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The FUTURE AND ITS ENEMIES: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress

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Today we have greater wealth, health, opportunity, and choice than at any time in history. Yet a chorus of intellectuals and politicians laments our current condition -- as slaves to technology, coarsened by popular culture, and insecure in the face of economic change. The future, they tell us, is dangerously out of control, and unless we precisely govern the forces of change, we risk disaster.
In The Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel explodes the myths behind these claims. Using examples that range from medicine to fashion, she explores how progress truly occurs and demonstrates that human betterment depends not on conformity to one central vision but on creativity and decentralized, open-ended trial and error. She argues that these two opposing world-views -- "stasis" vs. "dynamism" -- are replacing "left" and "right" to define our cultural and political debate as we enter the next century.
In this bold exploration of how civilizations learn, Postrel heralds a fundamental shift in the way we view politics, culture, technology, and society as we face an unknown -- and invigorating -- future.

265 pages, Paperback

First published September 1, 1998

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Virginia Postrel

8 books86 followers

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5 stars
172 (40%)
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149 (34%)
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79 (18%)
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20 (4%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 37 reviews
Profile Image for Noah Easterly.
39 reviews16 followers
July 25, 2013
My dad gave this to me to read. Here's some from my letter to him:

So far I've read the introduction ("The Search for Tomorrow") and the first two chapters ("The One Best Way" and "The Party of Life").

I figured you gave it to me so I could tell you what I think.

It is, as the author says, "An unabashedly dynamist work" (xvii), but to me, that's a drawback. Though she defines the two groups fairly succinctly ("a regulated, engineered world" vs "a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition", p. xiv) she seems to be forcing a dichotomy. There's no room for a continuum of belief - as of yet every person she's described as either stasist or dynamist, with no middle ground.

I find this dichotomy unconvincing. She goes on to attribute other values and beliefs to stasists and dynamists ("Statsists demand that knowledge be articulated and easily shared. Dynamists, by contrast, appreciate dispersed, often tacit knowledge") that don't obviously follow from the core value set. Perhaps she will prove these claims in future pages, but she hasn't yet.

She's obviously trying to sell me on her ideas, which, by this point in my education, immediately makes me suspect. The title - dividing the world into the Future (yay!) and it Enemies (boo!) trying to grip the fear impulse is a good rhetorical trick, but I need more than rhetoric. The fact that she uses as her leading example of dynamism Disneyland - the most planned community on earth, where the very lay of the land was engineered, I find extremely ironic.

I agree in part with "dynamists aren't just libertarians with a new name" (p. 47), but I'd say they aren't just Libertarians (big L, the political faction). The common labels I've seen used for dynamist and stasist are libertarian (the political stance) and authoritarian. Which jives with the other half of her description: when she describes the general stasist message as "The world has gone terribly wrong, and someone needs to take control and make things right," (p 5) she's describing a very authoritarian vision.

She leads off the second chapter with the metaphor of evolutionary algorithms. I agree, evolutionary algorithms are awesome. But, they're no panacea, so this is again a bit of a broken metaphor for me. They're expensive, require lots of time, and can be distracted by local maxima and minima. And as always, garbage in, garbage out. If your motivating examples are bogus, so will the resulting algorithm.

So emotionally, she's connecting with me on the "change is awesome, all this other stuff is holding me back" level, but intellectually she's failing to engage with me by ignoring the flaws in purely dynamic systems.

Feedback is a beautiful way to optimize and evolve, but the elephant in the room is that what feedback optimizes for may not be what you actually want. She touches some on this when she discusses stasist policies and the law of unintended consequences, but she seems to take it as given that the natural feedback mechanism of the market leads towards a future worth chasing. The market has a long history of unintended consequences, some of them beautiful, some of them hideous.

And feedback systems sometimes just aren't enough. She touts the biological example of the antibody (p. 37), yet sometimes the authoritative response of a doctor is necessary. She cites success case after success case for the dynamists, but we both know its not all success all the time, and that there's no guarantee of eventual success. In order for evolution to work, a lot of the unfit have to die. And though I'm willing to do that to ideas, I'm less cavalier about the human cost of progress.

