkers and are encouraged to step away from the ‘official future’ – whatever the mainstream picture of things might be in their organisation.

Scenarios, in Wack’s definition, are like science fiction stories, except with rules. No aliens. No disregarding plausibility. GBN founder Peter Schwartz likens them to movie scripts and it seems no accident that they thrive in California, home of Hollywood. There are, Schwartz stresses, some differences. “SF is not bounded by reality. You can rewrite the rules of reality. With scenarios you can’t. SF is intended to stimulate and entertain. Scenarios are about improving decisions. The purposes are quite different.” If a company has, say, four different futures in front of them, they can see where their business would fit into each possible scheme of things. Making pictures helps notoriously hidebound corporation man ‘think the unthinkable’. In a world where the birth rate is tiny, what does that do to his sales of disposable nappies? How will a CD pressing plant fare if everyone starts listening to music online?

Schwartz worked under Wack at Royal Dutch Shell, and when Wack retired, took over his job. Schwartz’s own scenario-planning claimed its first major victory when he accurately predicted the possibility of an oil crisis in the early seventies. When it actually happened, Shell was able weather the storm much better than their competitors. Scenarios, unsurprisingly, became a topic of interest to organisations around the world. Schwartz is a dapper bearded man with sparkling eyes and the engaging manner and studiedly-open body language of a great salesman. We sat down in his Bay Area office, beneath pictures of his kids and a plastic model of the Mars Lander, and he said things into my tape recorder like “we are on the brink of extending human life very far into the future”, “there is about to be an energy revolution” and “in 2050 we will look back on the turn of the century as a time of monumental change.” He spoke rapidly, with a slickness honed by countless conference debates and corporate presentations.

“When I set out in this business twenty-seven years ago,” he started, in one of those introductions which ought to cue the opening of a bio-pic, “I wanted to figure out what was a better future and how to get there. I was a student activist in the 1960s, I was a leader of the student rebellion at Columbia University, big in the anti-war movement, all that. But as a result, at the end of it I knew what I didn’t like, but I didn’t know what I did like. I was honest enough to look at the communist world and say, the extreme Left, that ain’t it. I looked at a lot of what I saw in the US from conservative politics on the Right and said, I don’t like that either – so what’s a better future? So I set out to answer the question. I set out to get a career that would allow me to answer that question.”

By the eighties Schwartz had left Shell to join Californian think-tank SRI, an outfit which among other things first conceived of the computer mouse. Then in 1987, along with a group of former colleagues from SRI, from Shell and even further back in his countercultural past, he formed the Global Business Network. One of GBN’s co-founders was Stewart Brand, one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, publisher of the Whole Earth catalogue and founder of the Well, the prototypical online community. Other GBN associates include the ex-manager of the Grateful Dead and Peter Coyote, movie actor and member of famous San Francisco commune The Diggers. With such figures blended in with the rest of the ‘remarkable men’, the GBN is inevitably a management consultancy with a strong utopian flavour.

GBN has built scenarios for a vast range of organisations, from civil engineering firms to the government of Colombia. The Christian Brothers of Rome recently hired them to look at the long-term prospects for their celibate religious order; they are having (understandable) problems recruiting young members. One of GBN’s greatest successes came in 1991, when they went to South Africa to see if futurism could help move the country out of its apartheid-era impasse. The resulting ‘Mont Fleur Scenarios’ showed that the only future in which South Africa could potentially thrive was one in which there was real power-sharing.

In all the GBN sessions I attended, from a corporate all-dayer at a Berkeley hotel to an open meeting addressed by a British futurist with a specialism in the environment, there was a scrupulousness about exploring a variety of possible alternatives, and (among the insiders at least) a shared set of intellectual reference points – more or less what you would expect from a crowd of middle-aged San Franciscans – Gregory Bateson, Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, the green movement. Nothing appeared to justify the European suspicions of a sinister plot; not the unpretentious offices in a shabby part of Oakland, nor the good-natured banter and faintly hobby-horse-ish point-scoring among the participants. However in writing The Long Boom, Peter Schwartz has crossed the line from disinterested futurism to political advocacy, in the process breaking the cardinal rule of a scenario planning session – that there should always be a set of alternatives. The Long Boom contains a single well-developed scenario, and a call to make it come true. Schwartz’s book has been positively-received by decision-makers around the world – including (in Britain) members of the Prime Minister’s policy unit and on the Bank of England’s interest rates committee. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the ‘rich man’s club’ of industrialised nations, was so excited by the original ‘Long Boom’ article that it convened a special conference to discuss it.

