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MAN BITES TOWN

Prophet and Loss : He Has Seen the Future, and It Is Small, Hip and Profitable

January 28, 1990|HARRY SHEARER

A LOT OF WOMEN I know--otherwise intelligent, skeptical, feet-on-the-ground people who would not be easy marks for, say, an aluminum-siding scam--have this semi-secret habit. Just for, you know, fun, they slip off every once in a while to see a psychic.

When questioned about the wisdom of consulting someone whose credentials consist of picking up vibes and keeping up the rent payments on a small room, these women smile and utter something about psychics being cheaper than shrinks and often just as insightful.

Men, on the other hand, are rational, logical creatures. Men, who wouldn't dream of crossing Madame Rosa's bead-shadowed palm with 25 bucks, will fork over funds in the low double thousands for the privilege of sitting in a hotel ballroom to get the scoop from a "futurist." Throughout the '70s and '80s, but especially as the decades turned, we've been bombarded with the speculations of John ("Megatrends") Naisbitt and a woman named Faith Popcorn, foreseeing trends such as "nesting" and "cocooning." For all I know, their latest reports predict the onset of "pupating."

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you do need to be a genius to know that, at a certain age, most members of any human generation will begin to reproduce. Oh, sure, it seems obvious now, but who knew that two-job couples would want more take-home food? And maybe Faith Popcorn wasn't born Faith Plotkin.

Futurism and megatrendism are only the most pretentious versions of the pseudo-scientific hand-holding to which this country's decision makers are addicted, as if crackpots are more habit-forming than crack. For short-range decisions, such as what TV shows to crank out or how tasteless a beer to brew, executives turn to the variety of psychics who peer into focus groups rather than crystal balls; we call them market researchers. Just on sheer percentage of accurate predictions, Madame Rosa can give these guys a good run for our money.

For the long-range stuff, like whether to move all manufacturing facilities out of this country, the decision makers call a Faith Popcorn. The '90s will be a time of (choose one): neo-rebellion, retro-cuisine or a boom in home billiard tables. Better move the factories offshore.

Because we all seem to share this deeply felt need to consult some incredibly unqualified oracle, and because new decades don't begin every year or two, I'm offering my reading of the next--oh, what's bigger than mega?-- giga -trend: The human race will painstakingly reconstruct the limits we've spent the last couple of centuries systematically destroying.

Samuel Gompers, a labor leader at the dawn of the AF of L, was once asked what his movement wanted. He spoke for all mankind when he described his goal in one word: more . From the 3-year-old who overdoses on ice cream to the developer who thinks a certain stretch of Wilshire in Westwood cries out for one more pied-a-terre for nervous rich foreigners, we have pushed against the limits. And as long as there were limits, it was a noble struggle.

But since we've removed all natural restraints against the human urges to eat, build, consume and burn, it's been about as noble a struggle as a 15-rounder between Mike Tyson and Spud Webb. Once mountains enclosed us in cohesive little groupings: We tunneled through them or ground them down to kibble. Once ferocious beasts competed with us for food and land: A little gunpowder did the trick. Once nighttime held us fast in our shelters: Now electrons do our bidding, and all that keeps us home is bad movies and lack of a sitter.

Nature, having run out of limits for us to grapple with, now brandishes the big guns: the various possibilities of extinction that brighten the front pages between scandals. So we've been seeing feeble attempts to reconstruct the intricate web of restrictions that we've torn apart: No longer limited by the difficulty of obtaining food, we don Lycra garments and cavort to 120 beats per minute to avoid becoming walking zeppelins. No longer threatened by a serious rival for any environmental niche we covet, we pass laws suggesting that maybe we shouldn't carve up, fill up or blow up every inch of our planet.

When first broached by the oddly hedonistic ascetics around Jerry Brown in the '70s, the idea of limits was something grim, parched, somehow a punishment for our success as a species: We won the game, and we get "small is beautiful"? It was a vision only an ex-monk could love. This time around, though, reinstalling the fences around human yearning will be packaged as an exciting challenge. It'll be hip. It'll be fun. It'll be profitable.

I have no idea what form this trend will assume--hey, I'm only blue-skying here. But the discovery that societal muscles, like physical muscles, need an opposing force to struggle against will be powerful stuff. If I were running a seminar in a hotel ballroom, I'd call it something like "Social Isometrics."

One other thing I should tell you: You'll take a long journey during the '90s, and you'll meet an attractive stranger.

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