I think that's enough for now. I've got more I could say (I've been taking notes), but I don't want to wax on too long.
Profile Image for James.
Author 6 books491 followers
February 23, 2008
Giant of a book among its peers, avoids petty liberal or conservative side-taking yet provides a powerful critique of all those who fear dynamic change. The examples are rich, the thesis feels proven by the time you finish. By the time you are done -- and, if you are honest -- you realize that the war between dynamism and stasis is alive and well in your own mind as well as in the world she describes.
Profile Image for Paul.
41 reviews21 followers
August 8, 2007
Postrel's worldview is an intriguing take on how governments and central planning squander creativity and innovation. Dynamism is the way of the future.
Profile Image for Robert.
75 reviews13 followers
June 14, 2013
This book was fantastic. Somewhere between current(ish) events, politics, sociology, and philosophy is this book. It's not about right vs. left but about change (dynamism) vs. stasis. Postrel offers a critical lens through which a lot of political/social behavior makes sense. Why did these two people with very different world views come together to promote "A" and these other two people with different views come together to fight it? Through the lens of dynamism and stasis, this question becomes answerable.

I'd say the first half of the book really soars, it's where you get the nuts and bolts of lens that Postrel is giving. The second half of the book has more nitty gritty, fine points that get made, about the importance of "play" and "verges," but by then you've already gotten the message.

This is a wonderful book, and I suggest anyone interested in learning a way to view the world that busts out of the stagnant left-right dichotomy read this book.
Profile Image for José Antonio Lopez.
158 reviews16 followers
April 2, 2021
Virginia Postrel is a great scholar in the tradition of Michael Polanyi and Frederich Hayek. The Future and its Enemies is an uncomfortable read for those who pretend and expect centralized powers to solve world problems. The world is more and more complex, the future may be overwhelming but still as complexity increases central powers are less and less capable of providing assurance and comfort. We need to learn, as Postrel explains along her book, to embrace complexity, to experiment and champion those who are willing to try different things. Adaptation to complex systems happens through spontaneous orders, not centrally commanded ones. That is why Postrel divide people in dynamist or pro future, and statists or enemies of the future.

Personally I found the chapter "Fields of Play" interesting. I'm a firm believer that the first place to learn to navigate in a complex world is through play and Postrel presents the case neatly.

the reason play is such an important dividing line between stasists and dynamists: A playful society is, of necessity, dynamic, and a dynamic society rewards, or at least tolerates, people who play. Among its many goods are ever more fields of play, from beach volleyball to cancer research to assembly lines that encourage workers to solve problems themselves.

Humans, by contrast, play all our lives, and adults do most of the inventing. For a human being not to be creative and curious is a sign of senility, not maturity.
In a stable environment, in which all necessary skills can be mastered during childhood, adults do not need to play in order to survive. But the world sometimes demands new patterns. The environment, natural as well as human, is not stable. The evolutionary advantage of play, then, seems to be that it fosters resilience. One possibility is that play, in animals or humans, simply allows an individual to accumulate lots of different experiences on which to draw when faced with a challenge. It pulls more alternatives into the realm of the familiar. An animal that played as a child will therefore be more adaptable as an adult.
But—the human advantage—an adult who continues to play will be more adaptable still, able to draw not only on old experiences but on the desire for new ones.

As long as children remain play depraved, young adults will remain fragile, poor resilient and with childish attitudes towards authority.

If you still believe that an almighty government will come to the rescue; read The Future and Its Enemies, join the dynamists and get to work.
September 12, 2019
What type of a thinker are you, static or dynamic? Virginia talks about the two types of thinkers and law makers and how the world is to be shaped in the view of both. She talks about the future and how impossible it is to be imagined in a static way. She also talks about the future and growth and how it all happens dynamically.
Profile Image for Aaron Gertler.
194 reviews70 followers
January 24, 2017
Note: This is a fun and lighthearted book of ideas, and I review it as such, rather than as a definitive literary answer to the Big Questions. I think some of the answers Postrel supplies are more or less correct, and I agree with her more often than not, but don't expect more than intellectual entertainment that will make you think a few times.