Driven by high tech optimism and unabashed celebration of American innovation, The Long Boom is Peter Schwartz’s ultimate scenario, what he describes as his futurist “PhD thesis, written in the light of everything I’ve learnt over the years.” The argument turns on a single point – that all the economic laws of the industrial era, like scarcity of resources and diminishing returns, are about to collapse. This is the defining New Economy idea, and Schwartz (with his co-writers Peter Leyden and Joel Hyatt) builds it into a seductive vision. In the future, he argues, economic value will not be based on physical stuff, but on the circulation of knowledge. Already much of our economy, from news journalism to mortgage advice is based on information, rather than tangible things. Even in very physical processes like car-making, ‘knowledge’ infuses everything, from the new body styling which attracts customers to the just-in-time delivery system which gets the parts to the assembly line. Unlike objects, which are finite and scarce, knowledge is abundant. You can’t quantify how many ideas there are in the world and every second of the day people are having more. Yet some of them can create real value. So making money in the New Economy is about skillfully extracting value from this torrent of information, not labouring to add it to raw materials. Think of the world this way and the logic of the dotcom bubble becomes self-sustaining. The proposition is that a new dotcom’s knowledge, the idea behind it, an idea whose sole physical embodiment may be in its business plan, is what makes it valuable. In its extreme form, this is a kind of transcendental dematerialisation, the soul of economic value unshackled from its troublesome material body. This is the proposition which, in the last year, has ceased to convince the global technology markets.

The Long Boom imagines a future where this explosion of abundance goes global. It also argues that apart from these magic-wand changes of economic laws, a series of crucial technological advances are in the offing, which are likely to have profound effects on the world. “Right now, “ Schwartz points out, “there are 500 new drugs in trials in the US. Typically there are maybe 25.” Add to this the knowledge from the human genome project, and the drug treatments and gene therapies it will bring, and the result will be a massive improvement in health and longevity. “You and I have a shot at a hundred and fifty” he tells me, beaming. “Our kids may live for centuries.” Add to this the possibilities of fuel cells, nanotechology and computerisation, and you have some compelling reasons for optimism.

The final requirement for a ‘Long Boom’ will be a political one. “Going global,” says Schwartz, “is the first principle. I understand the fears of the anti-globalisation protestors, but I think they’re fundamentally wrong.” He paints a picture of a ‘virtuous circle’ where the integration of the global economy leads to innovation and accelerates growth, which in turn spreads affluence, decreases poverty and produces a wave of tolerance. Comfortable, well-off people won’t want to fight each other. In the contrasting ‘vicious circle’, in which the global protestors put up “trade barriers”, the effect is a spiral of economic stagnation, poverty and intolerance.

Schwartz stresses that the Long Boom is a ‘vision’ of a possible world that could easily not come to pass. Many problems could short-circuit it – from ecological crisis to fragmentation caused by the current plethora of small ethnic conflicts. Thus he has devoted much of the last few years to bringing the gospel of the Long Boom to the ears of influential people round the world. Asked about his British contacts he mentions Geoff Mulgan, founder of influential think-tank Demos and member of Tony Blair’s policy unit as ‘a fan’. Deanne Julius, until April one of the three-person committee who set UK interest rates at the Bank of England, though sceptical about the possibility of a Boom, presented a paper to the OECD outlining three policy frameworks to facilitate it.

To many people Schwartz’s ‘vision’ of free market capitalism trickling down wealth to the poor is, to say the least, a little rosy. He dismisses such fears. “The Left aspires towards making the world a more jusand fair place, whereas the Right says that’s not possible. My view is that I’m not sure you can make the world a more fair place, but you can help those people who have been left out by creating sufficient abundance – and history now shows us over the last fifty years that if you have high growth and an abundant economy eventually everybody benefits. Is that fair? No. Is that equitable? No. But if you ask people at the bottom, whether they would prefer that to being poor – would I like to have my house even if my house isn’t as big as his house, the answer is ‘yes thank you, I’ll take the house’! If you ask the poor, they’re as realistic as anyone else.”

