Predicting Obama in 1983

One of my habits is to read books and articles about social and political trends that were predicted more than 25 years ago to see how well the prognosticators did. I used to love to read Popular Mechanics magazine and the stories that were published about what the future will be like. The article “Miracles You’ll See in the Next 50 Years,” published February 1950, showed a picture of a woman hosing off her sofa that carried this caption: “Because everything in her home is waterproof, the housewife of 2000 can do her daily cleaning with a hose.” My wife is still waiting for that one to come true.

Alvin Toffler is probably America’s most noted futurist. His books Future Shock and The Third Wave set the standard for predicting social, political, information, and technological trends.  Future Shock sold more than seven million copies around the world. This is an astounding number for a non-fiction book that isn’t about Marilyn Monroe or Michael Jackson. The Third Wave was another international bestseller and was translated into Danish, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish, Japanese, and Turkish.

The following was taken from Toffler’s 1983 book Previews and Premises. It’s as if he had this present administration in view:

“Imagine not centralized data banks and computers, but an Apple or TRS-80 [personal computer by Radio Shack] in every kitchen, all linked up in ever-changing networks. That’s more like we’re headed and it’s a nightmare for central planners.

“That kind of society is much harder to control from the top. The ‘decision load’ of the planners becomes literally unmanageable.

“Here’s the key: the more diverse or differentiated any society becomes, the more the local conditions vary, the faster the changes become, the more variation there is from moment to moment. . . . You can’t make good decisions unless you can continually monitor their effects. For this you need people who are located on the periphery to tell you what’s happening. You need information and you need it on time. You most especially need information about your errors. It’s called negative feedback.

“But that’s the last thing you, as a central planner, want to hear. You’re always afraid your boss will punish you. Whole careers are built on denying error.

“So the people down below, not being stupid, sugar coat the information or just plain lie, or send in the truth too late, or play any number of other games with the information.

“Why not? If they can’t participate in making a decision, or setting quotas, and have no responsibility for the decision, it’s better to tell you what you want to hear or, better yet, tell you as little as possible. Or, alternatively, drown you in useless information. They have no control over how the information will be used. It might even be used against their best interests.

“At a minimum, the central planner must have multiple, parallel channels of information extending into every capillary of the system under control, and he or she needs internal devil’s advocates, whistle-blowers, critics and nay-sayers who have nothing to lose by talking back. But I know of no centrally planned economy in which anything remotely like this exists — and for obvious reasons. Any such system, honestly run, poses a continuing threat to the central planner.

“So the central planner in a non-participatory system lives in a world of lies, illusions and anachronisms — and whole economies can be wrecked as a result, and, indeed, have been. History is littered with stupid decisions made by quite intelligent central planners.”

* * * * *

“I don’t care how intelligent the planners are, how many Ph.D.s they hire, or how good they are at delegating, or how big their computers are. At some point, in the high-diversity, fast-change environment we live in, they’re overwhelmed. The people at the center have to make too many decisions about too many things they can’t possibly understand.”1

Toffler wasn’t a prophet. He was a student of history and past social and economic trends. It’s not difficult to predict what damage economic planning can do and why it is impossible. Socialists claim it is the duty of the State to implement laws to break down economic and social “inequities,” a form of class warfare, pitting the “rich” over against the “poor.” The effect of socialist policies has been disastrous. Rich and poor do reach parity under a socialist system — everybody becomes poor, except those implementing the laws.

  1. Alvin Toffler, Previews & Premises: An Interview with the Author of Future Shock and The Third Wave (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1983), 96–98. []