Virginia Postrel on the future
“How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis—a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism—a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning?… Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise?”
Review of her book The Future and its enemies by Dr Edward Younkins.
Dynamists prefer an open-minded society where creativity and enterprise, operating under general and predictable rules, generate progress in unpredictable ways. Dynamists appreciate evolutionary processes such as market competition, playful experimentation, scientific inquiry, and technological innovation. A dynamist is one who works creatively across barriers and obstacles and in areas once thought to be disparate to construct combinations based on the free play of imagination and discovery. Dynamists seek progress, rather than perfection, through trial and error, feedback loops, incremental improvement, diversity, and choice. They are learners, experimenters, risk takers, and entrepreneurs who understand the importance of local knowledge and evolved solutions to complex problems. Not surprisingly, dynamists are frequently attracted to biological metaphors as symbols of unpredictable change and growth, variety, experimentation, feedback, and adaptation. The author explains that dynamism is for people who like process and pattern and an order that is unpredictable, spontaneous, and ever-shifting. Dynamists appreciate dispersed, even tacit, knowledge and recognise the limits of the human mind at the same time that they celebrate learning. They also prefer competing nested rule sets and want to limit universal rule-making to broadly applicable and rarely changed principles. Dynamists also permit many visions and accept competing dreams. To work together, they do not have to agree on metaphysical principles or what the future should look like. Ms Postrel states that the central organising principle of dynamism is an open-ended process and that its central value is learning. Unconscious evolution can sometimes develop better solutions than can the best engineers. Dynamists, members of what Ms Postrel calls the party of life, look for solutions to emerge from the interaction of all the individuals. They share beliefs in spontaneous order, experiments and feedback, unintended consequences, an infinite series of evolved solutions to complex problems, the limits of centralised knowledge, and the possibility of progress. Dynamists care about protecting the processes that permit an open-ended future to unfold. Dynamists learn from choice, competition, and criticism. Both new ideas and criticism are part of the process of trial and error learning. Dynamists also understand that cultures learn from experience. Dynamists appreciate and accept the variety of human life and value the joys and possibilities of human life that can occur when people are free to experiment and learn. The dynamist moral vision emphasises individual flourishing and responsibility — it sees human nature fulfilled in learning, creating, and adapting to the world. Dynamists believe in the capacity of human beings, gradually and voluntarily, by trial and error, to improve their lives. Ms Postrel discusses dynamists’ attraction to systemic, process-oriented approaches and their appreciation for how simple units and simple rules can form complex orders without design and produce countless combinations. Patterns are shaped by decentralised actions, feedback, and responses. For example, dynamists see the market as a process, a decentralised system for discovering and sharing knowledge and for trading and expressing value. Dynamism sees the past and the future as inextricably connected and progress as incremental — knowledge and experience are cumulative. Dynamists believe that we live in a world of options constrained by decisions already made and actions already taken — many before we were even born. They attempt to refine and improve our inherited ideas and determine more precisely the limits to their applicability. Dynamists view cultural trends as part of a decentralised, undirected process of experiment, feedback, and learning. Progress, for the dynamist, is an infinite series — a process, rather than a product. For them, an opportunity is a problem no one has solved, addressed, or considered. Innovations are based on coming up with new combinations of ideas, testing them, finding their deficiencies, trying possibly better combinations, etc. Technological progress thus is a series of stages involving experimentation, competition, mistakes, and feedback. A trial and error process invests no one with decision power, assumes no one is omniscient, acknowledges human differences, and permits diverse approaches. This process recognises the human condition including both the limits and potential of the human mind. An infinite series of progress allows for learning, diffused expertise, and the search for x-factors — the unarticulated knowledge that can only be elicited by experience and experiment. So-called tacit knowledge is expressed in relationships and habits transmitted through webs of economic and social connections. Tacit knowledge, a special case of local knowledge, is embedded, in the things, customs, services, and routines we encounter daily. Tacit knowledge sometimes only travels through apprenticeship. The paucity of articulated knowledge increases the value of turning local (including tacit) knowledge into easily shared information or products. Local knowledge is dynamic, constantly adjusting to new ideas, information, and events. It exists as dispersed bits of incomplete and sometimes contradictory knowledge which all separate individuals possess. Prices are an important signal of changes in local conditions.