Interview with Virginia Postrel
Q: Your book is about the future. Should we be fearful or optimistic?
A: Both. It's human nature to look for ways to
improve the world around us, whether that's coming
up with a better computer program or trying a new
way to get your kid to eat his vegetables. Progress
comes from trial and error, when we're free to try
things and free to reject ideas that don't work.
That makes me optimistic about the future. The
problem comes when people either try to stamp out
experimentation or try to cram one possibly
hare-brained scheme down everyone's throat.
Q: Is your book about politics?
A: This isn't really a book about politics. It's about how we as a society
learn. It looks at a wide range of examples, from Vidal Sassoon's
hairstyling innovations to the connection between optical lens technology
and the artistry of Citizen Kane. Newt Gingrich does put in an appearance,
but mostly to praise beach volleyball. What's political about the book is
that it says our biggest political divide today is over whether you allow
trial-and-error learning to take placewhether you're comfortable with the
open-ended, unknown future.
Q: To the extent that it is about politics, your book completely defies the
conventional mindset of left vs. right. What's going on?
A: Our conventional left-right categories don't work on a lot of very hot
ssues. They don't tell us why Pat Buchanan and Jeremy Rifkin can go on
Crossfire and spend the whole show agreeing with each other that the future
looks bleak and economic change is dangerous. They don't explain why
"left-wing" environmentalists and "right-wing" nativists both oppose
immigration. They don't tell us why people on both the left and the right
are denouncing popular culture, Wal-Mart, international trade, and the
Internet. And they don't explain why you also have a left-right convergence
in the opposite direction: "conservatives" and "liberals" who support open
markets, technological innovation, new media competition, or a simpler, less
manipulative tax code. The old categories don't explain why both the left
and the right seem to have cracked up. Something important is going on that
conventional political and cultural analysts are missing.
Q: What does this new landscape look like?
A: On one side of the new political landscape you have what I call
"stasists." They view the future as a dangerous abyss. To avoid the abyss,
some stasists want a return to some imagined, more stable past. These
stasists would include such people as Pat Buchanan and Jeremy Rifkin, or the
anti-technology activist Kirkpatrick Sale, who goes around smashing
computers to illustrate his speeches. Other stasists want to build a safe
"bridge" to the future. They want to control the future. You get a lot of
that among politicians. In either case, stasists first decide the one best
future for everyone and then they work to impose it.
On the other side of the new political landscape are what I call
"dynamists." They see the future as an exciting process of experimentation
and learning. That process has many different outcomes, for different
people. There isn't "one best way." Dynamists celebrate such open-ended
processes as scientific inquiry, market competition, artistic innovation, or
technological invention. So they include people like Freeman Dyson, writing
about science; or Tom Peters, looking at business innovation; or Stewart
Brand, writing about How Buildings Learn; or the whole Wired crowd. Henry
Petroski's book The Evolution of Useful Things has some great examples and
ideas about the dynamics of invention. Dynamists tend to be less overtly
political than stasists, because they aren't trying to grab government power
to impose their ideas. But their visionespecially of the economy as a
processincreasingly affects our politics.
Q: You write about the need for experimentation and feedback and trial and
error. Why are these things so important?
A: Everything that works in our lives, from technology to manners to writing
techniques, was refined over a long period of time. We don't know in advance
how to do anything, and there's always room for improvement. Progress is an
infinite series. Henry Petroski uses the phrase "form follows failure" to
capture this idea. We find improvements by looking at what doesn't work,
trying something we think will be better, and seeing whether in fact it is.
Contact lenses took almost 100 years to get rightand they were a pretty
crazy idea when they started out. And some things never work: flying cars,
for instance, or Kleenex Avert Virucidal Tissues, which terrified customers
with that deadly name. You don't want to stop the process of improvement,
and you don't want to declare any idea a permanent winner.
Q: Your book is very critical of planning and centralized authority. Why is
A: I've got nothing against small-scale planningwe planned this interview.
A certain amount of predictability is essential. My problem is with the
assumption that somebody can take a God's eye view, know everything
important, and work out grand plan for everyone. That's what stasists want
to do, with their idea of the "one best way." There are two competing
visions of knowledge. In the book, I talk about them as trees: Stasists see
knowledge as a tall, spindly palm treeone long trunk with a few fronds on
top. Dynamists, by contrast, envision knowledge as a spreading elm
treelots of dispersed knowledge, communicated through complex channels,
often at a great distance. We benefit from things other people know that we
don't. And a lot of knowledge is hidden.
In the early '80s, for instance, clothing companies got advice from
high-powered consultants who told them that women were getting older and
fatter and that they should therefore make clothes that weren't sexy or
revealing but practical. That wasn't, however, what people wanted to buy.
All those basics just stayed on the store shelves, while women bought
miniskirted business suits and clingy slip dresses. The consultants missed
the "X-factor." They had excellent demographic information, but they missed
the hidden knowledge of what would inspire people to buy. A lot of public
policy is based on that same ideathat someone can know everything
important. San Francisco zoned new restaurants out of its neighborhoods. Its
planners assumed they knew what people needed, and would need into the
futurestores, not restaurants. So when Starbucks came into town, they
couldn't open the sorts of neighborhood hangouts that have made them so
popular. It was illegal for them to put in chairs. They had to get the law
changed, to create a new category called "beverage houses." Of course, that
only solves the problem until the next new idea comes around.
Q: Some people might view your hands-off approach to dealing with the future
as reckless and insensitive to the needs of people who are being left behind
by rapid change. How do you respond?
A: The first thing I'd say is that people who want to stop change, by giving
some decision making body the power to choose a single future for everyone,
are in fact making society more brittle. The savings and loan crisis of the
1980s was a direct result of static policy makingtrying to dictate exactly
what financial institutions should look like and then protect them from
change or innovation. That static vision failed, and it cost billions of
dollars to recover from. Stasists are being reckless, by taking away the
ability to adapt. So, for instance, you find that the U.S. economy is much
more resilient than Europe. Yes, people lose their jobs here, but that's
rarely a permanent tragedy. New jobs are being created all the time, and
companies are eager to find new workers. Whereas in Europe, it's simply
assumed that nobody is going to take a chance on hiring young
peoplesky-high unemployment among young workers is a huge problem. Making
young people economically irrelevant seems terribly insensitive to me.
Then you have the stasists who absolutely hate the idea of progress, who are
determined to keep the world's peasants yoked behind their water buffalo for
all eternity. That's profoundly inhumane. They dress it up in pretty prose,
but what the stasist ideal of "stability" offers is poverty, disease,
ignorance, and death.
So stasis is something we should fear. But I also have a positive
messagethat the dynamist vision is one that celebrates our greatest human
capacities, above all the capacity to learn. The world is a turbulent place,
with or without human efforts. Dynamism teaches us that we have to be
adaptable, innovative, and alert. But that's what human beings were meant to
be. That's what makes us special.