Confronting the other major argument against globalisation – that the main reason Americans are so enthusiastic about it is because it will extend their cultural and economic dominance of the world, Schwartz is equally unfazed. “What we think of as Americanisation – Coca-Cola, McDonalds and baseball caps worn backwards – is very superficial. The values and cultures and histories and belief systems that make up a culture are very deeply embedded. You can’t change cultures easily even if you want to.” He believes that globalised cultures might acquire an initial American veneer, which will then even out, in a harmonious cultural exchange. The question of whether globalisation will just reinforce American economic hegemony is similarly dismissed. America may get there first, but soon the rest of the world will catch up – as long as we don’t disregard Long Boom principles.

Much of the book version of The Long Boom reads like a statement of America’s manifest destiny to lead the world into the future. At one point Schwartz describes the westward movement of something called the ‘axis of innovation’, a kind of cultural ground zero which shifts through history from Greece and Rome, through Europe and England to land in the USA, flooding it with the “power to influence the rest of civilisation in the long term.” Although America’s current position as global superpower is undeniable, this kind of rhetoric (“where the future is being born”) feels like nothing so much as a sales pitch. The notion of California, in particular, as somehow literally existing in the future (“five years ahead”, “ten years ahead”) is a common feature of much Bay Area conversation. Remember, in the new knowledge economy, talking yourself up is a literal method of generating wealth.

However, despite the dark suspicions in Europe that GBN are a sinister force, when I asked around in SF dot com circles, people laughed. GBN were seen as hippy relics, people from the old days of the Net, who seemed out of place in the new accelerated corporate San Francisco, the San Francisco where you couldn’t find a parking place, clubs had door policies, and anyone earning less than $100,000 a year was being pushed out across the Bay. “GBN”, as someone said to me at a party on the roof of the Industry Standard building, “are, like, so nineties”.

Yet though GBN’s star may be fading, ‘the future’ is likely to remain the site of a highly-charged political battle. The alliance of cybernetic futurism and emergent New Economy ideas in which information is held to be a direct generator of economic value mean that information about the future circulates as an increasingly-important commodity. It exists both as mathematical formalisations (computer simulations, economic projections, weather reports, futures trading) and informal descriptions (science fiction cinema, religious prophecy, venture capital) as well as the formal / informal hybrids created by professional futurists.

West Coast business culture, steeped in cybernetics, has always cannily promoted positive feedback between future-oriented media and capital (notably in the Cold War use of science fiction about space exploration to promote aerospace industry research). Looking back at the media generated by the computer boom of the last ten years, it is clear that the effect of futurist fictions, projections and predictions has been to fuel our desire for a technology boom. From The Matrix to Enemy of the State, product-placed Hollywood visions (ambivalent, dystopic, yet sexy) of the awesome reality-controlling, reality-producing power of computer networks have contributed to an explosion in the technologies they hymn. As New Economy ideas take hold, a subtle oscillation between prediction and control is being engineered. The consensus is that virtual futures generate capital, which is to say that successful or powerful descriptions of the future have an increasing ability to draw us towards them, to command us to make them flesh. Early twentieth-century avant-gardists revolted in the name of the future against a power-structure which had its source in control and representation of the past. Today the situation is reversed. Now the powerful employ futurists, and draw power from the futures they endorse, condemning the disempowered to live in the past. The present moment is stretching, slipping for some into yesterday, reaching for others into tomorrow.

A year on from my visit, the atmosphere in the Bay Area has changed beyond recognition. The classic Californian disaster movie scenario has been played out across the peaceful abundant meadows of the technology boom. Towering inferno, great earthquake, market crash. The ideas in The Long Boom no longer seem backed up by short term trends in stock prices, though certain other key aspects of the scenario (pharmaceuticals, nanotechology) have been gathering pace lately. But it will take more than a market downturn to kill futurism. The dream of a predictable, controllable tomorrow, a tomorrow which can be created, or at least planned-for, is still tantalisingly present on the horizon.

Hari Kunzru <>

>> Illustrations by Simon Worthington