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The search for foresight: Future Shock and the magic of the future; The founding president recounts the World Future Society's experiments in new programs, such as a forum on energy, a workshop for teachers, and a tour of Scandinavia. Voluntary services by members enable the Society to survive despite its financial woes.

There is something magic about the future that I can't fully explain, but I felt it strongly at the World Future Society's early conferences.

Our very first conference, in 1971, showed that a focus on the future had the power to turn people who had been enemies into friendly collaborators. Then, in 1974, the Society's special forum on energy demonstrated that a future focus also facilitates close collaboration among people with very different backgrounds and concerns. I was especially impressed by the fact that our energy forum succeeded in bringing together "doers" and "thinkers."

Our principal speaker at the Energy Forum, Gerald Ford, would soon become President of the United States, hence America's chief doer. He would have overall responsibility for setting the U.S. government's energy policies. We also had on our program the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Glenn T. Seaborg, who had discovered plutonium and served as chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Seaborg was perhaps the world's most profound thinker on the subject of energy.

At our Forum, Ford and Seaborg came literally face to face and shared their views with 550 other thinkers and doers who were also concerned with the complex problems of using energy wisely. So I felt the meeting was an extraordinary success, even though it had left us financially on the edge of bankruptcy.

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Clearly we had come a long way in the seven years since the Society's founding in 1966. Back then, futurists were viewed as oddities, freaks, crystal-ball gazers, tea-leaf readers, science-fiction nuts, weirdoes, or worse. Now, in the company of people like Gerald Ford and Glenn Seaborg, futurists were getting some respect.

Our improved status was due primarily to the extraordinary help we got from our members and friends. Though very few donated money, there must have been a thousand or more by 1974 who had helped by providing voluntary services of one kind or another. They contributed articles to THE FUTURIST, spoke at Society meetings without requiring payment, or helped organize Society chapters and events. This voluntary support was tremendously heart-warming and helped me keep optimistic despite our financial perils.

It is impossible to acknowledge all the people who helped the Society in one way or another during its early years, but I must mention the unique role played by Alvin and Heidi Toffler.

Future Shock

I first met Al and Heidi Toffler in 1966 when they came to Washington to do research at the Library of Congress. They were working on a book about "future shock"--the disorientation that rapid technological and social change was having on people in modern society--and they sought me out because they had seen my prototype issue of THE FUTURIST.

The three of us had supper at the Hay-Adams Hotel on Lafayette Square across from the White House. We discussed our future-oriented projects and parted company as new friends and allies. I looked forward to reading their book.

When the book, Future Shock, finally appeared in 1970, I found it even better than I anticipated, but I still was astounded at its phenomenal success. Overnight, everybody seemed to be reading it--even people caught up in the hurly-burly of the White House where I was working as a consultant. One reader was the head of our section, Leonard Garment, who later was suspected (erroneously) of being the "Deep Throat" who exposed the Watergate scandal.

Future Shock's extraordinary success recalled Rachel Carson's 1962 best-seller, Silent Spring, which triggered the environmental movement of the 1960s. Silent Spring vividly described how pesticides were poisoning the songbirds and toxic wastes were killing fish in rivers and streams. Activists all over America quickly rushed to Mother Nature's defense, and politicians responded with new laws to protect the environment. In 1970, President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency.

Future Shock sold millions of copies, but it failed to stir up a similar mass movement because it did not provide a suitable target for social activists. The "enemy" in Future Shock was simply rapid technological and social change, but most people want change in the form of more comfortable homes, higher quality food, better health care, etc. So nobody picketed the White House with signs saying, "STOP PROGRESS!" and the U.S. government never established a "Future Protection Agency."

On the other hand, Future Shock did a lot to develop future consciousness among thoughtful people, and so proved an extraordinary boon to the young World Future Society. In 1966, when my colleagues and I organized the Society, we felt we had to constantly stress the scientific legitimacy of our enterprise. But after the appearance of Future Shock in 1970, many people began to view futurists as cutting-edge thinkers who should be listened to with respect.

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This improvement in the image of futurists helped the Society to grow rapidly during the 1970s, but for me personally, it was a bit unsettling. I regarded myself simply as a journalist reporting on what scientists and scholars were saying about the future. I did not think of myself as an "expert" on the future. Yet, suddenly, I found people viewing me as someone who could tell them all about what was going to happen in the future, as if I were some kind of wizard!

I began receiving invitations to give speeches about the future, and it was often hard to beg off. One of the first invitations was more of a command from my wife to speak to her mothers' group at the local Unitarian church. I solved that problem by simply telling the ladies some of the things Al Toffler said in Future Shock.

A more difficult problem came when I got an invitation to lecture at Columbia University. The professor apologized for the small size of the honorarium--$50--but, at the time, it seemed like big money to me, so I accepted his invitation. I went to Columbia, despite my discomfort with my new position as an "expert" on the future.