* * * * *

I love reading "big idea" books from 20 years ago. It puts a fresh spin on things not to keep seeing the same names and headlines. Instead, I can focus on ideas, and Virginia Postrel's ideas are generally good.

The Future and its Enemies explores the centuries-old war between "statists" (who regulate, restrict, and roll back change) and "dynamists" (who invent and experiment, but don't force change on others). Postrel writes an unabashed dynamist manifesto, but in a year where every major Presidential candidate was a statist, it's nice to see a book that reminds me my own era's problems aren't unique.

(For example, statists have been forcing unnecessary licenses on hairdressers since the days of Vidal Sassoon .)

If you're a libertarian, or close to it, Future is a fun read with lots of stories you can bring to your next Nineties-themed dinner party. But I'd recommend the book most strongly to an old-fashioned conservative or a socialist progressive. Postrel pokes fun at your positions, but kindly, and with a back-to-basics style that may help you see the political world with new eyes.
Profile Image for Bob.
464 reviews
April 17, 2019
Deeply stupid libertarian agitprop that hinges on libeling all opposition to unregulated markets, commercialized culture (if you reject Disneyland, you reject the greatest insights of early modern English poetry!), & ecological devastation as reactionary, stasist (as the book rebrands the tired ole libertarian slur statist), & (crypto-)racist, so Daniel Bell, Kirkpatrick Sale, Clinton & Gore, & al. are blithely equated w/ Pol Pot, the Unabomber, & US southern segregationists. What stands athwart this unruly brand of psychopaths (technocrats, conservatives, & conservationists) yelling "progress!" is a brave group of dynamists, i.e. libertarian economists & some liberals stupid enough to not realize they were duped by libertarians into embracing liberal-sounding deregulatory polices to undermine positive freedom, relative material equality, & social solidarity.

In an irony of history, this book's paean to a narrow swath of social dynamism is now as dated as mid-90's fashion or pop. It's rebrand of libertarianism as technology-fetishist centrism cannot but be absurd as many young libertarians openly proclaim their fascist politics & humanity, thanks to the political paralysis & unsubstantiated optimism of 1979-2007, which this book is symptomatic of & furthers, confronts awful crises (of ecology, large-scale population displacement, growing extremes of poverty & wealth, intensifying bigotry, & democratic enervation) whose solutions are collective or inextant. Confronted w/ the human & ecological costs of these crises, we can, at least, laugh at how dumb people celebrating this book were in 1998.
Profile Image for Marks54.
1,336 reviews1,154 followers
September 5, 2012
This is a well written and insightful book on the tensions between innovation and creativity on the one hand and economic growth and stability on the other. The issue is how the growth and prosperity that stem from the exercise of freedom and creativity can lead to increased pressures for regulation and order that can end up stifling the creativity and innovation that brought about the prosperity. The book is a cogent linking of libertarian ideas with economic ideas of entrepreneurship, innovation, and dynamism.

One does not need to agree with the author's politics to appreciate her positions and it is hard to fault much of her analysis. This is probably the best discussion of its kind available today in book form and far superior to most trade books on similar subjects. Not only is the author a superb writer, but she is also very informed on the often highly detailed arguments that swirl around serious discussions of these issues.
Profile Image for Shea Mastison.
189 reviews23 followers
October 2, 2013
I was surprised and excited when I first came across this book; the premise was very interesting, and when I found out that Virginia Postrel had acted as editor of Reason magazine, I anticipated that I would be in for an enjoyable ride.

Happily, I can report that was the case. Postrel makes the claim that society can no longer be comfortably broken into "left/right" categories, and that as a descriptive comparison, the idea of dynamism contra stasism is much more useful.

