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What the Future Has Taught Us

As the interior of the Perisphere is revealed, the visitor sees “Democracity” — a perfectly integrated, futuristic metropolis pulsing with life and rhythm and music. Here is a city of a million people with a working population of 250,000, whose homes are located in five satellite towns. Like great arteries, broad highways traverse expansive areas of green countryside, connecting outlying industrial centers with the city’s heart ... Democracity symbolizes the interdependence of man with his fellow and humanity’s age–old quest for knowledge, increased leisure and happiness.

So reads the official program book of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, to which I was taken as a boy. In the enormous white global “perisphere” the future (placed at the year 2039) glowed before my astonished eyes: the world’s greatest stage, with a cast of millions. Who could not be happy in such a universe of perfect two–parent, two–child families (with only the father required to hold a job) in perfectly planned suburbs along four–lane expressways? It didn’t take a hundred years for the expressways to arrive; indeed the first U.S. high–speed toll road opened in Pennsylvania in 1940. After the War the planned suburbs sprouted everywhere. Increased leisure, for some if not for most, came too. As for happiness — well, it is not yet 2039.

The “world of tomorrow” that was portrayed in the New York exposition was a happy vision, as futurist views have usually been. We have got used to such promises of peaceful, idyllic lands down the lane, like those of St. Augustine’s City of God (ca. 412), Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1888). So it is rather a jolt to read a new book issued by the World Future Society (World Futures and the United Nations, 1995), a collection of digests with critical comments of 250 recent books and reports about the future. These anticipations share two features not found in the classical Utopian writings: gloom, and watchfulness for the unexpected event (“wild card”) that will shake up other probabilities. The gloom is represented by predictions of growing populations, more disease, increasing violence, terrorism, wars, a loss of spiritual and social values, and so forth. A doomsday scenario. Although one of the wild cards might help push the trends favorably — such as a cure for cancer — other wild cards portend worse, perhaps terminal outcomes.

So we have two futures, one to look forward to, the other to dread. Science, it must be said, is on the dreading side, have produced data series to assure us that the evils will continue. Children growing up today, facing such a prospect, may be forgiven their apparent preference for quick gratifications and instant solutions to problems. But we who grew up earlier, in the perispheric days, or the triumph of 1945, or the wonders of new independence for Africa and South Asia, we still carry that stubborn optimistic gene. We look at a revolving stage, with two scenes, two tomorrows: which future teaches us the right lesson?

St. Augustine offered a powerful image: “the present is a window through which the future leaps into the past.” The present is only a split second, the future is a blur hurtling toward us, the past is a great pile of events under the window. The past events are what we study: every library has a thousand histories for every futuristic book on its shelves. But isn’t the future also there, in those histories of the past? What has been predicted has happened or not. It seems to me that most of it has not. And most of what has happened was not predicted by anyone. For example, all the great technological advances caught us by surprise, from the phonograph to the motion picture to penicillin to the airplane to the computer. And much that has gone wrong was also surprising, like the decline of the two–parent, single–worker family.

There is, I think, something to learn from these futures that have come and those that have not. Lesson one is that the Utopians have been more right than wrong. There has been a trend toward social progress at least, as we can see by looking at the big pictures of life century by century. For example the nineteenth century world of monarchies, exploited workers, colonialism, abuse of women, and illiteracy has been universally condemned and in many regions is already superseded. Lesson two is that the future, like the past, walks in long steps. There are cycles, generations, and patterns that will occur as they always have. In nations everywhere, growing middle class sectors will impose their demands for better education of their children, for better governments, for peaceful solutions.

A third lesson the future has given us is that trends collapse and reverse unpredictably. Fremont Rider alarmed librarians in 1944 with his discovery that library collections were doubling every 16 years; and there were similar doublings found in other phenomena. But doubling of collections and other entities seems to stop at a certain point, fortunately, as diverse factors act upon it. That is a small illustration of the larger theme that worst–case projections tend to encounter wild cards and lose their destructive potency. (The U.S. and U.S.S.R. never went to war, inevitable as it seemed to analysts of the 1950s. Looking further back, the world did not end as widely expected in the year 1000.)

In the futurist book before me I see dismal prognoses everywhere, especially for the less developed segments of the Third World. But I also note that no writer in that book mentions libraries. A fine library is the best rebuttal to the gloomsayers. It holds all the lessons the future has taught, and it has, more than any other social institution, the strength to carry us to the “world of tomorrow” that we want. Libraries do not double in size at a fantastic rate, but they continue to grow in number and in influence. Librarians have already turned a possible bad future (libraries replaced by computer work stations) into a better one (libraries containing computer work stations). Public libraries, as anticipated in Looking Backward, preserve what is best of the old and offer access to the new; they inform and inspire the middle class, the change group in every society. Academic libraries make research possible; special libraries make technology possible and government better. Libraries are dependable but unpredictable: the ultimate wild cards.

I wish I could say there were some library buildings down there in the 1939–2039 Democracity, but I guess there were none. Our profession seems to be always rather invisible, out of sight, behind the theater curtain. But it is behind the curtain that the stage is set.

©1995 Guy A. Marco.

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