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Essays

Two Questions

Published on Friday, February 10, 01995  •  22 years, 2 months ago
Written by Stewart Brand for Wired

On her recent album, Bright Red, Laurie Anderson posed the big one - "What do you think? Are things getting better, or are they getting worse?"

(Answer three times; the question is worth it. First answers are usually knee-jerk. Second answers tend to be cute. Third answers to the same question sometimes tell the truth.)

While you're working through your answers, I'll talk about Herman Kahn and free will. The late, great futurist Kahn used to ponder the question of free will with his audiences. "It's a fundamental question," he would say. "Do we have free will, or is everything determined? I don't have an answer I'm sure of, but I am convinced that people behave better when they think they have free will. They take responsibility more, and they think about their choices more. So I believe in free will."

Most people these days believe things are getting worse. At Global Business Network, we help strategists in large organizations all over the world shape their future. Their view of it is almost always bleak. We also study opinion surveys from around the world. Same thing: people everywhere are worried about the future. (The only two exceptions we've found are businesspeople in Southeast Asia and readers of Wired.)

Maybe that's as it should be. There is a lot to worry about. If people fret enough, maybe they'll take measures to fix things before things get worse.

Preserve us from witless optimists!

On the other hand, how does the question play against Herman Kahn's pragmatism test? Do people behave better when they think things are getting better or when they think things are getting worse? If you truly think things are getting worse, won't you grab everything you can, while you can?

Reap now, sow nothing.

But if you think things are getting better, you invest in the future. Sow now, reap later. How you think about the future depends in part on how you think about time.

Laurie Anderson has another question on her album:

I'd like to know her interpretation of that question. Mine is that time can be thought of in terms of everything-happening-now-and-last-week-and-next-week (wide) or as a deep, flowing process in which centuries are minor events (long). The wide view sees events as most influenced by what is happening at the moment. The long view perceives events as most influenced by history - "much was decided before you were born." The wide view is disparaged as "short-term thinking."

The long view is praised as responsible.

Wide time is on the increase these days, and for good reason. Technology seems to be accelerating, and you have to keep up. Networks and markets, instead of staid old hierarchies, rule, and you have to keep up.

Wired readers, I warrant, are largely wide-timers. When you look at our sense of the deep past and the deep future, both are faux - medieval fantasies in one direction, space fantasies in the other. We are interested in, for instance, the exponential growth of the Web. It's useless to try to imagine what the Web might be like in, say, 2045 (as far-removed in time as Hiroshima), so we don't bother. Does this mean that technoids and their camp-followers are responsibility-impaired?

Could be.

Environmentalists are supposed to be the long-view specialists these days, but I think we do it poorly. I was trained as an ecologist, so I know how extremely limited our "longitudinal studies" are - about the length of time it takes to get a graduate degree. Because it is the long, slow fluctuations and cycles that most influence everything in ecology, we still don't have the most important information on how natural systems actually work over time.

Also, we're calamity callers. We're the leading apostles of Things Are Getting Worse. Gregg Easterbrook has written a whole fat book of environmental good news called A Moment on the Earth, in which he fricassees his fellow environmentalists for scanting their many successes and occasionally lying about their problems (he points out that spotted owls abound in second-growth forests, for example). Some years back, pioneer environmentalist René Dubos - who coined the phrase "Think globally, act locally" - wrote a paean to the places where humans and natural systems blend beautifully. It was titled The Wooing of the Earth. It is long out-of-print.

Dubos and Easterbrook have the responsible approach. Things are getting better. Sow now, reap later.

As for Laurie Anderson, in recent concerts she told of interviewing avant-garde composer John Cage when he was 80 - "an age when most people are in a bad mood." She put the better-or-worse question to him. Cage hedged cheerfully for a while and then admitted he thought things are getting better - slowwwly. That's just right.

First published in Wired Magazine's 01995 Scenarios issue.