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The Future of Freedom and High Technology
February 11, 1999
Virginia I. Postrel


Introductiory Remarks by David Theroux

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is David Theroux. For those I haven’t met, I hope I get a chance meet you before you leave tonight. I am the President of The Independent Institute. I am delighted to have you here tonight at our Independent Policy Forum program. As you know, it is on a rather dynamic topic of the future of freedom and high technology and dynamism as a concept. This evening’s program is part of an expanded series of lectures, seminars and debates that we are holding. Last week we held one on “Private Solutions for the Social Security Crisis.” In two weeks, we have one with Shelby Steele, “The New Betrayal of Black Freedom in America,” and in your packet that I hope most of you got, there is a schedule of upcoming events. We will be holding events about two or three times per month.

As some of you may know, The Institute is an academic, public policy research institute. We have about 130 research fellows currently at different universities who produce many books. We have a quarterly journal called The Independent Review, which I hope everyone will be subscribing to, as they are already of course for Reason Magazine. We invite you to become a member of The Institute and hope you participate in future events here. I think you will find the program stimulating and challenging. We are also interested in your feedback, suggestions and programs you would like to see.

For over 200 years in normally productive dynamic what some people would consider having Smith’s invisible hand on the marketplace, has created unprecedented wealth, knowledge and human well being. Yet, today economic growth, progress, technology, freedom and so forth, are increasingly under assault by people from both sides of the political spectrum and people who defy sort of the characterization of that. Based on her new book, which I think has been getting some excellent attention. Most of you have gotten a copy of it. It is called The Future and Its Enemies. Our speaker this evening will discuss why only the unpredictable dynamism of open competitive entrepurnerial societies can yield widespread human betterment. What indeed causes economic and social progress? What creates innovation? How do we expand human knowledge? Does the freedom to choose lead to chaos and destruction? These and other questions lie at the root of many of the public disputes that we see daily in the newspapers and disputes that perhaps will determine the future of us and those who are yearning to be upwardly mobile.

Virginia Postrel is the editor of Reason Magazine. She is a columnist for Forbes and its companion technology magazine Forbes ASAP. She is contributing editor to the online magazine Her work appears frequently in the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and other newspapers and other publications. Under her leadership, Reason was selected as the finalist for the National Magazine Awards, the industry’s highest honor. This was in 1993 and for public interest journalism in 1996 and 1998. Virginia has twice also been a finalist in the contemporary category of the Gerald Vogue awards for distinguished business and financial journalism for her column in Reason. Many of you, I hope join with me, if you do get Reason the first thing I read are Virginia’s columns. In 1995 she received the free press association’s Mencken Award for commentary. Her Los Angeles Times’ article on the 1992 riots and the 1990 Washington Post piece on political realignment, were named among the 10 best commentary pieces other respective years by The Media Guide. So I am very pleased to introduce Virginia Postrel.

Virginia I. Postrel

Thank you very much, David. It is great to be here with The Independent Institute. You do terrific work, and I was very pleased to have you invite me. I am very pleased that all of you came and I am doubly pleased that you all had plenty of time to eat and drink because that will make you cheery, and you’ll laugh at my jokes.

As David said, and I know a lot of you have it, my book is called The Future and Its Enemies. A lot of people think this is a really great title. In fact people come up to me frequently that haven’t read the book, but they have read the title and they say what a great title. But you know, a lot of people really hate this title and in fact they actually condemn it because it sounds too polarized—I mean all that talk about enemies. It sounds too mean. In fact, the high tech magazine Upside, which some of you may read may be familiar with, even called me a fascist based on the title. The book was not even out. The galleys were not even out. Based on the title of the book they called me a fascist. In the same article, by the way, they also called me anarchist. I see you’re attuned to political currents. It makes me kind of a unique creature.

But in fact the title of my book has an important point and it’s a true point. The open end of the future, the future I am talking about and explain in the book does have enemies. Some of them are very influential people. Let me just give you one example: I’ve lately been reading a new book called False Hope and it’s by Daniel Callahan. Now I realize Daniel Callahan is not a household word, but he is a very influential man. He is the co-founder of the Hastings Center, who is the leading bio-ethics think tank in this country, and he is one of the nations most highly regarded, most quoted, most influential bio-ethicist. Anytime you look for his name, now that you’ve heard it, Daniel Callahan, you will find him anytime there is an article in the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal, surrounding up the usual suspects to comment on this or that new biomedical discovery or some issue about healthcare delivery you will often find Daniel Callahan’s quoted. He is completely establishment figure. Sort of an establishment liberal. He is not like some of the people I sometimes quote, a fringe figure.

