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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Reason Once Tried to Predict The Future: How Did We Do?

By: Virginia Postrel

It was May 1993. Barely two years earlier, a failed coup attempt had marked the last gasp of Soviet Communism. The Cold War was over. Germany was reunified. The Baltic countries were independent. In the former Yugoslavia, Sarajevo was under siege.

Bill Clinton, a New Democrat who spoke the wonky language of neo-classical economics, was in his first months as president. Ross Perot's upstart candidacy had made the budget deficit a high-profile issue. A free trade treaty with Mexico and Canada was awaiting ratification. The European Union would be born in November.

Later that year, I'd visit Silicon Valley and ask computer whiz Mark S. Miller how Reason should "get on the internet," as our techie friends kept telling us to do. I had a Compu-Serve account. Should we start a Reason bulletin board? Wait, he counseled: "There's this thing called the World Wide Web, and it's going to be big."

A month after Reason's 25th anniversary issue hit newsstands, Marc Andreessen released Mosaic, the first graphical browser. The next year he started Netscape, whose commercial Navigator browser made the web widely accessible. The internet age had arrived.

We were on the cusp of a new era, but the 25th anniversary issue was not high-concept. It had no clever structure or big theme. As editor, I did the easy thing. I asked interesting thinkers to contribute essays on whatever they wanted to write about, given the loosest of prompts: Look ahead 25 years.

Picking writers I wanted to read gave the issue implicit direction. Another editor might have commissioned policy-focused pieces or rants against the evils of the state. (Richard Epstein did focus on health care, making the surefire prediction that "there will be greater government control over the provision of health-care services in this country 25 years from now than there is today.") But for the most part, my tastes produced meditations on culture, commerce, and technology.

With some telling blind spots, including my own, the essayists were remarkably prescient. In the intervening years, the challenges they posed have gone from interesting to critical. A generation later, three major themes still resonate.

1. Frictionless communication. "Imagine now the world that awaits—a world shaped by perfect communication over any distance, between any pair, or any cluster, of 'telescreens,' a world in which records can be maintained and manipulated, combined and merged, moved and processed, effortlessly and at almost no cost," wrote Peter Huber. In George Orwell's 1984, the "telescreen" was an instrument of totalitarian control. The real-world version, Huber predicted, would be liberating.

"The telescreen will give voice to the average man, the man who has never before owned a printing press or a broadcast station," he wrote. And "once large numbers of people have their own, private interests in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it."

True. There would also be furious arguments over private ostracism of unwanted voices and fierce competition for attention amid the buzz. It's easier than ever to publish but tougher than ever to find an audience. Censorship is difficult, but so is sorting the worthwhile and true from the noise and nonsense.

"Ignorance will collide with the telescreen itself. People will now educate themselves," Huber wrote. He didn't imagine how easily people would "educate themselves" on the dangers of vaccines, the imperative to establish an Islamist caliphate, the phony birth records of Barack Obama, or the U.S. government conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks. He forgot about the flaws of the average—or any—man. And we've only begun to grapple with the other side of the ubiquitous telescreen: its potential for surveillance.

Read the rest at Reason.