She lays out the respective visions offered by each camp; at the outset, admitting that she considers herself a dynamist. She explains the uncomfortable alliances based upon the interplay between the stasist and dynamist camps and gives some concrete (if a bit dated) examples.

This is a thought provoking book, and I heartily recommend it.
Profile Image for josh.
10 reviews
May 6, 2007
one of the few books in recent years that really shook up and helped shape how i view the world
1 review
May 10, 2023
I quickly lost interest in the book and dropped it as I started for a few reasons. The books aims to discuss many large phenomena in the world, but does not mention the role of culture, race, capitalism, etc, which is strange given the scale of the topics in the book. I'm sure it was the author's goal to speak from their perspective, libertarian and similar views, but leaving out some obvious influences in creativity, enterprise, and progress is just strange and makes the author sound out of touch. In hindsight, the positive review from Jeff Bezos in the pages of reviews should've been a big enough red flag.
Profile Image for FireHorse.
1 review
July 16, 2017
Postrel offers Dynamist and Statist as a new dichotomy for looking at things to replace old dichotomies such as Liberal and Conservative, etc. The beauty of this book is the framework it offers: More than just conveying information or her thoughts, she provides a new way to look at anything, be it political, social, commercial or any category.

As with any worthwhile nonfiction, it reads like a textbook in parts - but Postrel's style is lighter than I expected. This book is easy to understand, despite being dry in parts.
96 reviews1 follower
November 4, 2021
this book is over 20 years old, but it's still relevant. Although the politicians and intellectuals have changed, there are still prominent champions of their arguments and opinions. I feel like there's no writer who I agree with more than Virginia Postrel, and I love how she covers everything from the internet and environment to fashion and consumer products.
June 4, 2022
the enemy is government

Beautiful assessment of good vs evil as it pertains to the health of our species. It serves as both warning and inspiration for those who would make the future a better place for all mankind.
29 reviews
February 16, 2022
To shallow to be taken seriously, too stupid to be comedy; and it's full of made up facts
104 reviews30 followers
October 18, 2016
"The Future and Its Enemies" is an obvious allusion to Karl Popper's "The Open Society and Its Enemies," and a lucid description and powerful defense of the open society is exactly what this book offers. Virginia Postrel combines an intuitive understanding of how complex adaptive systems function and evolve with insights about what norms and attitudes are best-suited for maintaining our own dynamic social system.

Progress happens by allowing individuals to experiment and innovate. This launches an "infinite series" as solutions generate new problems, which spur new solutions, and so on, in every direction. Simple social rules accommodate surprisingly complex social structures, and prevent the stifling of innovation and the imposition of the "one best way". Play and frivolous experimentation are not only adaptations for living in a dynamic environment, but are intrinsically worthy human qualities that are too often dismissed by "serious" critics.

Postrel presents dynamism versus stasis as the critical ideological division in society, though both camps cross every extant ideological grouping. In the end, Postrel argues that politics and institutions themselves can only go so far in preserving an inherently fragile dynamism. These must be aided by the dynamist virtues of tolerance, toughness, forbearance, and love. I would only add that Postrel missed the ironically apposite virtue of faith. Beloved by conservatives who misunderstand its content, faith is the virtue of living and acting in the world despite our ignorance of what the future may bring. The open society, permissionless innovation, the infinite series and the unknowns they bring can be scary (so courage too is necessary), but the dynamist moves forward with the faith that it will all be worth it.