Now, in his book, False Hopes, Callahan makes it clear that he is not at all happy with the state of contemporary medicine. Now of course a lot of us have complaints with contemporary medicine, but he has a somewhat unusual one. His complaint is that it is too ambitious. He is very upset that contemporary medicine has “neither evident boundaries nor carefully considered finite goals.” Its spirit he worries is that of unlimited horizons, of infinite possibilities of ameliorating the human conditions. Medicine’s future is to be open ended. It must go as far as it can and then try to go further.

Now that’s not a bad description of contemporary medicine’s ambitions. What’s different is that Callahan thinks this is just awful. It’s terrible. It’s why he wrote the book. And he says the problem is not just the doctors. It’s not just the nurses. It’s not just the other healthcare practitioners. It’s not just biomedical researchers with their Frankenstein complexes or the greedy pharmaceutical companies. The problem is the damn patients. The patients will not be content with their fates. Now remember this guy is very influential. Most of all he writes, they would like to be free of the constraints of nature, which gives them too much suffering, too much illness, too early a death, too many children, too much genetic determinism, and too precarious a hold on a life of their own choosing. If medicine is to change, and that’s of course the point of the book that it should. If medicine is to change, then its view of the self must be changed as well.

In place of today’s open ended, dynamic medical culture and practice, Callahan advocates what he calls “sustainable medicine.” Now this term “sustainable” will be familiar to you—those of you who follow the environmental movement and that is in fact exactly where he got it. He didn’t invent it independently. He seeks “a medicine that has with public support embraced finite and steady stake health goals and has limited aspirations for progress and technological innovation.”

Now I use to carry Callahan’s book around with me until it got too heavy. Because he is such a perfect illustration of what I am writing about in The Future and Its Enemies. Some of my friends said did you really go out and invent this guy? He even uses the same language that I use. All the words I use are good—words like “open ended”; words like “ambitious”; words like “progress”, he uses as bad words. With his craving for the finite, steady stake goals, as he puts it. His hatred of what he calls the Promethean self and his attack on markets and technological innovations, Callahan perfectly illustrates, perfectly encapsulates, one side of what I argue in the book is our emerging political cultural and intellectual landscapes.

Remember that earlier when I was talking about how influential he was, I called him a liberal. That is probably what he would call himself. But he is not a liberal in the meaningful sense, in the normal way we use the term. In fact, I can and do in the book quote another bio-ethicist, a man named Leon Katz, greatly beloved, by the Weekly Standard, and other conservative organizations who says almost exactly the same thing. He doesn’t quite use exactly the same language, but he says the same thing, and he is a conservative. Conservatives don’t really mean what they once did.

This isn’t just the case with medicine. The same principles come up again and again on topics ranging from international trade to popular culture—from education and transportation, from the Internet to the environment, from professional licensing to global financial markets. The open-ended feature has become the central issue of our time. It is as important as defining our political landscape as the Cold War once was. On one side of the new divide are those who, like Callahan, crave stasis. They want the world to hold still. Their central values are stability and control. They want to curb, direct or end the unpredictable trial and error experimentation through which the open-ended future evolves. They seek one best way, and they are at war with creativity, enterprise and progress.

Now, of course, you don’t get very far in American public life declaring a war on creativity. There is no creativity czar in Washington trying to stamp it out. Instead, these stasis aim their attack at the processing through which these values are carried—markets, technological innovation, cultural exchange and our ambition to reinvent ourselves. Callahan pretty much wraps them into one great package.

On the other side of this great divide are those who support dynamism, and their central value is learning, which in itself is an open ended process. We don’t know what we don’t know, and we are always discovering more. The more we learn the more we realize we can learn. Dynamists, therefore, seek not to impose one particular vision on the future—one best way—but only to protect one simple, underlying roles that allow many different visions to compete and to co-exist. Dynamists do defend progress and they defend progress in the very way that Callahan attacks it. It’s not a matter of marching toward some utopia. It’s an ongoing process. It’s the opposite of a steady state.

So, what I would like to with you tonight is to explore progress a bit—explore this dynamic vision and then end with a little discussion of policy.

To protect dynamism requires an understanding of where progress comes from, so when we can perceive when it is threatened. If progress does not come from some sort of inexorable, historical laws or someone’s master plan as we once were told, how does it happen? Is it a real thing? So, I want to look at three components of how progress happens—each of which can be wracked by stasis schemes. First, the demand side of progress—the infinite series of form follows failure. Second, the supply side—near infinite combinations. And finally, how do we find the combinations, the power the play?

