The Future and Its Enemies by Virginia Postrel

Postrel has a talent for uniquely insightful critiques of culture and politics, and it's on full display in this work. The premise is that there is another axis on which to plot people's views on the world, contrasting with the traditional conservative/liberal classification scheme. She calls these new labels stasism and dynamism. In a nutshell, stasists want the world to stay the same, or to change in predictable, planned ways. Dynamists believe in a chaotic marketplace of ideas, where individuals are free to experiment with new techniques, where progress is an emergent property of the best techniques bubbling to the top.

Defined this way, family-values conservatives (who fear culture change and speak of moral decay) and extreme environmentalists (who fear technological progress and promote a return to primitive tribal societies) get lumped together into the same category of stasism. Another important type of stasist is what she calls the technocrat, someone who believes that the world can and should change, but only under the careful guidance of some top-level authority, typically the regulating hand of government. Central planning for city layouts, food production, and so on were highly regarded throughout the 20th century, though after nearly 100 years of dismal results most have lost faith in heavy-handed technocracy. Still, many people believe that technology is too dangerous to let evolve on its own, and that only the guiding hand of some authority can protect us from bad science gone amuck.

Postrel creates many terms throughout the book. Another one I like quite a bit is the "infinite series," referring to the steady beat of progress, each innovation providing a platform from which the next round of improvements can occur. In this way, culture and technology are ever improving themselves. This is not something that has an end, which has an interesting logical implication: there can be no such thing as perfection, no such thing as a utopia. Perfection can not be improved upon, so any progress leading to perfection cannot be infinite.

Rating: 3 of 5
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Other books by Virginia Postrel:
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