The Future and Its Enemies is chicken soup for the liberal soul.
Profile Image for Rob.
14 reviews3 followers
July 11, 2019
Virginia Postrel has found the future’s enemies, and they are what she calls the stasists, those who believe in a utopian past that cannot be improved upon (a subgroup she labels reactionaries) or those who would erase all possibility of happy accident by planning the future to the last detail (her “technocrats”). Opposed to them lie the dynamists, those who see the future as supple, unfixed and unplanned. This group’s chief virtues are experimentation, curiosity, and above all, play. The stasists, either through a false belief in the perfection of nature (the utopians) or of the perfectability of society through legislation (the technocrats), have no use for play and in fact fear it. In so doing, they crush the human spirit. A really enjoyable book that got redundant in parts, but nevertheless is still valuable twenty years after it was published.
Profile Image for Steven.
Author 31 books6 followers
September 4, 2016
I finally got around to reading The Future and Its Enemies, though I'd bought it several years ago. Author Virginia Postrel has found a new answer to the "two kinds of people in the world" separations. She doesn't divide along conservative-liberal lines or capitalist-socialist lines. She cleaves the population into dynamists and statists.

A dynamist accepts change, and the messiness and uncertainty that come with it. This is a wide-ranging book, and Postrel cites support for her thesis in hundreds of diverse examples.

The chapter titles suggest some of her themes: The Search for Tomorrow, The One Best Way, The Party of Life, The Infinite Series, The Tree of Knowledge, The Bonds of Life, Creating Nature, and On the Verge.

I strongly recommend the book.
Profile Image for James Henderson.
2,010 reviews166 followers
February 5, 2009
Virginia Postrel's vision of dynamism is the best guide for human action since the work of her intellectual mentor (and mine) Friedrich Hayek. In a short book of only eight chapters and less than three hundred pages she shatters myths about the nature and importance of technology, economic growth, and the nature of progress. Rather than focusing on traditional polarities such as right and left she shows how the views people take toward these issues define their lives and future. The result of her analysis and speculation is an invigorating look at our world and the it's future -- and who the enemies of that future may be.
Profile Image for Dana Kraft.
414 reviews9 followers
March 3, 2017
The two most thought-provoking (for me) concepts in the book were:
1. What is 'natural'? and what is 'artificial'? I certainly have a tendency to prefer something that is "natural", but her arguments make me question that tendency, and question what those words mean to me.
2. The chapter titled "On the Verge" made me think harder about how I perceive a wide range of social and economic trends. It seems like I hear the phrase "we are on the verge of...." a lot, usually intended to create fear and then action.

Overall, the book makes a good case for being optimistic and tolerant in your worldview, something that I strive for, but am probably less successful at than I'd like.
Profile Image for Art King.
100 reviews27 followers
August 28, 2007
Postrel forces you to think explicitly about the future. I have 10 children. Thus I have more invested in the future than most people. The future my children and grandchildren inherit and create be mostly shaped by people with dynamist views. After all, it is the dynamists who created civilization. To be sure, history is full of examples where the forces of stasis won over the dynamists, sometimes for centuries. However, I think the future is with the dynamists. I'm betting this book will be considered a seminal classic 100 years from now.
Profile Image for JP.
1,153 reviews38 followers
May 18, 2013
Insightful position on a rarely explored dimension, applicable to Libertarianism. Postrel is a "dynamist" (vs. "stasist") and she achieves a fascinating, compact explanation of the difference and meaning. The few years since this was published continue to prove her points. I'm still undecided regarding some of the bioethical issues, but am generally convinced of the merits of "dynamism."
9 reviews
August 6, 2013
This was a transformational book for me in the way it took the main themes of human progress out of politics and culture and placed them into something more universal and less tribal (at least in terms of left-right). Brilliantly argued by a writer who's skilled enough to state complex ideas simply.
Profile Image for Frank Thiel.
1 review
April 8, 2014
I enjoyed this book and will recommend it to others. I think the most convincing part of the book is the chapter on the bonds of life. Her idea of nested rules presents a worthwhile argument against those who would argue that this type of worldview would lead to terrible things without government regulation.
718 reviews2 followers
November 18, 2016
Top-notch, even if some chapters are better than others. I will recommend this as an outstanding introductory text to folks in the future. The distinction between dynamists, reactionaries, and technocrats is very useful and will be employed as one of my conceptual models moving forward.
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