Now, Callahan is concerned mostly with the first component. This infinite, open-ended quest for improvement—our open-ended ambitions. Since he talks about medicine, I will use a medical example myself—contact lenses, which are one of my favorite inventions and I’ll explain later why I’m not wearing mine.

Now when you think about it, a contact lens is a very strange idea. You are going to put a lens right smack on someone’s eyeball and somehow it will perfectly correct their vision, it will get them to 20/20. It took about 50 years to get this from concept to something that would work. From ground glass lenses that couldn’t be worn for more than 2 hours without serious damage to the plastics that were invented after World War II that solved the basic problem—hard lenses. Some of you may remember I use to wear them. You can wear them all day. They correct your vision. They were sort of expensive but you could wear them all day without any damage.

Now if progress were a matter of going to an end point, that would be the end of progress on contact lenses. Hey, they work, but, of course, as soon as you achieve that goal, you start to think of other ones. Gee, if you could wear them all day, wouldn’t it be nice if you could wear them all night, so that if you wake up in the middle of the night and want to see the clock, hey there it is. Or, wouldn’t it be nice if we could mass-produce them rather than custom makes them to the particular person. We could get the cost down. Eventually they got the cost down enough so that you could throw them away every week or two. The disposables that I wear are those kind. Well, once you do that, you start to think it would be even better if we could throw them away every day. Certainly the opthamologists and optometrists like that because it’s much more sanitary. You start imagining different kinds of lenses you can invent. Of course there are issues like astigmatism or bifocal lenses. I can hardly believe bifocal lenses work, but they do—they tell me. Lenses that protect from ultra-violet rays or lenses that are purely cosmetic that just change your eye color.

Down the street from where I live in Los Angeles, there is an optometrist who advertises all kinds of funky lenses. You can get lenses that make your eyes look like an 8 ball or like a galaxy swirl. Or around Halloween and actually up through Christmas, he had an ad out for red vampire lenses or lenses that made your eyes look like cat eyes, sort of a yellowish color with a vertical slit. If we put on our science fiction hats, we can imagine lenses that can function as computer screens. Instead of clicking your mouse, you might just blink. Or lenses that would be jacked into the global position satellite to show you exactly where you were so you don’t have to call The Independent Institute for directions. You need never be out of touch.

The point is that one idea suggests the next and there is no such thing as a perfect lens, nor could you imagine there being because everyone is different. We all don’t want red vampire lenses, let’s face it. And, of course, we all have different eyes. Civil engineering professor Henry Petroski, who has written some great books about the history of ordinary things like forks and zippers—I mean he did a whole book on the pencil—calls this quest “Form Follows Failure”. And the point of Form Follows Failure is not that an invention doesn’t work. It’s that an invention may do exactly what its creator intended and still as soon as we see it, we imagine how it could be better. It’s an open-ended process. “There can be no such thing as a perfected artifact,” writes Petroski. “The future perfect can only be a tense, not a thing.” The very nature of progress dictates an open-ended and inherently imperfect future and that’s what stases like Callahan don’t like.

Okay, that’s the demand side, but where do we get this, aren’t we running out of resources? How are we going to get all these inventions? Fortunately, inventions not only suggest their own improvements, but they also suggest new inventions—new combinations like computer screens with contact lenses. Combinations are the supply side of progress and they’re the answer to that whole challenge—aren’t we running out of resources?

The real limit to progress isn’t the amount of stuff we have; it’s not even the number of ideas we have. It’s all the different ways those things can be combined, and once you start combining things, the numbers get very big very fast. One example, which I brought with me, is Legos. These are Duplos, which are for younger children but they are exactly the same as Legos and they make better visual aides because you can actually see them. These six Legos, according to the company, can be combined in 102 million different ways. While I carry them this way for travel, once you start fooling with them, you start to believe that might actually be true. And that’s just six blocks. If you take 52 cards, in a deck of cards, you can get 10 to the power of 68 possible card decks. One followed by 68 zeros. That means that every time you shuffle a deck of cards, either a literal deck or you’re playing computer solitaire, that order has probably never come up in the history of cards—assuming that your computer is not rigged. And speaking of computers, we can see how even those 52 cards are nothing. Recombining the ones and zeros on an ordinary 1.4 megabyte floppy disk can generate 10 to the 3.5 million bit strings. And those bit strings can be words, they can be graphics, they can be numbers, they can be computer programs, they can be music. They can be any combination of the above, and you start to see how people who work with computers might have a little belief in progress or at least in the possibility of different inventions.