Once in the lecture hall, I became further unnerved when I found the famous architect and city planner Percival Goodman sitting in the front row. (I thought I would only be speaking to students.) Goodman interrogated me sharply during my talk, making me feel even more foolish.

I managed to survive that occasion and continued to give speeches, but I never came to think of myself as a "real" expert on the future--not even now, after having written or edited about a dozen books on the subject. The future is just too vast and mysterious to permit the exactitude and certainty expected of an honest-to-God expert.

On the other hand, good foresight--the goal of futuring--is so critically important for people's chances of success in work and life that what futurists have to say is, I believe, still worth listening to.

Educators and the Future

Besides raising future consciousness among the reading public, Future Shock encouraged many professors and teachers to think about futurizing their courses so that young people would be better prepared to live and work in the world of the future.

Educators made up about a third of the attendance at the Society's first conference in 1971. Our meeting gave them an opportunity to get to know each other, share their frustration with backward-looking institutions, and collaborate on future-oriented projects.

My wife, Sally, took a special interest in these forward-thinking teachers, so after the conference, she teamed up with a young educator named James Stirewalt who was collecting information about future-oriented courses being given in high schools in the United States and elsewhere.

In 1974, Sally and Jim Stirewalt organized a workshop for teachers interested in giving future-oriented courses for their students. I helped them arrange for meeting space at a hotel in Bethesda, Maryland, close to the Society's headquarters, but other than that they did almost everything by themselves.

Some 200 teachers attended the workshop and heard talks by experienced futurists as well as other educators who were involved in futuring. Each teacher got a copy of Teaching Futures, a 150-page collection of articles and syllabuses that could be used in informing students about the world of tomorrow.

As a further service for educators, we published the Society's first catalog of books, audiotapes, and other materials that might help teachers to equip students for the future. All told, the workshop was, I believe, of great practical benefit to the teachers, and it also stimulated a lot of new interest among educators in teaching their students about likely developments in the world they would be living in.

A Scandinavian Adventure

One reason I did little to help with the 1974 Teachers Workshop was that I had become involved in a more adventurous activity.

Here's how it happened:

We had polled Society members early on to find out what programs they wanted us to provide. Polling revealed considerable interest in study tours that would allow futurists to visit future-relevant institutions in other nations. The top choice as a destination was Scandinavia due to its forward-looking social policies.

So as early as 1970 I had discussed tours with professionals in the tour industry. But I took no action until late 1973 when I noticed that the Society's coordinator in Vancouver, Canada, was a Norwegian named Anders Skoe. I telephoned Anders and asked if he would be willing to conduct a study tour of his native Norway and its neighbors, Sweden and Denmark. Anders readily agreed, so we set about arranging a 15-day tour with a special focus on things of interest to futurists.

We developed an impressive program featuring innovative projects in Oslo, Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Copenhagen, with a side trip to the College of the Future on Denmark's Jutland peninsula. To add a touch of glamour, we tried to arrange meetings with Scandinavian royalty and actually succeeded in lining up an audience with Norway's Crown Prince, an enthusiastic environmentalist who later became King Olaf V.

I discussed the tour at a Board meeting and, to my astonishment, learned that one Board member, Glenn Seaborg, planned to be in Stockholm at precisely the time our tour group would be there. (Sweden was the land of his ancestors, and Glenn still spoke Swedish.) He said he would be happy to meet our tour group.

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Everything seemed to be falling into place--except for the fact that very few of our members registered for the tour, mainly, I think, because we failed to promote it early enough for members to make plans. In any event, the small number of sign-ups meant that I could not accompany the tour since I could not afford to pay my own way, and, since I would not be going, the Crown Prince could not take time to receive our group.

Despite these disappointments, the tour actually got under way in June 1974. In Oslo, the group met with Norwegian futurists as well as scholars at the Peace Research Institute, which chooses the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. In Stockholm, the Society's Swedish members provided the tour group with a warm welcome and dinner in the home of Tibor Hottovy, the Society's local coordinator. Seaborg, as promised, really did meet the group at a reception held in the Swedish Engineering Academy.

One member of the tour group, Phyllis Huggins, wrote a lively account of the tour, which we published in THE FUTURIST (October 1974). Phyllis had been so thrilled with the Peace Research Institute in Oslo that she told me she was planning to give up her job in California and go to work for the Institute. (Circumstances later prevented her from actually doing so.)

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Other members on the tour also found it highly enjoyable and educational, but, as with the Energy Forum, also held in 1974, the Society lost money. Clearly I had a lot to learn about business management.

Growth in the Society's Membership

Despite my management blunders, the Society survived and grew rapidly during the early 1970s. In 1973, for example, we added 3,000 more members, giving us a total of 15,000 by the beginning of 1974.

