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Virginia Postrel: Fighting for the Future

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In the mid-1990s, Virginia Postrel–a Forbes, Wall Street Journal and Inc. journalist, New York Times editorialist and editor of the libertarian-oriented “Reason” magazine–watched CNN’s “Crossfire” and was amused at what she saw. As Postrel, describes it, there was arch conservative Pat Buchanan and liberal environmental-alarmist author Jeremy Rifkin together, “literally across left and right on sides of the table and agreeing with each other that the American economy was too dynamic and that the government needed to step in and do something, never specifying exactly what, to curb that dynamism because it was rather disruptive and dangerous.”

Incidents like these convinced Postrel that the future would have nothing to do with traditional definitions of conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. Her 1999 book, “The Future and Its Enemies,” divides the future between two groups she calls the dynamists and the stasists.

Meet the Dynamists and the Stasists

In a phone interview, Postrel describes the dynamists as a group of individuals who want to allow for more individual exploration and experimentation, a group “looking for improvements in their own lives, in their businesses, in technologies they work with. And doing this in a very decentralized way.”

On the other side of the equation, Postrel says, “There are a lot of people who are very uncomfortable with that choice or with that process”; uncomfortable with individuals having too much control. “And this group wants stability or control at the level of the whole society. They want some form of stasis. Some form of holding the future still.” And says Postrel, they typically want the government to do this on a national level.

In contrast, the dynamist, who seeks to be unfettered by government control, tends by definition not to be as politically active as stasists. The software writer so interested in the evolution of his programs that he is willing to explore uncharted territory, Postrel says, is a dynamist. “But you don’t necessarily take your expertise to the political world,” she says.

Naturally, like most labels, these are a broad simplification of how the world operates. Most people are comfortable with dynamic growth and exploration in some areas, but want a certain amount of stasis (usually in the form of government regulation), in others. But they allow Postrel to make her points and explore the directions she feels the nation may pursue in the 21st century. Not surprisingly, given her libertarian leanings, her money’s on the dynamists.

In his 1980 book “The Third Wave,” Alvin Toffler put the then-burgeoning high tech revolution into the context of civilization and its history. In “The Future and Its Enemies,” Postrel describes the skirmishes that may prevent or slow down that revolution, or may encourage and speed it up.

The Battle for Your Home

One battle between the stasists and dynamists occurred in January of 2000 inside the homes of everyone with a home office, where the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) met lots of angry people who made themselves known via the Internet.

OSHA announced that employers must assure a safe work environment for employees working out of their homes, to the point where homes would have to have be retrofitted to the same standards as commercial buildings, or employers would be severely fined.

Of this confrontation, Postrel says, “We have an enormous raft of laws that assume that home is home and work is work, and these are completely rigid categories, and are very well defined. I don’t think that OSHA, for example, is against people working at home per se. They’re just in this mindset. So when they see people working at home, they go, ‘Oh, that’s no longer your home. That’s you’re workplace. We’re going to come in and inspect it the same way we do if it’s your office.’ And you’re going to respond with, ‘You’re not coming in my house, give me a break. This is my house.'”

Word of OSHA’s plan to legislate and inspect people’s homes created an instant backlash of outrage and frustration, spreading like wildfire in a matter of hours, via the media of talk radio and the Internet. One such example is a humorous public “memo,” written to “the suits” at the conservative “National Review Online”, by Jonah Goldberg, its editor, (who rarely sees eye-to-eye with the libertarian Postrel), called “You, Me, and The Sty“.

How A Home Learns

In her book, Postrel offers diverse examples and stories to illustrate her concepts. She says she learned as a journalist that “it’s not good enough just to make a general statement. You need to illustrate it in a way that the reader can really understand. And so, the book is about general principals but it’s about how those general principles work out in the real world.”

Somewhat portentously, she describes her book as “not just a book of philosophy. It is philosophical, but it’s also a book about people’s lives and the textures of people’s lives.”