The point is in the real constraint on our inventiveness is not the number of objects in the world, the limit to resources idea, but the number of ways of combining ideas or objects. That means that we are limited in a very real sense only by our imaginations and by the time we have to exercise them. Now fortunately that time includes not only our own life spans, or we would all still be living in caves, but the creative legacies of past generations, their experiments, their mistakes, their inventions and all the knowledge they bequeathed us of which we can build.

So, combinations are good things, but they don’t just generate themselves. Somebody has to come up with all those new ideas. Now there are many different spurs to creativity and one of my favorites is deadlines. It is a very popular one in the journalism business. But one of the most important and one that I experience myself despite the deadlines, is often admitted in these discussions, and that is the power of play. By which I do not mean things that are trivial but rather the things we do for their own sake. For the pleasure of overcoming the challenges they present.

This source of progress runs counter to what I call the repression theory, which follows turn-of-the-century sociologist Max Weber in seeing the puritan ethic of self-denial, thrift and duty as an essential ingredient in both scientific progress and capitalist economics. The repression theory holds that our civilization depends on an orderly society of drums. This is a very popular idea among intellectuals. In fact, I hasten to say, the repression theory has held both by people who like repression and think we should have more of it, and I have talked to a lot of those people in Washington while I was doing the conservative circuit there—they threw spitballs at me—no they didn’t, because they’re repressed fortunately. They just made angry speeches. But it is also held by people who dislike repression and who, therefore, say that since capitalism and science require repression, we don’t want anything to do with them. We want to go back to living in peasant villages.

But there is a flaw in this theory. A society of orderly drums can in fact for a while reproduce what has been bequeathed from the creativity of the past, but it can’t really create things that are new. Innovation requires a different spirit. And again, keeping with our theme of the evening, I have a contact lens story.

Back in August, a man named Otto Wichterle died and I wrote a column about him for Forbes. Wichterle was the Czechoslovakian chemist who back in 1961 invented soft contact lenses. This guy was definitely the sort of person, if you were casting a Hollywood movie, he would be the villain because he had that mad scientist quality. You can read most scientific papers and you can hear his little voice coming through and them saying “they laughed at me and called me bad.” Everybody thought his ideas were crazy. And his research was always getting shut down, and he was always having problems with the bosses. But when his research on the soft contact lens got shut down, he kept going. He was a very stubborn man. He kept going in his kitchen, and he and his wife used a photograph and an erector set and came up with this jerry-rigged apparatus through which he developed what he called the spun molds techniques. I won’t go into the details, because frankly I don’t quite understand them, but this spun mold technique, which he hastens to tell us no one thought would work, was what made contact lenses a mass-produced good.

Now the repression theory doesn’t explain Otto Wichterle’s inventiveness and neither does greed. Don’t forget, he was living in communist Czechoslovakia. The government got all the money from his invention, and being such good businessmen, all of the money from his invention was $330,000 for the world rights to the soft contact lens. But, of course, even in a communist country you can get a lot of good stuff if you’re popular—if you do well in your work. You can get a better apartment, better lab, get to travel abroad, be an honorary of the state. But Wichterle was indeed a very stubborn man, and he was also a political dissident. While he never went to jail for his beliefs, it wrecked his career. He was a great chemist, but he was always in some backwater lab. He didn’t work out of duty to his family, I mean he was a good family man but his career management was not how to be a good provider. He was inspired mainly by the pleasure of the pursuit and by the desire to prove his critics wrong. The purist of motives and also the most self-centered. Like many inventors, Wichtele was able to see new combinations that no one else had thought possible because he was inspired by the spirit of play.

Now all these principles: form follows failure, the power of combinations and the spirit of play come together in a dynamic process of decentralized experimentation and feedback—learning by trial and error. Any effort to rig that discovery process, whether by picking a winner in advance, blocking competition and entry, or limiting criticism hampers learning.

And this, of course, is where politics reenters the picture. Stasists are constantly trying either to stop experiments or to predetermine their outcome. To pick winners and losers or simply to protect the status quo. They react to new ideas much the way the black and white establishment in the movie “Pleasantville” reacted to the changes that were making their world colored. I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie, but the basic ideas is kids from the 1990s in a world of a 1950s sitcom. Classic static utopia where everything is wonderful—where everything is pleasant and nothing changes. As soon as they get there, things start to change. People start to be self-expressive and it’s very much a sort of exploration of dynamism. I would argue from the point of view of someone whose touchstones are the arts, particularly visual versus business and technology.