Due to membership growth, our revenues kept increasing, and we always managed to pay our bills, though we were often dangerously late. What kept us going--and growing--were largely the improvements we made in THE FUTURIST. As our Board member Glenn Seaborg had advised, we tried hard to keep up its quality and to improve it as much as we could.

THE FUTURIST had begun regular publication in 1967 as a 16-page newsletter, but by the end of 1968 it had grown to 14 pages plus a glossy cover. At that point, we began calling it a magazine. By December 1970, THE FUTURIST had reached 40 pages plus a cover with a blue border. Until then, it had nothing but black-and-white covers.

In the years that followed, we added more pages, but it was not until October 1975 that THE FUTURIST had a full-color cover--a painting by the eminent artist Robert McCall of a city suspended in outer space. Our volunteer art director, Roy Mason, had persuaded McCall to let us reproduce his stunning painting without charge.

To close the deal I went down to the National Air and Space Museum (which had not yet officially opened) to see McCall. I found him standing on scaffolding while completing the magnificent multistory painting that now greets visitors when they enter the museum. This vision of McCall on the scaffolding reminded me of Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, so when we later did an article about McCall as an excuse for reproducing more of his inspiring work in THE FUTURIST I described him as "the Michelangelo of the Space Age."

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The Growth of Chapters

The Society's chapters grew in number along with the increase in our membership. By 1974, we had 20 chapters plus 36 local committees and coordinators. All told, we had representatives in 56 cities around the world.

Frank S. Hopkins, a U.S. diplomat and State Department planner who had arranged luncheons for our members in the Washington, D.C., area, took a special interest in our growing network of chapters and volunteered to become the Society's Coordinator of Chapter Services.

I gave Hopkins that responsibility with enormous gratitude and relief. The chapters had proved quite troublesome for me, mainly because they always needed far more help than I could possibly provide.

Hopkins's wife was slowly dying of a crippling disease, and he had to carry her in his arms to meetings of our Washington chapter. As her condition worsened, he retired early from his State Department post so that he could be constantly at hand to care for her. Being at home so much gave him time to write long letters to our chapter leaders, advising them on how to organize a chapter, get speakers, etc. Though his method was primitive, it proved extraordinarily effective in helping our chapters.

Aside from my wife, Sally, Frank proved the Society's most dedicated, reliable, and productive volunteer during the early 1970s, and when Charles Williams could no longer serve as the Society's vice president, Hopkins assumed those duties as well.

After Hopkins's wife died, he had even more time to advise our chapter leaders, and when they came to Washington, he would take them to the Cosmos Club for lunch and answer all their questions about the Society and Washington. As a former diplomat, he took a special interest in the Society's overseas members and even lodged some of them in his home.

The coordinator of the Society's London chapter, David Berry, became like a son to Frank, and he remembered David in his will. When Frank died, David flew across the Atlantic, and he and I went together to Frank's funeral.

By this time, David Berry and I had also become good friends. I had long been impressed with his dedicated support of the London chapter and delighted with its success. One triumph was having as its first speaker Dennis Gabor, the Nobel Prize--winning physicist who developed holography. I had taken a special interest in Gabor since his 1964 book Inventing the Future and had sent him copies of the prototype issue of THE FUTURIST in 1966 to distribute. (He wrote back that he distributed three copies to friends he thought might be interested.) Thanks to Berry and the London chapter, we had established personal contact with Gabor.

Another accomplishment of David Berry and the London chapter was entertaining Soviet futurist Igor Bestuzhev-Lada when he came to England. We had published Bestuzhev-Lada's writings in THE FUTURIST, but we had never had face-to-face contact with him. I was delighted that our London chapter could do this for us.

I might add that, years later, when circumstances allowed me to make a stopover visit to London, Berry arranged for me to give a talk for our British members at the Polytechnic of Central London. While in London, Berry and I looked into the possibility of holding a conference at the University of London. I decided the Society wasn't quite ready for such an undertaking, but I hope that someday it will be.

Planning the 1975 Conference

While Hopkins handled most chapter matters, I continued to be involved in the New York City chapter. So when the new president of the New York chapter, Brian Quickstad, was visiting Washington in 1972, he invited me to lunch at the University Club. Quickstad said there was someone he thought I should meet. The "someone" turned out to be Graham T.T. Molitor, a lawyer who acted as the Washington representative of the General Mills Corporation.

Molitor later became research director of the 1973 White House Conference on the Industrial World Ahead, and he persuaded me to join the committee he assembled to help plan the conference. Participating in the preparation of the White House conference proved interesting in terms of the people I met and gave me my first opportunity to see President Richard Nixon. (I never got to see him during the two months that I worked on the White House staff!) I also got to see Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans, who introduced Nixon at the concluding session of the conference, as well as Attorney General John Mitchell, both of whom were later indicted in the Watergate scandal.

