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Nonfiction in Brief

January 22, 1989|ALEX RAKSIN

MEGAMISTAKES

Forecasting and the Myth of

Rapid Technological Change

by Steven P. Schnaars (Free Press: $19.95) A 500-kilowatt nuclear power plant, maintained by regular passenger flights from Earth, starts operating on the moon in 1980. Vertical takeoff aircraft become as common as luxury cars by 1977. By 1984, newspapers are printed on home fax machines and by 1990, intelligent robot soldiers do most of the fighting. While as inaccurate as a Buck Rogers space opera, these predictions are actually from an ambitious TRW forecast in 1966 which consulted 27 top scientists about the products of the future that held the "vastest opportunities for business growth." Steven Schnaars, a marketing professor at New York's City University, delights in presenting these "mega-mistakes" as examples of how corporate soothsayers, mesmerized by the space program and space shows such as "Star Trek," became smitten with scientific-sounding marketing tools such as the "Delphi Technique," forgetting basic marketing laws in the process.

Criticizing the elegant math models employed by forecasters for scouring the past "in search of obscure patterns" and "projecting glorious futures from the skimpiest of data," Schnaars recommends methods such as "scenario analysis," which encourage insight and creativity while requiring forecasters to indicate how you will get from here to there, "not just what it will look like when you arrive." Scenario analysis is the best way to interpret those special "confluences of social and cultural trends" that open up lucrative markets, Schnaars writes, pointing to the way Phillip Morris tobacco maintained sales in the 1960s by creating the "You've come a long way, baby" slogan, which anticipated growth in the women's movement.

Schnaars isn't entirely fair to forecasters such as those at TRW, for some bad investments which he attributes to poor cost analysis (such as vertical take-off planes) actually failed because of technological problems that can't be anticipated by his classic marketing methods. Overall, though, this is an insightful, cautionary book, contending that consumers are not likely to change their marketing habits overnight, however impressive an innovation might be.

BORDERLAND

Origins of the American

Suburb, 1820-1939

\o7 by John R. Stilgoe (Yale: $35) \f7 Depicting the Pony Express, Great Frontier and covered wagons as symbols of a courageous, enterprising era, American history books now take considerable pride in the fact that our nation conquered a continent in a century. The "conquerors" themselves hardly basked in the glow of admiration, however, for as this unusual social history suggests, many 19th and early 20th Century writers viewed the retreat from Eastern cities as a virtual abandonment of European civilization. "Americans teach their children that the come-outers sought religious freedom, safety from tyranny, refuge from military conscription, and above all, the opportunity to better themselves and their children," writes John Stilgoe, a landscape historian at Harvard. "Of the other point of view, the one still presented around tavern and cantina tables across Europe, schoolbooks and national mythology speak nothing." Were the early settlers "lazy, cowardly or quitters?" Did the movement into "backwoods America turn the European into a barbarian," as Lewis Mumford wrote?

Fortunately, Stilgoe is less interested in ponderously answering these questions than in quietly reflecting on how early attitudes toward suburb and city reflected our nation's changing conceptions of the good and civilized life. From ancient times until the early 18th Century, Stilgoe writes, suburbs referred to inhabited land immediately below hilltop walled towns. "Dependent, forlorn and prey to brigands and attacking armies," suburbanites craved security and order and struggled to gain entrance into the city. Now, of course, as "urban downtowns . . . screech in their shabbiness," suburban life has become a dream of happiness that inspires many urban dwellers "to work, to save, to get out of cities they perceive as chaotic, inimical to childhood joy, unnaturally paced, incredibly polluted, and just too crowded." Explaining this change, Stilgoe surveys an impressively wide range of social and cultural trends, from cholera epidemics in overcrowded cities to world war: At a time when the enemy no longer charged up the hill, but attacked from the sky, dense urban areas suddenly seemed frighteningly fragile.

What's most striking about "Borderland" is how representative these early suburban settlers are of today's Americans. As Stilgoe writes, the borderland landscape endures as "a sort of attic in the national superstructure, a place of calm, a place of older things, a height to visit when downstairs all is commotion, all noisy busyness."

THE GOOD NEIGHBOR

How the United States Wrote

the History of Central

America and the Caribbean

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