Now, in the movie when things start to change, the establishment doesn’t like it, so what do they do? Well, they hold democratic meetings. They have participatory democracy at its finest. They involve stakeholders. They let people have their say and the pass regulations on business and regulations on ideas. Now as you might expect from a Hollywood movie, many of these are sort of censorship regulations. You can’t play jazz or early rock and roll on the jukebox any more. You can only play Perry Como and the marches of John Phillips Souza. The schools can only teach the non-changes view of history.

Well what interested me about the movie was that its creators, like Daniel Callahan, understood that innovation is inherently tied to markets. I’m sure they wouldn’t put it that way, but that’s what they showed. Most of the regulations passed, were business regulations. They banned the sale of double beds, because of course this is a 1950s sitcom and everybody sleeps in single beds. They banned the sale of umbrellas and any other apparel suggesting inclement weather because as the human world got dynamic, so did the natural world. They banned every paint color except black, white and gray. That was placed very much for both comic and serious effect in the movie. But as I’ve gone around the country on this book tour people keep telling me about these paint regulations in the real world. While I don’t think there are any towns that have banned everything but black, white and gray, we’re getting there.

In the real world we see a similar process of legislation, regulation and litigation. With little tolerance either for diversity or for the time it takes to work out bugs or develop new institutions. When the Internet first burst into public conscienceness, Washington’s first reaction was to censor it and perhaps subsidize it at the same time. Now we’re going through the privacy phase where we have a drive to oppose one single set of standards and practices on how online sites will handle personal information rather than letting choice present a contract and disclosure, allowing different arrangements to evolve but possibly some technical software fixes as well. Medical care is the same sort of issue. It’s not just Daniel Callahan. We see a constant stream of calls for ways to control the process of medicine. We’re going to regulate HMOs. We’re going to declare a right to Viagra. We’re going to rein in biotechnology. Lately I have been seeing a lot of suggestions that now that stem cell research is too popular or too promising to be banned, maybe we’ll have to subsidize it so it can be more closely regulated.

In the book I talk about all the craziness that went on with the development of credit cards in the 1960s and all the hearings that were held before Congress about how this idea could not possibly work. About how it was so dangerous to the United States. We were going to become a nation of credit drunks, and we must have regulations. A lot of mistakes were made along the way. Many millions of dollars were lost, but today we have this remarkable financial institution because that process continued.

One of the most effective ways to impose stasis is stamp out risk. Now here I explain what happened to my contact lenses. Sleeping in your contact lenses is a very risky thing. In fact it has an 8 to 12 times greater risk of corneal ulcers than not sleeping in your contact lenses. In my case, it appears to be about 100% chance, because this is the third one I’ve had. There are many people who think that that risk should mean that these contact lenses should not be marketed. That, in fact, because I was traveling to New York, I had to go to another opthamologist, not my own at home, take the caveat emptor approach, and this guy, my editor’s opthamologist, lectured me on how the FDA had never approved this use of these contact lenses. It was very clear that if he had his way, they would be off the market today. And yet as I argue in the book, the only way you get the safer lenses of the future, is through the process of doctors who are willing to take risks using the less safe lenses of today.

Callahan, for his part, wants to require that every new medical innovation be proven in advance to be cost effective. If it’s impossible to make such a judgment because, for example, we don’t have the data, he says that’s okay we’ll just do without. The issue, he said, should be resolved in favor of the standard of strictness. Even if this increases the odds that the technology will not be developed or, I suspect, because the decrease in the odds that it will not be developed.

In the end, the battle between dynamism and stasis is a dispute over how civilizations learn and whether they should. Dynamists have grand ambitions. We imagine a greatly better human future. But they make modest claims. They acknowledge that we are largely ignorant and that there’s always room for improvement. The knowledge about what people want, about how they’ll use new ideas, about whether they’ll even adopt a new idea, about what complimentary idea, goods or services might be available to help it or what competitors might need it. All this knowledge is scattered. We don’t know in advance what will really represent progress. All we can do is start from where we are, try to do better, see what happens and correct errors as we go. This infinite series of experiments, many of which are destined to fail, can be unsettling. It can even be scary. But only through such efforts can we better ourselves and our posterity. And only through them, can we realize our full humanity. As Friedrich Hayek so aptly wrote, “it is in the process of learning, the effects of having learned something new, that man enjoys the gift of his intelligence. It is in curiosity, problem solving and play that we discover who we are. These are the very qualities and activities that make the future unknown, unknowable and filled with promise.” Thank you!


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