Dr. Strangelove Reads Your Future

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By James Gibney

Before the just-released National Intelligence Council's Global Trends 2030, before bestsellers such as Nassim Taleb's "The Black Swan," John Naisbitt's "Megatrends," or Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock," there was Herman Kahn's "The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years."

The founder of the Hudson Institute and the author of "On Thermonuclear War," whose theories on "winning" nuclear exchanges made him the model for Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," Kahn was not just "the heavyweight of the Megadeath Intellectuals," as Louis Menand christened him, but also the big daddy of scenario planning. (So big, in fact, that when he visited my parents in Tokyo in the early 70s, they both had to help pull him up off the family couch at the  evening's end.) "The Year 2000," a joint effort with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences written in 1967, was among the first studies to use social science theory to bring futurism down to earth. Almost a half-century later, it still offers readers more than just Tang and sympathy.

Start with the list of "100 technical innovations very likely in the last third of the twentieth century." In 1967, Kahn basically nailed the IT revolution: "pervasive business use of computers…direct broadcasts from satellites to home receivers…simple inexpensive home video recording and playing…two-way pocket phones…extensive and intensive centralization (or automatic interconnection) of current and past personal and business information in high-speed data processors," etc. Other predictions, not so much: no "individual flying platforms…artificial moons for illuminating large areas…the use of nuclear explosives for excavation…relatively effective appetite and weight control…human hibernation for relatively extensive periods," to name a few howlers.

While his techno-lists have been parsed by the likes of Paul Krugman, I found some of Kahn's extrapolations from them more interesting. Decades before the Internet, al-Qaeda, hackers and the Patriot Act, Kahn wrote: "When nuclear weapons become subject to criminal access (miniaturization will help bring this about), and when criminal or political conspiracies can bring civil government to a halt through disrupting the computerized networks upon which it will depend, the only alternative to a new feudalism…may be forms of surveillance and control far surpassing any now in existence….Only those with enormous resources will be able…to avoid some monitoring or to interfere with transmission of the data. At the minimum, if the monitoring exists, new code languages will develop in efforts to evade some of the consequences." That's pretty good crystal-balling.

One of the biggest weaknesses of Kahn's strategic scenarios was his failure to envision some major discontinuities -- the fall of the USSR, the reunification of Germany and the rise of China. That may partly have to do with his investment, as a former RAND analyst, in the world that underpinned his research on nuclear conflict. Talking about the hazards of "responsible pessimism," he points out that "there are many areas in which the expert who has specific knowledge very much in mind may actually do less well at forecasting than the 'naïve' journalist, or the 'naïve but sophisticated' systems analyst."  I suspect that as someone in the latter category, Kahn also had little sympathy for the great man theory of history, which may help explain why he was unable to anticipate Deng Xiaoping and the post-Mao economic revolution he launched in China.

Still, even with those big misses, some scenarios in Kahn's "Other Twenty-First Century Nightmares" from a half-century ago could have appeared, only slightly reworked, in the NIC report released today. That speaks more to his credit than to the NIC's. Certainly his warning about the limits of futuristic policymaking still stands: “As long as we are in a state of uncertainty about both ends and means, the most important principle may be to refrain from attempting to legislate for the future in detail. Social policies should be devised that leave large amounts of freedom… and that, so far as possible, avoid foreclosing avenues of future revision and new decision.”

(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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-0- Dec/10/2012 21:34 GMT