But the most valuable part of working on the White House Conference was getting to know Graham Molitor.

Molitor had attended the Society's first conference in 1971 and had a vast knowledge of the Washington policy-making community. So in 1974, when I was looking for leadership for the Society's 1975 conference, I persuaded him to become chairman.

Soon afterwards, I enlisted Victor R. Ferkiss, a Georgetown University professor of government, to be the program chairman for the conference. I had gotten to know Ferkiss when he gave a talk to our Washington chapter on his book, The Future of Technological Civilization.

To support Molitor and Ferkiss, I reassigned Nancy McLane, who had been working on the Energy Forum, to become staff coordinator for the 1975 conference. To help her, I hired Suzanne Seitz, wife of a State Department official, Raymond Seitz, who later became the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain.

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The conference committee's first task was to choose a theme for the meeting. That seemed to me like a simple enough task, but it took us four long meetings to come up with seven words: "The Next 25 Years: Crisis and Opportunity."

But the speed of planning soon picked up, thanks in large measure to Nancy McLane, who turned out to be a tireless worker and unbelievably efficient at administrative tasks. She was, however, temperamental and ruthless in pushing her co-workers to greater efforts.

At one point, Nancy became so exasperated with Peter Zuckerman and me for not doing what she thought we ought to do that she angrily resigned. To make matters worse, Suzanne decided to join Nancy's "strike," and then the third member of the conference staff, Jan Carson, felt she had to quit out of solidarity with the others.

So, suddenly, I faced a full-blown strike!

I was furious, but I couldn't decide who I was angriest at: Was it Nancy for quitting in a fit of pique and starting the to-do? Or was it Suzanne for frivolously deciding to turn Nancy's resignation into an employee walkout? Or was it Jan, who was betraying our years of friendship by siding with the other women?

But circumstances dictated that I had better settle the strike quickly if our conference planning was to remain on track. So I swallowed my anger and pacified the strikers. Within a few days, all three women were back working as hard as ever.

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As speakers for the conference, the planning committee recruited almost every well-known personage in futuring as well as seven members of the United States Congress, including senators Edward M. Kennedy, Hubert H. Humphrey, and John C. Culver.

I was a long-time admirer of Senator Humphrey, who had served as vice president under Lyndon Johnson and later became one of the first people to join the World Future Society. Senator Culver was also a member of the Society and was actively pushing a futurist agenda in Congress. But "Teddy" Kennedy was the biggest star in terms of popular interest. The martyrdom of his brothers, John and Robert, had made Teddy a living legend. The mantle of the legendary Kennedy clan rested on his shoulders, and there was talk of him becoming the next Kennedy to run for president.

Molitor, who was used to dealing with prominent politicians, was not so impressed by Kennedy or the other politicians we recruited. Instead, he gloried in his success at recruiting distinguished futurists, and I must say that I rejoiced that we had secured Al Toffler and Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell, both of whom had missed our first conference.

Bell had chaired the Commission on the Year 2000, which helped inspire the creation of the World Future Society, and had written impressive books, like The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1967). He had served on Bertrand de Jouvenel's pioneering Futuribles project in the early 1960s and ranked as one of America's most prominent intellectuals.

A World's Fair of Ideas

About 2,000 people attended our 1975 conference--far more than we had at either of our previous conferences. The extraordinary turnout could be attributed partly to the rise in our membership, our more effective promotion of the meeting, and the richness of the conference program. We had so much going on that I began thinking of a Society conference as a "world's fair of ideas." The biggest problem for attendees was that many people, including myself, felt frustrated that we could not be in a dozen places at once.

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Among the special features at the 1975 conference was an innovative film presentation on the future that Roy Mason, the architecture editor of THE FUTURIST, had developed with Marc Chinoy. There was also a "conference within a conference"--a "Syncon" run by our Board member Barbara Hubbard and her colleagues John Whiteside and Jerry Glenn. A Syncon was a unique method of conferencing that was designed for participants to gradually work toward a "synergistic convergence" of their thinking.

We also had another teacher's workshop, as well as a variety of training courses for futurists. These events offered more opportunities for our members to interact and also provided some additional revenue for the Society--not to mention some impecunious educators who needed a way to pay their travel expenses to the conference.

The conference was a considerable success, and not just in member satisfaction, I'm happy to say. This time we were able to pay our bills in a timely fashion.

Note: This concludes the first portion of Edward Cornish's memoirs; he will continue the series in 2008.

About the Author

Edward Cornish is the founding president of the World Future Society, editor of THE FUTURIST, and author of Futuring: The Exploration of the Future (2004). E-mail ecornish@wfs.org.

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Author:Cornish, Edward
Publication:The Futurist
Article Type:Conference notes
Date:Nov 1, 2007
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