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Get ready for a white-water ride

Futurist Robert Theobald offers this modest prediction: "Starting today, and continuing in the weeks ahead, we're going to be deluged with predictions. We'll be told by all sorts of experts what will happen in 1999, particularly in the economy, but in many other areas as well."

Worse, he predicts, too many of us will believe the hype _ no matter that most predictions turn out wide of the mark even during normal times, let alone during the "unaccustomed uncertainty" ahead.

That last, of course, is a prediction, and Theobald, on the phone from his home in Spokane, Wash., chuckles at himself for falling into the snare he's warning about. But he's serious about the perils of prognostication _ not just that it wastes time but because it "bolsters our belief that we can, by assembling the right experts, know the future and plan for it in comforting detail, and distracts us from the necessity to pay attention to what's happening around us here and now."

One example of the inadequacy of our foresight: "The Cold War taught us that the real danger in the world was the East-West conflict, and when the Cold War came to an end we concluded that we would no longer need the CIA and spies and huge armies. We know now that the world is still a dangerous place, but dangerous in ways that are harder to predict and prepare for."

A second example reflects his recent work on the Y2K problem.

"I don't really expect major trouble in the United States _ at least not directly," says Theobald, whose latest book is Reworking Success: New Communities at the Millennium. "It's true we don't yet know the extent of the problem here, but it's likely that any disruptions here will be short-lived.

"It's the second- and third-level impacts over time that may be very serious. I mean things like the possibility of Japanese bank failures, or the impossibility of importing and exporting products and the impact of that on our own economy. Suppose we take great care and fix our Y2K problem with minimal disruption, but then the U.S. becomes the safe haven for all the money in the rest of the world, while those economies collapse. What will that mean here?

"People are going to have to make decisions about what they believe the effect of Y2K will be, and if they are to avoid disaster, those decisions must be acted upon early in the year. One of the greatest dangers is that people will wait until the last quarter of the year and then rush out to the stores and overstock on food, medicine and other goods, and the supply chain won't be able to manage it.

"Or say there's a run on cash because people will fear the banks won't be able to handle Y2K. Stocking up on cash may be a prudent decision for an individual, but if a great many of us do this "prudent' thing, it might bring down the banks."

It's the spinoff problems that Theobald believes are beyond our predictive powers. What, for instance, might be the effect on public safety if the Y2K problem leads thousands of us to keep more cash on hand _ thereby making us vulnerable to burglars? Most of our Y2K discussions have been about the middle class. But what of the poor who have little chance of laying up stores of emergency food and no chance of putting aside much cash?

What has all this to do with Theobald's warnings against predictions?

"I suppose what I'm saying is not that we shouldn't try to be prudent, as individuals and as a society, but two other things: First, that we must break the pattern that has us thinking that the government or big business or some cadre of experts is going to solve every problem with no particular effort from us. Most of the experts are wrong most of the time, and we're simply going to have to use our own best judgment. Second, that we know far, far less than we think we know, and that means we're going to have to get used to living with uncertainty.

"People who do white-water rafting tell me that the one thing you must not do is to say you fully understand the river, because the river will surely do something unexpected and unpredictable. All you can do is stay alert to each situation as it confronts you.

"That's precisely what we must do in these rapids of change into which we've now entered."

Washington Post Writers Group

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