One source of several of Postrel’s examples is a book by Stewart Brand, the author of 1970’s “The Whole Earth Catalog.” In the mid-1990s, Brand wrote “How Buildings Learn,” which Postrel uses as a metaphor for dynamism. His idea is that over time, buildings inevitably change because the people who inhabit them either as homes or as workplaces have needs that lead them to adapt their buildings. “And the good buildings, in his mind,” Postrel says, “are those that are more adaptable, that allow you to change them over time. That they aren’t so rigidly laid out or constructed that they can’t be changed. So that for example, he points out, that people immediately start fooling with their garages or their attics or anything that’s kind of extra space.”

Brand makes the point that architects often are rewarded for making buildings that look good in still photographs. Postrel says that this very different from “buildings that are good for people to live or work in, over time, which is an ongoing dynamic process. I don’t agree with everything in the book, but it’s a very good case study or application in one little area of the world of some of these principles. He talks about how in a building you have different layers, if you will, that get more and more easily adaptable the further in you go. So it’s really easy to move the furniture. It’s a little more difficult to move a wall. It’s a little bit more difficult still, to change the ductwork or the plumbing and ultimately, it’s very difficult to change the site. I think there’s six or seven layers.

“It’s a very good model of how rules can go together in a dynamic system. And I think it’s just an interesting meditation on adaptability over time, which is really what dynamism is about.”

On the Verge

Outside of our home, Postrel is particularly fond of what she calls “third places” (an idea which Postrel says grew out of a book by Ray Oldenburg) as dynamic spaces where we can interact, freed from the rigid spaces of our home or office.

Third places are places “on the verge.” They’re not home, but they’re not just retail establishments. Places like Internet cafes aren’t just places to buy coffee and browse the Web, they’re a place to meet friends and communicate new ideas in a dynamic setting. Rigid categories like gathering place, retail business and social club often blend together in today’s society. In “The Future and Its Enemies,” Postrel sees society as a whole as being on the verge. In fact, in her last chapter, she talks extensively of verges.

Postrel says she got the notion of “verges” from the historian Daniel Boorstin. Postrel says Boorstin describes verges “as a place where something comes together with something else. Which is a very general notion. But what he’s arguing is that America’s sort of creativity and strength grew from the fact that it was a nation of verges. That it was a place where there were different ethnic groups, races, coming together.” The frontier was a form of a verge between sort of the settled world and the less settled world and the different challenges that brought in to play.”

Postrel finds verges in general fascinating because of their mixture of two sometimes diametrically opposite elements. “What takes place when you start to mix those two, and what sort of discoveries might take place? So, it’s a kind of a way of getting at this notion of third places, of either literal or metaphorical places and mixing and the creativity that comes from that.”

To the extent that the concept of “home” is as old as the cave, while some of our homes are filled with the newest most advanced technologies available, we are all living “on the verge.”

Postrel’s book provides us with two very different worlds, colliding with each other. Who will win? While dynamic growth seems exciting and expansive, the stasist’s cry that the past was much better than the present is hard for many to resist. Of course, that cry may be blunted dramatically by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The Taliban were, if not the ultimate example of a static regime run amok, certainly the newest and most recently dramatic, and make a sharp contrast to the dynamism of the United States. Postrel should consider updating “The Future and Its Enemies” to include them–they help to make her point manifold. In the meantime, it’s no coincidence that she was in overdrive updating her Weblog on September 11th, keeping people informed of events of that tragic day, even as larger Web sites were often inaccessible.

(This article originally appeared in Flak magazine.)

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About Ed Driscoll

  • I never paid much attention to Postrel until I came across her piece in WIRED. The gratuitous slap at Pat Buchanan set off my neocon radar, but I read the rest of the article, amazed at the flimsy logic from someone who had “credentials” as contributor to Reason, Wall St. Journal, etc.

    Postrel has observed that the liberal/conservative dichotomy has outgrown its usefullness, and I can accept that, but in its place she posits her own dichotomy, the “dynamist/stasist” that seems equally unfit at describing anything observable. Her entire thesis is based on one casual observation of Pat Buchanan and Rifkin of Crossfire.

    Her observations seem to amount to little more than the complete triumph of style over substance. Emoting and freely expressing style is good, working at a traditional job like welder is bad.
    She seems like the Ann Coulter of economics to me.